Many of us find ourselves in a position of being witness to another's pain and hurt. Speaking for myself, I entered in to a career which very often entails sitting with another while they feel and try to navigate through difficult feelings. As humans, I believe we are hardwired to connect and support one another; we experience compassion in hearing of the hardship of others, whether they are at a distance or close to us.
In the same vein, many of us may have found ourselves in a position of being overwhelmed by the pain of another. We may become consumed by the pain, feel anxious in the presence of the pain, and, understandably, switch into a role of problem-solver to eliminate the other's (and our own) suffering. However, this response often serves only to create momentary (if that) relief, and ultimately creates additional suffering.
Think of a time when you yourself were struggling with a difficult emotion or experience; what did you need in that moment? Very often, we need someone to hear our suffering, see it for what it is, and accept that this place of pain is the place we are currently in. Have you had the experience of sharing something difficult with another person, only to get a response of problem-solving, telling you why it will be okay, or dismissing your pain? Or can you think of a time when you responded in this way? This response often comes from a place of a person seeing the pain of another, being uncomfortable with the presence of the pain or feeling ill-equipped to handle this pain, and moving into a place of trying to solve or get rid of the pain. In the end, the person in pain feels unheard or misunderstood and the other feels disheartened at being unable to solve this feeling. How can we be open to and supportive of someone in pain, while also being okay with the pain?
1. Stay Present
Be aware of not only the other person's experience, but of your own experience in hearing their pain. Notice when your feelings of compassion come online, and also take inventory of any discomfort; do not run from it, try to "fix it", or deny it. Simply notice it. You may observe "This is difficult for me to hear"; "I am wanting to be able to help this person feel better". Continue to stay present with the person you are with- listen to their words, notice their body language.
2. Recognize Your Abilities and Limitations
Being okay with others' pain is not the same as turning away from or not caring about others' pain. However, you must recognize what you are capable (and not capable) of doing in that moment. None of us have the ability to take away or process others' pain for them; none of us have the magical answer to "fix" the pain of another. Ask yourself: "Is what I am asking of myself, or making myself responsible for, reasonable? Would I expect this of someone else?". Be realistic in identifying how you can support and care for another person.
3. Take Care of Yourself
You may be in a season of life that is full of difficult situations or feelings, or may yourself be in a career which involves supporting others. If so, compassion fatigue or burnout can occur if you neglect your own self-care. Take time to "fill your cup" with people and moments that are meaningful to you and leave you feeling replenished and fulfilled. It can be difficult to set aside time for this; taking time for yourself might be labeled as "selfish" by yourself or others, or it might be viewed as a luxury. It is not. You cannot support or take care of others from a place of being depleted or burned-out. You are as deserving of care as all the people around you whom you support.
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Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.