The worst feeling is wanting to help someone when you’re not there, and there’s nothing you can really do.
When empathy kicks in strong, we are feeling with another person. It’s their emotion, not yours. And you have to remember that. I have to remember that. But even with that discernment your brain and body begin to simulate the emotion. It hurts and also makes us human.
Ideally, empathy drives us to compassionate action. We feel for someone, want the best for them, and do what’s in our power to help.
Empathy > Compassion > Action
What happens when there’s nothing we can do to help?
My fearless teacher, my strongest mentor, enters her 7th surgery today. Every instinct wants to show her I’m there for her, sending flowers or food or asking her how she is or staying near her at all times. Another, deeper instinct makes me want to find who’s responsible and grab them by the collar and shake them and ask them why, why they would put her through this again. I can’t do either. She’s in another state, and no one is in charge of cancer.
The truth is, I don’t know what she wants or needs. When people encounter challenges, they may need to talk about it, they may need to talk about anything else. They may want to cry, they may want to rage. They might just want to practice their yoga today like any other day. You don’t know. Even if you know them really well, you don’t actually know until they articulate their needs.
When we prescribe people the kind of support we think they need, we are actually just trying to ease our own fear and discomfort. We are trying to do something so we don’t feel helpless. We are trying to control a situation we have no control over. We are trying to make ourselves feel better. We are making it about us.
But it’s not about us. What do we do?
All we can do is make space for them. When we hold an unconfined space, it can take shape into whatever they need in the moment. We don’t have to foresee their needs, we just have to be there listening and ready to respond. We can say that we’re there, unconditionally, without forcing our version of healing on them. We just have to be there.
Maybe the best way to say I love you is sitting quietly with someone in pain.