Life can be hard. So hard. Everyone has their own story, and no one feels understood in their struggle. The examples are endless, and no less devastating than one another. A difficult child, a sick spouse, an overbearing parent, the loss of a loved one, financial struggle, self-deprecation, suffered abuse, trouble in shidduchim, destroyed reputation, commitment difficulty, an overshadowing sibling, a learning disability, judgmental home environment… each a catch-phrase that cheapens the desolation it causes.
These circumstances are more than catch-phrases to those living them, and we are all living them. No one is free of difficulty. There is no age, no demographic, and no socio-economic status that receives a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Pain is real. Pain is raw. Pain is deep. The strenuous realities of life are endless, exhausting, and sometimes leave people wanting to do nothing else but climb into bed and wait until everything goes away.
One of the many blessings of life is connection. The relationships we form with other people are vital to our mental and emotional wellbeing - and really, our survival. We have an inherent desire to be close to other people. When we go through pain, our essence is pining for closeness, for support. Each of us reach out for support in different ways, and support looks different for each giver and receiver, but the common denominator is the desire to navigate tough waters together.
Too often, our loved ones reach out for support only to be met with resistance. We can relate to the resentment this causes, as we too have experienced the loneliness of not feeling validated. Where does this resistance come from? What obstacles lie in the way of properly empathizing with the ones who need us most?
There are three primary impediments. The first is simple: We don’t want the ones we love to be in pain. We all experience the cognitive distortion that telling people not to feel pain will help them feel better. It’s a lie, but we prefer to give it credence than cope with the angst of watching children, spouses, or friends in pain. We say things like, “Look on the bright side…”, “Think of it this way…”, or our favorite, “Why don’t you just…” Telling people to feel better is an epidemic that is responsible for disconnection in many of our interpersonal relationships. Husbands, wives, children, employees, parents of adult children, students, and elderly clients complain of the suppressing nature of a relationship that doesn’t allow space for free emotional expression. This dynamic is particularly damaging to spouses and children. Validation is the art of ensuring another person that their emotional experience is understandable, reasonable, acceptable, and of course, valid. An environment bereft of validation is just the opposite. Our families will learn that their emotional experience is not understandable, not reasonable, unacceptable, and invalid. What has a person left to do if the deepest parts of themselves are considered unacceptable and invalid to their family members? We rely on our family to be unconditionally loving and understanding. We rely on them to accept and love us for who we our despite our flaws and struggles. Where then, do we have to turn, if our husbands, wives, mothers, or fathers send us the message that they do not accept our feelings? We are left with two options:
- a) Turn away from ourselves, denying the presence of unwanted emotion, and saving face with a smile that is convenient to those around us.
- b) Turn away from our families, and find other circles that consider us acceptable, understandable, reasonable, and valid.
The second obstacle is not registering that we are needed. Commonly, couples seek counseling, complaining of essentially the same thing. Both husband and wife are hurt that their spouse is not “there for them.” Their needs are not being met. They are not experiencing the warmth and comfort that accompanies being supported by their other half. Though both sides complain of the same thing, neither side can see the other’s point of view. It’s staggering to consider, but when our loved ones ask for help, we simply may not hear them. They may not say “I need you,” but one who listens with sincerity and care can hear the underlying message of a plea for relief.
The last obstacle is empathy itself. Empathy is difficult. By definition, empathy requires one to feel with another. Empathy requires us to explore ourselves and tap into deep parts of our heart that can relate to someone’s struggle. We don’t always want to feel struggle. Our lives are riddled with perplexity. After a long day, we long to open our front door, kick off our shoes, put our feet up, and bask in the glory of unwavering love as we embrace the serenity that is home. Instead, we step on a dirty diaper, or a train set, or a pile of notebooks. We have bills to pay, paperwork to catch up on, and family time that never quite feels like enough. The last thing we need, it would seem, is to turn on our empathy and allow our family to trudge us back through the mud as they recount the most difficult struggles of their lives. Therefore, when loved ones reach out for support, our subconscious waves the white flag, and simply says “No thank you; I’m spent. Please feel better yourself.”
The cure to this epidemic contains two ingredients.
1: We must invest time and energy in our future. We must inject vigor into our relationships as often as possible. We must strengthen ourselves to push through exhaustion and “be there” for each other. It will be difficult, but it is exponentially easier than reckoning with the fallout from not doing so. Counterintuitive as it may be, disconnection is far more taxing and time-consuming than connection.
2: We must not be afraid of our loved ones’ pain. We must learn to embrace feeling sadness while we support them. We must remember that we are not helping by telling them how to feel. As Dr. Brene Brown said, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better, is connection.” Dare yourself to sit with your loved ones while they are hurting. Challenge yourself to send the message, “I’m sorry you’re going through something really difficult and I don’t have a solution, but I love you, I’m here with you, and I’ve got you.”