When something is troubling us, we sometimes reach out to others to discuss the issue. Sometimes the experience goes well, and other times it doesn’t. What leads to these results? How can we communicate and respond to suffering more effectively?
A Frustrating Response to Suffering
One common denominator among many of my frustrating interactions has been the word, “just.” It implies a simple solution to an issue that feels insurmountable. If we are struggling with depression, regret, anxiety, or any number of challenges, the last thing we want to hear is a response with the word “just;” suggesting a solution is just a stones throw away; that this desperate moment in our lives would vanish if only we had the will to implement some simple solution. In addition, “just” reveals a disconnect between what we want and what we receive, while also placing the onus on us at a time when we are seeking compassion and understanding. Instead, we often receive self-evident solutions.
“Just quit your job and follow your passion.”
“Just break up with your girlfriend.”
“Just exercise and stop going to bed so late.”
Depending on our circumstance, the advising possibilities are seemingly endless, but almost always unhelpful or unwanted; extenuating circumstances making their implementation difficult. Maybe we haven’t discovered our passion. Perhaps there isn’t another job awaiting us if we quit our current one. Maybe we love our significant others or have deep rooted emotional wounds and habits that make solutions more difficult than they seem.
Practical Instead of Emotional Support
However, any discussion of solutions is beside the point because what we often seek is emotional support; not practical assistance. When we hear the word “just,” we usually feel immediate frustration and disconnect. By suggesting a simple solution, something inside us awakens to the possibility that we aren’t being understood; with the immediacy of our difficult state not translating.
However, if we aren’t aware of this disconnect, we may continue to hit our heads against the proverbial wall by attempting to convince them that the solutions aren’t so simple; as the conversation travels further away from its emotional core. The effort to further explain is almost always waisted. I’m not assessing blame but merely suggesting a disconnect. If we continuing down the same path without addressing the separation, the results will remain the same.
Intellectualizing our Suffering
Part of the issue lies in our approach to sharing a challenging circumstance and how we communicate our suffering. We often intellectualize difficult situations; transforming and presenting our desperate emotional moments into practical problems that beg an answer. We understandably fear the prospect of rejection when we expose our uncensored souls. Therefore, our words often lean toward remote descriptions, which places a safe distance between ourselves and our struggle, instead of the unvarnished versions that reveal and exposes the immediacy of our current difficulty. In addition, perhaps we veil our current emotions because we conflate vulnerability with weakness; disguising our feelings as a way to project some semblance of strength.
“I feel like I don’t know what do with my life.”
This is a thought disguised as a feeling, where the word “think” has been substituted with “feel.” This conflation between thoughts and feelings is becoming more common, as we instinctively understand that feelings are given more validation. Consequently, we use the word “feel” to lend credibility to an expressed thought, while forgetting that we haven’t articulated an actual emotion. Therefore, perhaps the above phrase could be reworded more directly to reveal the feeling behind the thought and communicate the immediacy of our suffering more clearly.
“I feel utterly and desperately lost.”
“I have been struggling to find a way to move on.”
This description suggests that the experienced difficulty occurs under certain conditions; prior to the current moment. It doesn’t clearly address feelings in the present. Perhaps the emotion at the core of this situation could be the following;
“I still feel completely heartbroken and devastated.”
How to Communicate Suffering
Both reworded examples contain a directness that alerts and communicates the suffering to the listener. In addition, if our words are accompanied with physical manifestations of our struggle, such as tears or a trembling voice, the listener awakens to the currency of the moment; recognizing their shared humanity and connecting with the universality of life’s challenges. Expressing the feelings actively instead of passively, while understandably difficult, transforms the moment from a practical matter into a human one that demands a different response. Hearing and seeing the suffering brings the listener into direct contact with it; awakening their empathy, compassion, and understanding. The connection only requires a more direct path to our present feelings; alerting the listener that there isn’t a math problem to be solved; but rather an exposed emotional world that needs embracing.
Connection through Shared Humanity
If you have any doubt, consider how you would react as the listener to someone who finds the courage to bear their unadulterated emotional world. Most likely you already have experienced moments in your life when a friend or family member has broken down in front of you. What happened? Did you remain distant or did your heart immediately open at the sight of their vulnerability? I’m guessing it was the latter.
It’s also worth considering that the awakening to another’s suffering isn’t limited to those we love. It can occur with acquaintances, strangers, and even a perceived enemy. The bravery coupled with vulnerability is overwhelming; dissolving the superfluous minutia to elevate, with unmatched clarity, the connective tissue that binds us all.