When we see a loved one suffering from emotional or physical pain, it seems natural to want to ease his or her suffering. Sometimes we can have such a strong reaction that it feels like we are actually experiencing his or her pain. But can we really feel someone else’s pain? More importantly, can we really help another person when we believe we must suffer with them? If you have ever witnessed a woman in labor, you will know the answer to these questions. The only one who really feels the excrutiating pain of the contractions, like waves battering the shoreline, is the one who is in labor. Yet this knowledge does not discount the partner’s desire to be a part of the experience and provide assistance. Couples invest hours of time preparing themselves for child-birth so that each will know what their roles will be in the process. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of preparing for our role as “coach” when someone we love encounters a mental health crisis.
During the peak of my daughter’s struggles with her eating disorder and depression, I came to the realization that the only way to truly help was to find an outlet for my own reactions so that I could be fully present to her in a calm, rational manner. In those moments of doubt and insecurity, my heart learned that as much as I wanted to, I could neither take on her pain nor make it go away. The job of working through the pain was hers, and hers alone. My only job was to show her love and acceptance regardless of how unworthy she felt. Being there in the hospital with her, playing cards, sitting quietly holding her hand, helping her to take care of chores that had been neglected, and laughing with her when she needed a reprieve were the simple and important actions that I could take.
Eventually all of us will know what it is like to experience disappointment, loss, trauma, or illness. In these times of pain and crisis, it is comforting to have the empathy and compassion of our loved ones. Yet reaching out can be difficult when faced with the prospect of disappointing or causing them pain. Often we do not ask for help because we are afraid of how our family and friends will react. The fear of causing someone else sleepless nights and stress can win out over our need for support, deepening our suffering. Sending someone who is suffering the message that we can be there for them without coming apart can impact their decision to ask for our help.
In the past, I found the Familie’s Anonymous website to have some helpful pointers. Here is one piece of literature that I made sure to keep handy when I noticed I was trying to take away my daughter’s pain.
From Families Anonymous website
My role as a helper is not to do things for the person I am trying to help, but to be things, not trying to control and change his/her actions, but through understanding and awareness to change my reactions. I will change my negatives to positives; fear to faith; contempt for what he/she may do to respect for the potential within him/her; hostility to understanding; and manipulation or over-protectiveness to release with love, not trying to make him/her fit a standard or image, but giving him/her an opportunity to pursue his/her own destiny, regardless of what that choice may be.
I will change my dominance to encouragement; panic to serenity; the inertia of despair to the energy of my own personal growth; and self-justification to self-understanding.
Self-pity blocks effective action. The more I indulge in it, the more I feel that the answer to my problems is a change in others and society, not in myself. Thus, I become a hopeless case.
Exhaustion is the result when I use my energy in mulling over the past with regret, or in trying to figure ways to escape a future that has yet to arrive. Projecting an image of the future, and anxiously hovering over it, for fear that it will or it won’t come true uses all of my energy and leaves me unable to live today. Yet living today is the only way to have a life.
I will have no thought for the future actions of others,neither expecting them to be better or worse as time goes on, for in such expectations I am really trying to create. I will love and let be.
All people are always changing. If I try to judge them I do so only on what I think I know of them, failing to realize that there is much I do not know. I will give others credit for attempts at progress and for having had many victories which are unknown to me.
I too am always changing,and I can make that change a constructive one, if I am willing. I CAN CHANGE MYSELF, others I can only love.