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On Taking On the Pain of Others

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Empathy





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This emergence transcript is excerpted from an email in which I discussed with an 80 year old woman her gift of empathy.

Sun, 11 June

I am not sure I am a healer, but I always take on other's pain. Someone tells me they have a sore throat and an hour later I have a sore throat.

I was at a concert and felt all the symptoms of a heart attack, and the man in front of my seat had a heart attack. When the EMT's took him out on a stretcher I was OK again.

THIS HAS HAPPENED ALL MY 80 YEARS OF LIFE, AND THESE ARE JUST TWO INCIDENTS I HAVE RELATED. DISTANCE IS NO OBJECT AND I DON'T EVEN HAVE TO KNOW A FRIEND IS EXPERIENCING A HEALTH CHALLENGE AND I PICK IT UP PHYSICALLY. IT IS TAKING A TOLL ON ME PHYSICALLY AT THIS AGE.

I am asking the Universe how I can control this unconscious ability and I was led to your site.

I would really appreciate any suggestions you can offer me.

Thank you so much for being there.

later that day . . .

Hi Marlene,

I'm sorry it has taken me so long to reply. My dad has been ill and as of late, I've been pretty unfocused. Also, to be honest, your e-mail brought back many difficult memories, scenes in which I, too, lost my sense of self while in the presence of someone else's suffering.

Marlene, please know, I also thought what I was doing was being a "healer." I also mistook what I was doing, and the suffering I felt from doing it, for my duty and my calling. It was neither. But I had no one to ask back then.

Have I changed? Yes. In fact, I remember the time in which it began to change, an event I experienced some twenty years ago.

In this event, I was sitting at a diner with friends. A young woman whom I had just met was suffering from a deep depression. I, with no mention to anyone, "thought" her sadness into me, something I had been doing with hurting people for most of my life. Moments later, the young woman remarked how much better she felt.

Was I surprised?

No not really. Back then, hearing this kind of remark was a common occurrence for me. What makes this event stand out for me, though, is that, in the instant in which I began to feel this woman's pain, I also began to feel or sense something or someone telling me that love is love ONLY if it happens to both people simultaneously.

My point?

Since I did not experience this woman's pain simultaneously with any of my own, I knew my act was not an act of love but rather just me being a martyr, not a healer.

Now, years later, I rarely if ever allow myself to take on such a terrible burden, although at times I am tempted, especially with young children. Even so, I try to avoid doing this by reminding myself regularly, and frequently, that I am not God. I am only a human being. A pretty good human being. But only a human being. Further, as such, I am not supposed to take on the suffering of the world.

What am I supposed to do with my empathic gifts then?

I am supposed to use them to find ways to connect to others, by seeking out whatever mutual suffering we both may have. Why? Because connecting to the suffering of another human being is love only when we use this gift to do what I call, "building bridges of similarity." By this, I mean, feeling the suffering of another is love only when we use it to create mutual connections wherein we can both access, and benefit from, the gift I believe we all have within us; the gift of empathy.

How, then, are we ultimately meant to use our gifts of empathy?

We are meant to use them to help each other heal. And to learn to see love in those places wherein we struggle to see love.

Of course, what makes doing this complicated, and confusing, at times, is the many messages we each receive that it is "better to give than to receive."

Am I saying this message is untrue?

In essence, yes, I am saying this. Further, I am saying that in order for our empathic connections to heal anyone, they need to mutually benefit, and heal, both people, the other and ourselves.

In other words, we humans heal only when we mutually heal while connected to another being. Thus, since that day with the depressed young woman many years ago, I have understood true healing to always be a mutually beneficial experience for both the "designated" suffering person and for the healer.

Unfortunately, because we are taught "it is better to give than receive," many of us mistakenly think we need to take turns healing, and that the more wounded person needs to go first.

Is this ever true? To some degree, yes. At times, the more wounded person does need to begin the process first. Even so, healing by going first, meaning, healing separately, never works. Why? Because these mutual connections ARE what make healing possible. They are the stages on which we each can experience love in a place wherein we previously experienced only suffering. Further, we are meant to use our empathy, then, to create, and endure, these painful mutual connections.

Let me try restating this idea once more.

No one heals in the state of aloneness. In fact, experiencing states of startling aloneness is what wounds us in the first place.

Most of our suffering, then, is essentially the experience of reliving this startling aloneness. And experiencing the aloneness of another person thinking we'll help them is like trying to save a drowning person by substituting ourselves for the drowning person. This is not love. This is simply moving the burden of suffering from one being to another.

What about doing this outside the role of "healer?"

Outside the role of healer, when, in extraordinary circumstances, someone sacrifices themselves for another, we humans do see this as love, and to be honest, I do too. At the same time, I also openly admit, I do not fully grasp the deeper meaning of these acts other than to see them as defined by the extraordinary nature of the stages on which they occur, and that they are acts of "damage control," not acts of healing.

What makes me so sure? These acts occur in states of incredible aloneness, states wherein the hero is consciously detached from the suffering person.

Admittedly, these heroes may be incredibly connected to the divine in these moments, and here, the beautiful love present transcends our human ability to grasp no matter how we may struggle to put these experiences into words.

Still, the suffering of everyday life is not the same as the suffering present in those extraordinary times, and seeing the two as the same is one of the most painful mistakes we humans can make. This mistake is also what creates our erroneous beliefs that healers heal by sacrificing themselves for the other.

As I've said, then, healing happens only when people experience a mutual connection, a connected state wherein both beings re-experience the original aloneness of the person's wounding scene. Further, in order for these mutual experiences to heal, both people must connect in the midst of the re experience, in effect, re scripting the person's original feelings of unending aloneness into an event in which this aloneness ends in love.

In essence, what I am saying is, healing occurs only when we relive these moments of startling aloneness and in the midst of them, realize we are not alone. In fact a good portion of the healing which occurs actually comes out of this simply realization; that we not alone in our human frailty, faults, or suffering; that we are neither bad, nor defective, nor unlovable, nor to blame; but that we are simply human. And beautifully flawed. Like every other beautiful person, place, and thing in our world.

Now imagine, for a moment, how different this idea; that "healing must be mutual"; is from what most therapists, and most people in general, have been taught about healing and about how it occurs. Most therapists, and most people in general, have been taught that if they are the "designated healer," that they should focus entirely on the suffering person; moreover, that to give themselves attention during the wounded person's healing process is selfish and wrong.

These beliefs are simply not true. Nor are they healthy for either person. Why? Because focusing on only the "designated" suffering person means both the suffering person and the healer will suffer terrible aloneness during their attempts to heal. More to the point, though, because this terrible aloneness is what wounded the person in the first place, to require the wounded person to relive the suffering alone yet again means people experience these attempted healings end up being simply one more time in which the wounded person relives the pain of the original event no differently than the first time.

Sadly, failing to recognize the importance mutual connections have in healing is what actually prevents most people from healing. As well as being what causes most healers to burn out.

Said in other words, healing happens ONLY when people re-experience their original suffering and in the midst of it, find they are not alone but rather are connected to another loving being. In fact, this discovery, that we are not alone in the midst of the terrible pain is what heals us. How? By re scripting these painful experiences of aloneness into experiences wherein we become able to face the pain square on and still feel loved.

The trick, of course, is to know what "mutual connections" are, and how to help people to have them in the midst of their most painful moments. A good place to start learning, then, is to watch some old films of Mother Teresa helping people.

If you do look and do it how the early Christian texts suggest you look; look "with eyes to see"; what you will discover is that both she and the people she is helping are profoundly connected; connected spiritually, connected emotionally, connected physically; connected in many ways, some of which have no way of being verbally described.

Equally important, you'll also see, she rarely looks tired. Or like she's taken on the pain of the other person.

She's simply herself; clear and connected.

So how can we normal folk do something most of us see as the work and ability of a saint?

We can do it by using, as best we can, our ability to use empathy to create mutual connections. How can you tell when the connection is "mutual?"

Mutual connections mean the two people see each other as equals, not as "unequal's, as in "the wounded person" and the "healer."

As equals, then, both people to do the work of healing simultaneously. And as equals, both the designated wounded person and the healer heal. Together. In connection.

So what about the many people who would now say it is wrong for a healer to focus on him or herself, especially when someone is paying you for your services. Logically, they so sound right. Except for one small but significant fact:

As I have been saying, people heal only when they are connected to another loving being. And these connections happen only through experiencing the suffering both have in common.

These experiences are what I keep referring to as "building bridges of similarity."

How many therapists believe they are doing something wrong by doing their own work right along with the suffering person? Many. Thus, many therapists see themselves as healing only through being heroes.

Again, this idea is false, and being a non-entity while trying to help someone heal is actually one of the most common errors people make during healing attempts. It is also the most common thing which prevents healing and the source of most burnout.

Now let me clarify a bit what I've been saying. Have I been saying the focus should be on the two people healing as equals?

Actually, although it may sound as if I have been saying this, I have not. And this is where, for therapists and other professional healers, the need for professional training and experience can not be neglected. The focus of this training? That the starting points from which the work occurs, and the scenes which emerge during healing, must always begin with, and sustain within, with the suffering person.

So how does the experience of mutuality play out? In the same way in which my own healing occurred during that scene years so many years ago, the one in which I attempted to help the depressed young woman by taking on her sadness.

Thus, while attempting to help that young woman, I inadvertently had my own healing emergence when I realized that love was not love unless it happened to both people. And since "love" and "healing" are simply two ways to say the same thing, any difference is mostly semantic.

How can you do this?

Simply try to be open to, and attentive for, this very same type of possibility. And allow the Universe to give it to you.

Finally, Marlene, know this.

Even from just the brief few words you've written, I can tell you are a very good person. I can also tell you have unburdened many suffering souls in your 80 years, and have felt many feelings of joy at how the Universe has recognized your suffering. Even so, there is a great difference between "relieving someone's suffering" and "healing the person." More over, you have given enough. Please let this be your time to let someone else carry these burdens. And let it happen without feeling bad for those whom you have yet to help.

What about when you witness someone suffering and feel guilty for not taking this suffering on?

Just know, the suffering in our world is not for us to understand, at least not in the "God" sized sense of it. Rather, we are meant to know this suffering simply in terms of the personal, human sense of it, as it is only through knowing suffering as the thing which connects us all that we can truly connect see the beauty in each other as human beings.

Now, please, try to give this gift to yourself, Marlene. In other words, please try to be more right sized. And less burdened and alone. And also less guilty. Especially less guilty. You are a wonderfully good and gentle-hearted human being. And you are meant to enjoy your life. And your gifts. Both by sharing them with others. And by giving them to yourself.

In this, I hope we have connected as equals, and as loving human beings.

Be well,

Steven

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