We have a two-tired system for the treatment of emotional and physical abuse. If someone beats you up everyone is sympathetic and rushes to your side. On the other hand, if someone emotionally abuses you people steer clear. They may even suggest you put it behind you, forget about it, get over it, or forgive the perpetrator. They would never react this way if you were assaulted. They would be solicitous, kind, and caring. Why the difference?
I have been thinking about this imbalance for years. I believe it comes from our Calvinist background, like so many things stored in our collective unconscious. The puritanical world view tells us we should put our shoulder to the wheel and just suck it up. So, because emotional abuse doesn’t show the way a black eye might, it’s easier to ignore. We don’t have to deal with our own insecure attempts at helping someone feel better, soothing their hurt, or helping them see things differently. €We can put band-aids on cuts, casts on broken bones, and salves on wounds, but there’s no easy solution for emotional pain. It’s elusive, slippery, and just when we think we’ve dealt with it, it returns.
Then, there’s its ubiquity. Who hasn’t suffered from hurt feelings, or worse? All of which would make us think we could be far more compassionate to each other, but we’re not. Perhaps, it’s threatening to be around someone who is in emotional pain? Maybe, it reminds us of our own vulnerability? I know if my friend sprains her wrist I don’t automatically think I could sprain mine; but, if she’s stressed-out from money woes, issues with her children, or a major life transition, I can definitely identify. Do we think emotional suffering is contagious? It’s possible that being around someone who is in psychic pain effects us more deeply than we know. Unlike the sprained wrist, where we can easily separate ourselves, we know we’re not immune to life’s vicissitudes.
When a friend or family member is going through a hard time, listening to them can be quite stressful. Not only is there negative energy to contend with, but there’s the unconscious fear that, somehow, some of it will rub off on you. This is simply superstitious, and prevents us from being present and supportive to those we love. Yes, it’s challenging to sit with anyone in emotional pain; especially, when it manifests as rage or deep grief, but not being available cuts us off from our most precious gift: our humanity. Being a witness to the most intense feelings someone might ever experience is not only a gift to them, but to you. It helps you develop more compassion for others, and increases your compassion for yourself.
So, the next time someone is in dire straits and needs all the support they can get, put your arm around them and listen. They don’t expect you to make it better, but they will be grateful for your tenderness.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang