When someone begins to tell us about a personal struggle, the urge to solve, pacify or minimize their experience can become overwhelming. This reaction is born out of discomfort. It is hard to be with another person’s pain because we can feel helpless.
Solving other people’s problems can give us a false sense of control. This can be over the situation, the other person and even ourselves. And this knee-jerk reaction to regain the upper hand is not surprising. We want to be seen in a certain way, and other people’s problems present scenarios where we can play these desires out. Perhaps we want to be seen as strong, generous, wise or compassionate. And are any of these attributes really so terrible? I’d argue that they aren’t but the need for control that drives them can be.
When confronted with another person’s pain, we need to constantly be checking in with ourselves, especially before we offer any advice or solutions. This is especially true when the solution either asked for or offered by us requires us to jeopardize our own safety. This can be financial, emotional or even physical. People who are scared and in any kind of pain may react unkindly or deceptively to those trying to help. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like chelation therapy, where by being exposed to a suffering person’s mistreatment or manipulation you can somehow bind to their pain and neutralize it.
Instead, we need to choose the path of authentic and unconditional love. By constantly checking in with ourselves, we ensure that we are acting in a way that is genuine, instead of manipulative. We do not know what is best for another person. They do. What we can offer is enough love so that they can learn to trust themselves.
Making space for someone’s pain is hard. Sometimes this means listening and putting the mental origami of how you’re going to solve this person’s life aside. Other times, this means saying I love you but I can’t be here with you right now. That’s okay too. When we learn to offer another person the space to be with their own pain without the need to change it for our own comfort or preferences, we give ourselves the same gift of acceptance, as we are, in this very moment.
When we are hurt by another person’s actions or words, a small bit of relief can come from knowing that we were completely blameless, and that our anger, hurt and resentment are justified. And sometimes, that’s all it was. We were mistakenly caught in the crossfire of another person’s own pain and self-destruction, and it truly had nothing to do with us. But sometimes, these painful interactions are part of a larger pattern of which we are the common factor.
This is not to say that we deserve to be hurt or that we bring such suffering on ourselves because we just can’t learn from our past mistakes. Oh no. Not at all. Not never. No one deserves to be humiliated, belittled or hurt in any way by another person. But it does happen. We do get hurt. And it sucks. But what can make it suck slightly less is recognizing and acknowledging how this pain may be serving us.
For years, I was continually hurt and disappointed by a close family member’s actions. When I would share my experiences with others, I would get sympathy and even accolades for being so strong as to have lived through this other person’s recklessness and callousness. Now, looking back, I can see that I reveled in these responses. I was sane and thoughtful, juxtaposed perfectly against the crazy and selfishness of this person’s actions.
And I kept doing it. In one way or another, I would construct scenarios that were outwardly reasonable on my part, but deep inside, I knew that this person could never meet my expectations. And I’m not sure I really wanted them to.
Instead of looking where to hang the crown of blame, we can instead look for what these repeating patterns give us. In my case, it was sympathy, praise and if I'm completely honest, an excuse. Once we can see these gifts, we can start to reassess their value to us. There might even come a point when they no longer serve us and can be let go. This can make space for healing and offering ourselves the acceptance and love we truly desire.