When someone shares their pain with you, what do you do? Do you find yourself so worried about saying the wrong thing that you say nothing at all? Do you hear the words “don’t worry” or “it’ll be fine” slipping out? Maybe you subtly change the topic. What about unintentionally coming forth to share your own struggle... a little too quickly? A lot of us try to lighten the moment, look away, or start our answer with “at least”.
All of these responses are natural. All of these reactions are so normal. We could spend our time focusing on how you should or shouldn’t respond to another’s pain, but the word “should” seems to just get in the way. It gets in the way of what deserves some more attention. Whatever it is you may do, let’s not talk about you and other people just yet. Let’s talk about something else first.
When someone shares their pain with you, how does it feel? In you, that is. How do you feel when you hear difficult words? The kind of words that ooze with vulnerability, anguish, and tenderness. Those rare moments when someone tells you a little truth about their insides, and it wouldn’t be described as pretty. If you’re a human raised in this emotion-phobic culture, you probably feel a little bit uncomfortable. Okay, maybe very uncomfortable. Maybe the discomfort is so great your sides tingle, or your throat contracts. Don’t worry about it. Let’s not judge that feeling. I actually feel uncomfortable too.
But here’s the tough love. Discomfort doesn’t always mean “run”, even though it sure feels like it. Sometimes it means, “stay”. Maybe it says, “be still”. I know that might seem counterintuitive. Bear with me. If we always ran when we felt discomfort we would miss out on all the surprising treasures that live within the pain. We would miss the moments of vulnerability, radical connection, and shared humanity. Most of the time the pain is so mired in muck that it seems impossible to tell, but maybe that’s just a sign to wait a little longer. What if someone else’s pain awakens something in you, but you don’t sit in the discomfort long enough to find out what it is?
Turns out this is similar to our relationship with ourselves. How you feel about your own pain has a lot to do with how you feel about someone else’s. Whenever you feel a little pain, poking out from somewhere in you, how does that make you feel? How do you feel about your own pain? Maybe shame, maybe panic, maybe a lot of discomfort. Because—let’s be honest—few things are more uncomfortable than pain.
The thing is, if you turn away from someone else’s pain (with those two common words: “don’t worry”, for example), you didn’t take the pain away. All you did was leave the dark space they were in. You saw the dark space, you didn’t want to see it, and you left. It was too uncomfortable to see, so it was easier to pretend it wasn’t really there. That urge to bolt is so understandable! Let’s not judge that feeling. It’s hard to stay in the discomfort. But the problem is that they didn’t leave. They couldn’t, because the pain really was there. They’re still there, at the start of the emotion tunnel, hesitating before entering. They’ll just be entering alone now.
Similarly, when you don’t let yourself feel the pain you’re due to feel, you’re abandoning yourself to walk through the emotion tunnel alone. A part of you will continue hurting, consciously or not, because pain needs to be fully felt in order to disappear. So somewhere inside of you the little pain will continue being felt, but this time with an added loneliness— the loneliness of being unseen in that tunnel, of having abandoned the parts of yourself that wouldn’t be described as pretty. It will hurt a lot more and for longer, because unseen pain is always worse.
But here’s the good news. If you can be still with the discomfort for a little longer, a beautiful thing will happen. Self-acceptance, radical permission, and the space to embody your whole self will sprout. What would happen if you could allow all the parts of yourself (even the most unbearable) to be what they are? If you could walk with yourself all the way through that icky tunnel? Maybe, then, you will be able to walk with someone else all the way through theirs. And what a gift that is.