Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Can I support how they feel, not force how I want them to feel?

These are difficult times for families and friends spread across households, especially if older loved ones are on their own. Relationships stumble into uncharted territory, with shared drinks, coffees and hugs on hold. When you and I most need one another, we must stay apart. Although I know why, that doesn’t make it any easier. Humans didn’t evolve to handle this extreme isolation.

I have to be careful to keep my stress and anxiety from making things worse for the remote loved ones I most want to help through this. I may be reaching out to a relative to help them. They are depressed, afraid or lonely, so I want to cheer them up, to fix them. But beneath the surface, my contacting them could be about dealing with the discomfort their vulnerability triggers in me.

Am I supporting or demanding?

It’s not bad that another’s plight makes me uncomfortable. This is a natural and admirable empathetic reaction. And I am not weak because I seek to reduce my own unease by lifting their spirits. This too is understandable. But I need to be aware of what’s going on inside me to avoid crossing the line that separates supporting my loved ones from demanding that they feel well.

When I share a coffee with a friend who is angry, sad or fearful, I want her to be happy. We’ve known one another for a long time, and I care for her and her well-being. I’d like her mood to improve, for her sake. As we speak, I’ll look for a way to cheer her up or calm her down.

All the while, and independent of my altruism, as I sit with my friend’s emotional disturbance, I pick up her feelings. It’s not so much that I absorb them and feel those same things myself, but I do experience an agitation or discomfort. A sense of unease creeps into what might otherwise be a buoyant mood. I’d rather not be agitated. Like you, I prefer comfort to pain and relaxation to trouble. So I have an urge to act, to do what I can to alter my circumstances, to control any variable — including my friend’s mental state — that might improve my experience.

Both this unconscious selfish impulse and my altruistic one urge me to find a way to change my friend’s state of mind. I offer her different, more positive interpretations of her reality. When that doesn’t lift her spirits, I point out silver linings to tough truths. If necessary, I go on to tell a funny story to lighten the atmosphere.

If, after all this, my friend doesn’t cheer up and relax, my altruistic drive may begin to tire. Why is she wrapped so tightly? Does she have to be such a downer? My own discomfort from being near her imbalanced state erodes my compassion. Even if I keep a smile and an understanding look on my face, I drift toward desperation. I must improve this situation! Otherwise, one of two things will happen: I’ll need to escape or I’ll (unconsciously) create a drama that overrides my friend’s and distracts me from my vicarious unease.

Somehow, I’ve ended up failing to support my friend, instead demanding that she change her mood to one I find more acceptable, one that doesn’t unsettle me.

Picture this scenario played out not in person over coffee but in the even more strained circumstances of a video call between two self-isolating households. Add a potentially deadly disease prowling the streets and unprecedented economic uncertainty looming over everyone. Imagine that on my screen is not my friend but my aunt— getting on in age, at particular risk and struggling to make the video technology work. Perhaps I’ve already spent the day trying to complete an overdue report while juggling the home-schooling of my children.

That’s a lot of potential angst! Can I keep the selfish urge for comfort at bay while helping my loved one? Is this possible without breaking myself?

Let’s feel what we need to feel

It’s a tough ask. I have a habituated drive to fix the unattractive feelings of those around me so that I can be untroubled in their presence — even if that presence is remote on a phone or video call. The first step toward being more helpful for my aunt is to recognise that this drive exists in me, to notice it, to feel it.

The second step is to consider my aunt’s true needs. Unless she is in acute overwhelm — overloaded with intense negative experience — she doesn’t need distraction or redirection from her current mood.

We each fluctuate through a wide range of feelings daily and through our lives. When my aunt faces less pleasant parts of these cycles, the most important thing is for her to be with that experience. If she participates fully in the low periods, they will pass as all things do. If she fights them, pushes them away or buries them, the rejected feelings stick and find sneaky ways to leak into other aspects of her life. Society puts tremendous pressure on her to avoid and deny these low periods, suggesting she has a duty to be up, perky and with-it like everyone else seems to be. This is a sham and a great disservice; it applies to both my aunt and myself.

In these strange weeks of isolation and insecurity, I have a choice when reaching out to her and to other loved ones. Will I reinforce the societal pressure for them to hide negative feelings and deny painful experience, contributing to the neuroses that this creates? Or will our discussions be the space in which they can feel what they have to feel, be what they really are, in that moment?

The greatest gift I can give my loved ones is to choose the second option. But this is not be easy because I’m still learning to handle (stay with and participate in) the full range of my own feelings. I am getting better at this, but it takes consistent practice. Through the learning and even as an adept practitioner, I will experience pain and discomfort, but I’m coming to realise that I can bear and work with these sensations. A selfless task I can take on is to bear them for the duration of a call supporting someone who is struggling. I can live for those minutes with my discomfort, not demanding that the person get better, not insisting that their feelings be other than they are.

After doing this, I may need support myself. I know who I can reach out to, someone who stays with me without judgement as I speak and feel what is real for me in that moment. In this way, we can support one another. When I am more ‘up’ than you, I provide the space for you to participate, with no filter, in your ‘low’. When you are up relative to my low, you do the same for me.

As I connect in these extraordinary times, to be most helpful, I resist trying to lift my loved ones. Instead, I love and accept them as they are, providing the safety in which they can ignore the societal pressure to always be okay. This is a rare gift in our age and an invaluable one when many are fully facing their own vulnerability for the first time.

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