You,” he said, “are a terribly real thing in a terribly false world, and that, I believe, is why you are in so much pain.”
That quote comes from Emilie Autumn’s psychological thriller novel, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls.
I used it a few months ago in a post to describe Robin Williams and why, I think, he was in so much pain.
But I also think it’s true for me, and why I am in pain so much of the time.
Ten years ago, after reading Dr. Elaine Aron’s research on the highly sensitive person, I realized that I emerged from my mother’s womb without the extra layer of skin, the protective coat, most people are born with. Therefore I not only can intuit the emotions of someone else, but I feel them on a very deep level.
If someone I love is in pain, I am in pain as well. And this is especially the case with my sisters and my mom. All boundaries that I pretend to put up for friends in turmoil come crumbling down when it’s my sister who can’t eat because she’s so anxious.
This past Christmas, the pain was intense. All of my sisters and my mom were in town. Some of them were aching. As much as I tried to place a boundary there, I became irritable and grumpy. My husband finally took each of my shoulders with one hand, and turned me to face him. He looked straight into my eyes and said, “Their pain is not your pain.”
Their pain is not my pain.
Feeling pretty powerless over the situation, I started a discussion on this topic in The Highly Sensitive Person group on Project Beyond Blue, the community for persons with chronic depression I launched last month.
“I’m not sure how NOT to feel this pain,” I explained. “What do you guys do?”
Here’s what they said.
1. Acknowledge That You Are Separate From Your Pain
One woman reminded me of what I had written in some piece a while back, while I was taking the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program: that I am in pain, but I am not my pain. She explained, “For me that creates the best kind of separation. It doesn’t separate you from your loved ones, but it separates the pain from who you are.”
That works for me, as I’m not sure I’m capable of not feeling it. And the more I try to run from the pain, the more I will find it, just as Thomas Merton said:
“The truth that many people never understand is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.” However, even if I feel it, I don’t have to make my pain my primary experience. My “I” is different from the experience of pain, if that makes any sense.
2. Be Real Together
Another woman told a beautiful story about how most of us who suffer from a mood disorder aren’t afraid to look at something despite it being painful, when the normal response is to look away. She wrote:
“There is a wonderful allegory in The Never-Ending Story where they tell about a magical mirror that even the bravest men cannot look into. This mirror shows us who we truly are, and even the so-called bravest and strongest of men who have dared look into the mirror run away screaming, having lost all sense, becoming irrevocably insane by the truth of self. I don’t know why this part of the book speaks to me so much. Maybe I am narcissistic, but I feel that many people with mental illness have looked into this mirror, and have NOT run away but stood facing the painful truth of self and life and others. It’s everyone else, our friends, our co-workers, our loved ones who seem so “normal” who are the ones who couldn’t stand within 10 feet of this mirror, because it would smash every false concept they have about themselves and about life.”
Her story reminded me of the wisdom of the Velveteen Rabbit and the “calling” to be real:
“ ’Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ ”
The trick is to have a “realness” support group. Recognizing this quality of realness in a trusting group such as Project Beyond Blue gives me the courage and the stamina to continue to be real even when it hurts.
3. Keep Right-Sized for the ‘Picture’
My friend Rachael told me it has taken a long time to get this right — not feeling other’s people pain to the extent that it disables you — and that she still doesn’t get it right all the time. “I am mindful to keep myself right-sized for the ‘picture,’ ” she told me.
“When I am getting too big for the picture, it means that my pain or anxiety or anger has taken over and I have lost sight of what matters. So I right-size, move back to my balance point. I’ve been through worse and gotten through it, and I remind myself that I do not know what others are experiencing or going through in the moment and try my hardest not to judge or jump to conclusions … Basically, there is a lot of putting things on pause.”
4. Try Using Visualization
“One strategy I’m trying is to put my pain (and others too) in a box on the shelf, using visualization,” explained someone else in the group. “That way, I will deal with it later, if and when I’m more able. This is very difficult and requires practice but I think it’s worth trying.”
I have tried visualizations in my past as well, like “blowing bubbles,” putting the painful feelings in bubbles as I acknowledge them and let them go.
5. Be Kind to Yourself
Finally, there was the reminder to put my oxygen mask on first before I try to help other people with theirs. Acts of self-care go a long way toward emotional resiliency. In fact, in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, author Kristin Neff, PhD, writes:
“One of the most robust and consistent findings in the research literature is that people who are more self-compassionate tend to be less anxious and depressed. The relationship is a strong one, with self-compassion explaining one-third to one-half of the variation found in how anxious or depressed people are.”
In the group, we talked about different acts of self-compassion, such as getting a massage or taking a warm bath. For me, I need to exercise every day in order to feel good. So there were times that I met up with my family later so that I could to get a long run in, or a swim.