The Economy of Pain and Suffering
Suffering people expend a lot of energy covering up their feelings. There is a high cost for them to "put on a happy face." Hiding feelings takes more energy for a hurting person than being truthful and straightforward. The problem is that it takes energy they don't have. They need all their energy to cope with their situation, their discomfort, their pain. When they waste energy worrying about how you or others will react to their pain, it's a burden they should not have to carry.
- One research participant said, "I just wound up telling them what they wanted to hear. I think they felt better, but I felt worse."
- Another said, "I felt I needed to hide my suffering, so I would appear to be a person of faith." That's a heavy load to carry.
The reality is that when hurting people know they can be honest about 1) how bad they feel and 2) how much they are struggling [even without you as a caregiver getting uncomfortable and thinking you need to cheer them up or make them feel better], both of you benefit. They sense they have a safe place in your presence, which will allow them to share more, and they can sense you are available to them in their true need. If you can be "fine" with hurting people when they share openly and honestly about being "not so fine," the caregiving experience can actually be energizing for both of you.
We all value and like to see progress, movement and change in life. We all look forward to the progress that is being made on the road construction on the route we take to and from work.
But, imposing an expectation of progress on someone who is in a life crisis is not productive. "Come on, hurry up, get better" are messages that tell suffering people it's not safe to reveal any bad news. "How are you?" "Fine."
Suffering is often not pretty, emotionally or physically. That makes relating to suffering people even harder. Suffering people should not be expected to look good to help others feel better. It is normal for suffering people to reflect their pain with a sad outward appearance. The problem arises when they sense they have to look good to be acceptable to you.
Expecting progress - or worse pushing for progress - when there is none often leaves suffering people feeling lonely and isolated. It’s better to join them wherever they are on their journey and create a safe environment where honesty and openness can flourish.
Heart over Head
When someone shares hard news with you, it means he or she is hurting. Sometimes, when we are afraid to respond emotionally from the heart, we find it easier to respond from the head and put a positive spin on it by saying something like this:
- "I know you will be able to handle this."
- "You just need to take it one day at a time."
These "head" responses might be true, but they are not that helpful. It's better to respond from the heart with words like these:
- "I'm so sorry."
- "That's terrible!"
- "I was hoping it would be different."
- "Oh, no!"
Your initial response to people's bad news can be powerful. A "head" response can communicate that their status is not acceptable and what you really want to hear is good news. A "heart" response can let them know that your heart is right there with their heart -- it's a safe place for them to be who they are with you.
More on Creating a Safe Place next time, when we discuss ith Body Language, Really Real, Demonstrating Acceptance and Avoiding Avoidance.
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