Stop Trying to Make Me Feel Better
Updated: Mar 20, 2019
This week I sat in my therapist's office talking about the usual things. We were discussing anxiety, grief, and coping. In the midst of hashing out a specific panic attack and she gave me a direct look that told me that she was going to say something I probably did not want to hear. "Why are you avoiding that discomfort? "
Let's be real, I wanted to avoid the discomfort of that discussion by leaving the office, but I kept my bottom in my seat and thought carefully.
When I face discomfort from anxiety (or grief, pain, depression...) my mind immediately creates an action plan to eliminate the suffering. Often the quickest way to alleviate the discomfort is to offer it what it wants. That means when I am anxious I cancel plans, I don't answer my phone, I self medicate with food, TV, busyness... And it works. The feeling of the anxiety leaves for a bit and I stop suffering.
This short cut is temporary, but really only offers numbness. My suffering isn't truly diminished, just anesthetized.
I remember holding the plastic Ikea cup in my hands. The glaring neon lights in the church kitchen flickering a bit. I was in the same church I was born into, married in, buried my grandparents and my own child. It seemed that I couldn't get through a service without having a panic attack. The comfort I found on the padded blue pews was real, but so was the anxiety within my tender heart.
I heard soft footsteps approaching and saw a familiar face. She looked me in the eye and offered a simple comfort, "I want you to know that we think of you often and pray for your family."
Then just as softly she left. In the next heart beats I felt the panic lessen. I didn't have to put on a brave face and tell her that we were OK. I didn't have to pretend I was all better now. I did not have to even be comforted by her words. She wasn't trying to make it all better, just simply reminding my I wasn't alone.
There is a tangible difference between comfort offered to eliminate suffering and comfort offered with empathy to someone suffering.
While the actions may be similar, when the motive behind them is centered around humanity the results are powerful. True comfort isn't afraid of suffering. It doesn't ask for immediate solutions, instead it offers time and space for genuine healing. True comfort offers us the support we need to live with our suffering.
I gave a big sigh. I shifted in my seat and settled my eyes back towards my therapist.
I don't get to fast forward to applying this lesson to myself. It would be easy to continue the pattern of numbing my pain. Sometimes when I am faced with a particularly raw moments I doubt if it is worth it. The more I learn about my own inability to handle suffer, the more I understand my discomfort with other's pain.
So I do the work. I do the work of taking care of myself and my pain with self compassion and empathy. I go to therapy, I talk with my health care providers, I take care of myself in compassionate ways and create space to learn and grow. It isn't easy or really that pleasant, in fact is usually feels like work. When we face our own discomfort with suffering we will also be better equipped to reach toward others with empathy.
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice- though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. "Mend my life!" each voice cried. But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. but little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do- determined to save the only life you could save.
- Mary Oliver