I've woke up the last few mornings feeling some kind of loopy sadness after a couple serious heart-to-hearts. My friend Alison calls this body-mind blueness an "emotional hangover" and I think it's pretty accurate! Feeling hurt and helping someone who is hurting can be a draining experience. Of course, that's not always true: sometimes, sitting through my pain or supporting a beloved friend through theirs is revitalizing. But getting to a place where I can convert my hurt or the hurt of someone that I care about into healing takes work.
As I reflect on the last few days, I've thought a lot about different ways to be more compassionate, thoughtful, and supportive both when I'm feeling hurt and when I'm talking to someone who is hurting. The following ideas are suggestions for infusing hard conversations—maybe with a friend who is going through a break-up or a family member who is dwelling on a painful experience—with a little more love. In truth, everyone needs something different when they are in a place of pain and that's why these are guidelines. Some people just need to be heard. Some people just need to be left alone. The broader goal, really, is to move toward greater mindfulness. We can't always see the world exactly as others see it—that's just human! But we can learn how to grow our empathy skills and to respond rather than react. I deeply believe that the more we crank open our heart when we're in pain, the more we make space for healing to happen. And I know too, that kind of openness can take a thousand forms.
IF YOU ARE HELPING
Ask "What do you need from me right now?"
By directly asking someone how you can best help them, you create the conditions for greater compassion. Sometimes, the person you are talking to might not know exactly what they need. That's okay. Often, however, they will have an overall sense of what kind of response will feel kindest to them in this moment— whether it's a shoulder to cry on or honest advice.
Instead of saying "You need to move on" try "How can I help you heal?"
Someone I don't know very well said this to me the other day and my first instinct was Really? You think I'm NOT trying to do that? I took a couple breaths, however, and reminded myself that she was coming from a good place—and that maybe, when she was low, this kind of approach worked for her! I told her that I've been taking active steps to heal and that my process can only go as fast as the slowest parts of me (thank you for that gem, Tracee Ellis Ross). Articulating where I was in my process was hard but I am glad I stayed true to who I am and accepted how I'm healing. It's happening, slowly and surely, and the greatest suffering I feel really is when I resist whatever is surfacing within me. I have been trying instead to notice a thought, accept the thought, and let it flow through me—all while I dig into the kinds of experiences, like dinner with friends and doing yoga, that feed my deep sense of self-love.
When we tell someone "You need to move on," it's easy for the other person to feel reactive—even ashamed, maybe, or attacked. Most people want to move on but are unsure exactly how. That's why a question like "How can I help you heal?" can guide a conversation in a positive direction. You're both offering your support and encouraging the other person to define for themselves what they need to heal—without making them feel like whatever they are doing in the present is not enough.
Empathy is everything
And if there are limits to your empathy, acknowledge it. I know there are definitely some situations when I have not been able to understand why someone would act however they are acting; I just don't have either the personal experiences or the emotional toolkit to compute. But do try your best to put yourself in another person's shoes and seriously consider the situation that they are in. There are so many more factors at play in a person's pain. Reflect on those possibilities.
Don't take it personally
This one is HARD. When someone is hurting, they often translate that pain into lashing out (I know I am guilty of that). If someone lashes out at you when you are trying to help, take in a deep breath and remember it's not personal. Really and truly.
IF YOU ARE HURTING
Try not to lash out
The person you are talking to loves you deeply and wants only the best for you—no matter how imperfectly they might show it. They get to be flawed too right now.
You can only ever work through pain and not around it
I've been on both sides of enough break-ups to know that some people shut down when something is too painful to process. That's a very human reaction; porosity can be painful. But when you are hurting, it's helpful for nurturing your own emotional resilience and sense of self-love to remind yourself that sometimes sitting with what's inside your heart is exactly the right place to be. For myself, I heal faster through vulnerability because openness is freedom to me. I have many friends and have had a couple lovers, however, who don't heal that way.
That said, regardless of whether you need space, working through your pain—and not around it— is a profoundly productive way to heal. Pushing your pain aside or pretending it doesn't exist only prolongs its shelf-life, as it were. Acknowledge where you are with a compassionate heart and open mind so that you can best work with what you have to get to the place you want to be.
Thank whoever listened to you
It will make you and your friend feel better—love and gratitude are always in infinite supply.
Take care of yourself
After a good cry session, I like to take a warm shower or go for a walk or watch a funny TV show. Your heart just had a workout! Do whatever you need to do to relax.