While speaking on the Power of Empathy to graduate students studying for their Masters in Social Working, I saw a need to address how to be empathetic without taking on the pain. Like writers, doctors, artists, caregivers, parents—and any deeply caring individual—these young professionals wondered if there was a way to open their hearts, safely. If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, read on!
“The depth of our relationship is not measured by how much or how visibly we suffer.”
It is painful to watch a friend suffer. Our caring and compassion makes us wish that we could fix their problems and alleviate their pain. Sometimes we can, but many times we cannot. It is during these times of impotence that we are tempted to take on the pain of others as though it were our own.
When we take on someone else’s pain, we feel intimately connected to that person. The more deeply we suffer, the greater the connection feels to us, and the more readily it is perceived by others. Conversely, the less we are personally affected, the less connection we may feel, and the less solidarity and intimacy we fear others will perceive. When this line of thinking occurs, the only way to sufficiently demonstrate our caring and connection—to ourselves and to others—is to suffer.
“It takes a calm mind to recognize the needs of others and provide meaningful comfort.”
There is, however, another way to feel and express our compassion that both supports our loved one and at the same time empowers us. The alternative is to feel the compassion and offer support that is oriented to other rather than to self. When we support for the sake of the other, we listen, speak, and act in a way that nurtures, inspires, and motivates the one in need. When we take on the pain of others as our own, we attract attention, sympathy, and support to ourselves. The first method offers support, the second leads to the drama. The key to the first method is to support without assimilating, to keep the focus on the other without becoming needy ourselves. In this way, we are strong enough to offer real support.
Here’s an example: I got a call from my sister, a decade ago, telling me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had gone through the tests and consultations and had already set upon a course of action to rid herself of this terrible disease. It was devastating news. She apologized for keeping me in the dark and not telling me earlier. There she was in the midst of a serious medical crisis, and she was worried about hurting my feelings! I told her not to worry about it, and I meant it. I was not the least bit hurt by her delay. I think she knew this would be the case which is why she felt comfortable not telling me earlier. However, she also knew how most people would react, so she was offering the apology, just in case.
Most of us feel that the closer our relationship is to someone, the sooner they should notify us about bad news. After all, those closest to the person should be the ones needed and trusted the most. When we’re not at the top of that phone list, we might question our worth to that person. I’ve watched feelings get hurt when notifications are delivered in the wrong pecking order.
My sister and I have a deep relationship. I know it. She knows it. No further proof is necessary. We also know that people need different kinds of support at different times. Sometimes, we need to talk things through and, other times, we need silence to hear our inner voice. Sometimes, we need raw emotion and, other times, cold logic. Sometimes, we need help to sort things out and come to the right decision and, other times, we need to own the entire process from decision-making to consequence. But it’s even more than that. My sister and I both know that different people are best to provide different types of support. It’s not a question of who we love more. It’s a question of who we need more at that moment. It is a measure of our love for each other that we do not confuse the two.
My sister brought me into the process when she needed me to be there, not when I needed to be there. She was doing what was best for her—which was exactly what she should have been doing during a crisis. For my part, I did not turn her trauma into my drama. I did not take on her pain and wrap myself up in her suffering. Instead, I gave her support and love that was focused on her, not me.
“Now you can help them by powerfully exerting your unemotional, unattached, unborn compassion.” – Shamar Rinpoche, THE PATH TO AWAKENING
Support without assimilation requires courage and self-confidence because we are giving up our appearance of solidarity and intimacy in favor of authentic solidarity and intimacy that may not be perceived by anyone else except us and the person in need. It takes courage because there is an emotional risk. The general population is so accustomed to people taking on the pain of others to show support, that they may interpret our refusal to do so as being cold and uncaring. That can hurt our feelings. But it’s not about us, is it? It’s about the one we love who needs our support. The depth of our relationship is not measured by how much or how visibly we suffer. It’s measured by how willing we are to be truly there for the other person. It takes a calm mind to recognize the needs of others and provide meaningful comfort. Suffering is not calm.
The above excerpt, Taking on the Pain, is from the expanded e-book version of my book, EMPOWERED LIVING: A Guide to Physical and Emotional Protection.
Below you will find my Empowered Living Radio podcast on compassion and awakening with Shamar Rinpoche during which he speaks about showing compassion with out suffering. You can read a bit about this profound conversation in my Mindful Musing: Differently the Same.
Click on the photo or the following link to hear a conversation about AWAKENING I had with the 14th reincarnated Sharmapa before his passing. At the 07:00, Shamar Rinpoche begins an explanation of how to embody compassion without suffering. Profound!