How To Start Conversations About Emotional Pain
We may be incredibly social and tactful conversationalists on any given day, but somehow, when the topic turns to someone’s emotional pain, the conversation often comes to a screeching halt.
Why is it so hard to speak about a thing EVERY human will experience (usually a lot more than once) in their lifetime? Why do we get flooded with doubt, and stumble over our words when someone shares their brush with tragedy? Why are we filtering our gut-wrenching urges to know more about the loss, the cancer, the chronic fatigue, the addiction, the depression, the breakup?
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We are genetically hard-wired for connection, which means our brains are designed to dig deep in search of a connection with other humans, even (or especially) when they’re in pain.
Yet we fumble. Our words. Our plays. Our involvement. Our opportunities to sift past the surface conversations (we secretly hate anyway) and cuddle up with the REAL shit. The raw. The vulnerable. The tender. All that stuff that knocks us right in our chests, reminding us of how lucky, fragile, powerful, devastating, and HUMAN we are.
If we’re ever going to have a chance at being more than cowards, feigning ignorant in the face of people’s pain (and our OWN, for crying out loud), we’re going to have to understand two things:
- All pain is a matter of disconnection, or rather, connection.
- Your ONLY job as a loved one/support person is to f*cking SHOW UP.
Suicide. Divorce. Job loss. Miscarriage. Amputation. Death. Addiction. Mental Illness. Anxiety. Depression. Caretaking. The list is forever long.
Dealing with pain
The truth is: You can’t fix anyone else’s pain. And you’re the ONLY one who can fix your own.
Read that again. Let it sink in. And give up the agenda, the mission, the project to transform your loved one out of their anguish and into deep fulfillment and happiness (while simultaneously lavishing undying gratitude on you for the rest of their days for rescuing them). It ain’t gonna happen. Nor should it, because that’s actually robbery. You trying to jump in and rob them of the process they are absolutely dependent on moving through in order to heal themselves is a not your job.
Don’t be a robber. Instead, be present. Be THERE. Existing WITH them. Standing beside them. Hugging, holding hands, sharing Kleenex and “what the fuck is life” convos while shaking your fist at heaven. You imposing your human energy in their space – in their terrible, awful realm of sadness – will inevitably shift the energy of their current existence. Even if they never show a sign of it, they’ll sense they’re not alone.
Human touch and eye contact and presence – well, it’s absolutely everything when you’re sitting in your darkest hour. So, show up. Don’t talk yourself out of it. Don’t be polite or tactful and “give them space” (unless you’ve already shown up and they’ve said, “k, thanks. Bye.” In that case, wait a little while and show up again). Oh, and by the way, if you are reading this post-robbery or post-epically failing to show up, it’s not too late. I don’t care if it was days or decades ago, as long as you’re both breathing, it’s never too late to apologize or own up to what you didn’t know but now you do because you just read this article.
Simply show up
We all experience pain and we all mess up. Perfection and flawless transitions are not part of any equation that involves a human. But living at your highest level of knowledge and choosing integrity over comfort will get you closer, deeper, and more fulfilled within your relationships than anything else.
Try it. I dare you. Next time someone brings up an emotionally delicate topic and you are triggered with discomfort and the urge to hightail it out of there, try something new. Lean in. Acknowledge their pain and if you want to, address your own ignorance on the topic (“I don’t have any idea what to say, but I want you to know I’m here to listen”). Be curious about their experience and be respectful of their story (“I can’t imagine how you are processing this right now, what is most difficult today?”).
Tact is required in these conversations because your “lean in” will depend on your current bond, the setting, the type of pain, the rawness of the griever, your level of awkwardness, their level of desired privacy, their response to you, etc. So, be aware and pay attention (this would not be a good time to check your phone or wave to someone across the room).
Start with eye contact. From there, just do your best to follow their lead. If the griever mentions their pain, they’re usually going to be open to you leaning in. If you know about the tragedy/loss but the griever hasn’t directly mentioned it, you’ll have to decipher when/where/how is best to show up and connect. But don’t skirt around it, pretending it’s not really happening to them. That’s the sort of quackery cowards are made of.
Above all, let the human connection be your beginning point.
We can do hard things, whether it’s surviving a suicide… or engaging in an uncomfortable conversation about someone else’s emotional darkness.
We can all do hard things.
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