Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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It’s common for a person who loves someone suffering from addiction to reach a point in their relationship where they start asking questions like:

  • I’ve done X, Y, and Z for them!  Why don’t they see how they are hurting themselves?
  • Don’t they care?
  • Does anyone ever recover?
  • How do I know this is their rock bottom?

I remember this point. It was the worst period of my life to date. Essentially, I was trying to decide if I would stay or let go.  I was trying to figure out how much longer I would have to hold on, how much more pain I would need to endure in order for him to realize he needed to change. I was trying to decide if it would be more painful to stay or start over.

I couldn’t admit it but all I wanted was for someone to tell me it was going to be ok.

I remember vividly how painful, hard and desperate that place is. Looking at my life now, I hardly recognize the person I was then. I am still dealing with the shame, fear, and guilt from the actions I took in that dark place.

When I ended the relationship with my addict, I had not gotten any help or support. I’d essentially shouldered everything alone for the better part of a decade. I’d long since stopped the little bit of talking I did about our relationship; essentially because I didn’t like the feedback that I was getting. I was in denial of his illness and was clinging to a lot of more convenient, but false, justifications for what was happening.

I ended our relationship impulsively.

One day, he did something so blatantly unethical that I couldn’t ignore it and, like a rubber band, I snapped. There was no more discussion, no more compassion; I needed him gone and I executed that in a desperate, dramatic, and disrespectful way. I know deep down I hoped that would push him into getting help, but manipulation and coercion (even with good intentions) rarely gets good results.

I did a whole other post on why I try not to give people advice (find that here), but I wanted to share some things I learned; things I wish I’d known before I exercised my choice to stay or go.

Don’t Hate the Person, Hate the Disease

Anyone who has lived with an addict understands that there is a haunting duality to this condition. One minute your loved one is a caring and thoughtful Dr. Jekyll and the next a malicious and cruel Mr. Hyde. This is part of what keeps us stuck in these relationships, we catch heartbreaking glimpses of what appears to us to be our loved one fighting to get out. We cling to this idea when Mr. Hyde comes out to play with increasing frequency.

There is some controversy around this point; some people say that addiction is a symptom of the very serious and incurable personality disorder of narcissism, but I personally think that, in most cases, the narcissistic and unethical action we see are symptoms of addiction. An addict’s awareness is foggy and their priorities are always in a state of flux: their substance of choice is number one and everything else is ordered and reordered based on what is falling apart the fastest.

It’s not that they don’t care about you, you just can’t be their number one priority. Addiction doesn’t share, it is not a reflection of your worth.

Some People Don’t Get Better

I would love to tell you that your loved one will get better, but the truth is nobody knows.

A friend once told me a story about an alcoholic who passed out drunk on some train tracks. During the night, both his legs were severed by a passing train and, miraculously, he survived. If ever you would think there was a rock bottom moment, this would be it, right? While getting discharged from the hospital, this man was more concerned with the logistics of getting to the bar in a wheelchair than anything else in the world.

I don’t know why someone one day looks at their kids and decides they need to get better. I’m not sure why faced with the loss of their career something finally clicks for another person that they need to get some help. I’m not sure why others can lose everything and still not change.

I just don’t know.

What I do know is that addiction is a progressive and deadly disease and that as long as someone is sick they are putting their lives and the people in proximity in danger for a drink, a smoke, a big gambling win, Big Macs, working themselves to exhaustion, or sex with a stranger. That is the inconvenient truth.

Stopping is Only the First Step

I used to think that recovery was as simple as choosing not to drink, not to smoke, going on a diet, not gambling, etc. I thought it was about willpower and discipline.

It isn’t.

Stopping is essential. In order to recover, you need to regain awareness, you need to stop numbing. You can’t have clarity leaning on something that protects you from appreciating the gravity of your situation.

However, that isn’t all of it. There are many reasons why we numb ourselves. I saw a meme not too long ago that said “trauma is the real gateway drug” and that resonated with me. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to choose numbing over dealing with  pain. I also think there are many other reasons that lead people down the path of addiction.

Understanding this now, I wish I’d known it then. In evaluating what I needed for myself and how to help my partner the right way I wish I’d understood that it wasn’t as easy as stopping. I wish I’d understood that real help for someone in recovery is supporting them (not enabling them) while they maneuver the long road towards mental health.

It is also very unlikely that recovery is possible without some kind of outside and unbiased help. If you’ve spent your whole life coping a certain way how could you be equipped to change without outside guidance? You’ve never learned how to think another way, why wouldn’t you need guidance? Also, it is next to impossible to be able to objectively take the right kind of help from someone who is personally invested in your recovery (e.g. family, friend, spouse, etc).

There are no shortcuts. There are no quick fixes. It is not as simple as stopping the behaviour, a person also needs to deal with whatever is driving them to do what they do in the first place. This is how we reduce the chance of relapse; but it is also worth stating that recovery often includes relapse as people are confronted with the gravity of change and revert back to the comfortable and familiar.

Recovery is a roller coaster.  That is just the nature of profound change.

So what now?

No one can tell you how any of this will turn out. If they do, they aren’t being honest. There are no guarantees in life and there is no simple solution to this situation.

Some of you will decide to stay and others will decide to go. There is not a right or universal answer to every addiction scenario. There is no reliable checklist of symptoms that will help predict if someone will be successful in recovery, or if they will even get that far. There is also no guarantee that they will not relapse.

I understand there is an immense amount of guilt around these kinds of decisions. I understand the feeling of being crushed under the weight. I remind us all that we didn’t cause the addiction, we can’t control it, and we can’t change it. Like it or not, we all have the free will to make all kinds of poor decisions. True help for an active addict is learning to detach with love and interacting by helping not enabling action. I would challenge you to consider that not being able to accomplish this is likely hurting the addict more than saving them; that in this case, leaving may be the most compassionate and loving act even if it immediately appears to make the addictive behavior worse.

Finally, I will suggest you seek support before you have to choose. It is possible that there will come a point where that is a reality. Speaking from my own experience, leaving or staying was just one step in my recovery — but a very significant one.

Reflecting on my choices and their consequences, the only lingering regret I have is not that I wish I’d stayed.  My only regret is my certainty that I would have been more confident and less traumatized making that choice if I had already been working a recovery program.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 2

Welcome back!  This week, more musings inspired by Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t already, I recommend starting with last week’s post which discusses how our perception is developed and how it can shift depending on our goals, expectations, and beliefs.

Returning to Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to chaos, he makes the profound claims that we are all corrupt and capable of doing damage to others. He explains that where we fall in that spectrum is a direct result of our beliefs and experiences which in turn impact our perception.

He argues that people all have the same potential; that things like nice and mean are dependent on the situations that we find ourselves.

“The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”

Peterson, with a flair for impact and drama, also makes the provocative suggestion that we should all get in touch with our “inner psychopaths”, putting a big exclamation point next to the suggestion that we are all capable of horrendous things.

I find this idea compelling because it underlines the need for compassion and understanding, both for the self and others but it also lends itself to other strategies we’ve discussed (such as the suggestion that everyone is doing the best they can, see that post here).

It is also relevant to this discussion because it has interesting implications to extreme theories involving law of attraction, like those suggested in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “the Secret” which claims that anything can be manifested with the right mindset.

While I do believe there is some truth to the power of thought and that being a decent and mindful person will ultimately give you a more satisfying life, I don’t think that this is the whole story. Frankly, if that was the case, there would be no hardship in the world and we would all be living in a minimalist off-grid cabin with a Jason Momoa lookalike (insert your fantasy life here).  Unfortunately, being nice and doing good deeds does not mean that you will be without suffering, and being a tyrant won’t necessarily bring you bad fortune.

Peterson explains how this idea plays into building a life around happiness as a goal, and how that can be a problem:

“Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

In the last chapter of the book, Peterson talks about his family’s struggles following his daughter’s diagnosis with a rare bone disease. For years, the family fought through surgeries, recovery, and adapting to the necessary changes that had to be made to their lives and expectations for the future. It is clear that this and the subsequent events were a great source of darkness for Peterson and his family.

Peterson also talks about how emotions like grief are a product of challenges to our perception and expectations. In his own experience, thinking that he would have a happy and healthy child only to come face to face with the reality of the uncertainty of his daughter’s health.

Imagine that you have built your life on a frozen lake. While you have a fundamental awareness of the dangers of ice, falling into the frigid water is an abstract risk and something you easily ignore. You have confidence that the lake is frozen and you can go about your life in relative security. Now, imagine that tiny fractures in the ice have been spreading under your feet for some time until suddenly it cracks and you are submerged. Not only do you need to deal with the consequences of falling through the ice, you have the shocking realization that the solid grasp you had on your situation was not so solid. The fundamental belief you had in the reliability of your situation is gone. The ice was not safe, and there was nothing you could have done to make it so.

It is no wonder that the process of grief is so challenging and cyclical. It is layered, including not only grief for the surface loss but also requires the underlying beliefs system to be overhauled.

The interesting thing I’ve found in talking to people who have navigated through these fundamental shifts in perception, done the work to process the events, and survived the ice cracking under their feet is that they appear much more calm. The acceptance of uncertainty, pain, and the temporary nature of most things comes with freedom. Through embracing the darkness there is an understanding that happiness comes and goes; it cannot be held and there are no guarantees for the future. This understanding liberates us to enjoy happiness as it presents itself and remain optimistic that it will return because we know it’s possible, we’ve seen it before.

Happiness is not a destination, but some of the scenery we get to see along the way.

The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 1

I recently finished one of Jordan Peterson‘s volumous books. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, he’s a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He has a number of credits to his name but received widespread notoriety over the last few years for his controversial views on political correctness.

While I admit that I find some of Peterson’s views antiquated and not up my alley, I admire his tenacity and willingness to argue and support his viewpoints. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was not an easy read. It’s full of abstract principles supported by concepts borrowed from theology, psychology, philosophy and literature. It took me much longer to get through than most books I pick up, both because it is written in a heavy academic style (each chapter represents a rule and is an essay in its own right) and because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.

I think Peterson makes some really interesting observations and suggestions about how we develop our perception of the world around us as well as our expectations for how that world will behave.

He describes the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which researchers showed test subjects a recording of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of times their team made a pass. During the game, a man dressed as a gorilla walks onto the court, pounds his chest and walks out of frame. Shockingly, more than 50% of subjects did not see the gorilla.

This study, aside from being both funny and disturbing, demonstrates the narrow field of a person’s perception. Peterson explains that perception is adjusted to your goals and reinforcing your beliefs (for more on this, please try my prior post on denial). In this case, most of the study participants are so focused on the goal of counting passes that their perception is narrowed and they are unable to see the unusual scene beyond their task at hand. This is a necessary strategy for all people. Although some of us have more capacity to take in and process external information, we all have a point where that capacity is exhausted. We need to prioritize what we pay attention to in order to be successful.

This (of course) is not a conscious process, but I think we can all think of a situation or two in our own life where perception was coloured by our mental state, beliefs, and goals at the time. For example, I’m not sure that 30 year-old Jess would find 15 year old pothead Kenny as alluring as hormonal teenage Jess did. Although some may argue that my taste of men has not changed drastically enough, with my shifting goal towards building healthier relationships my perception is focused and my tastes are slowly changing. For the first time in my life I am aware that my ideal partner does not include substance use in all their recreational experiences.

Peterson says that we are all born with an instinct towards ethics and a lust for attaching meaning to our experiences, but that it takes great courage and strength to carry the burden of moving towards those things. That is because doing this is a great undertaking that requires us to constantly evaluate and prioritize our goals, beliefs and expectations. This causes discomfort in moving our perception to meet those changes. This is part of what attracts us to underdog stories, they encourage these shifts by confirming that taking the high and long road gives us the hope and possibility of rebirth despite the inevitable suffering.

Peterson makes the point of showing the malevolence that awaits those of us not strong enough to take the torch and the higher path; we are jealous, resentful, and petty. Have you ever had the experience of sharing an off the cuff and out of the box idea with someone who immediately ripped it to shreds? While I like to believe that most of us do these things because we are trying to protect people from hurting themselves, we are effectively squashing growth and innovation as a result of our fear to a challenge to our understanding and perception of the world.

Can you imagine the reception the first guy that ate a lobster got? There is very little about those pinchy characters that look appetizing; but some guy was hungry, brave, and probably desperate enough to eat one and share it with others.

In my mind, I see his friends screaming “UGH! STEVE, DON’T EAT THAT!!” as he defiantly cracks open the shell, eventually pairing the meat with butter and winning people over by challenging their perception of what is acceptable behaviour.

… Thanks, Steve!

ANYWAY.

Approaching ideas by immediately pointing out the flaws and challenges discourages people from taking risks and entertaining change. We are not allowing them to do the work of figuring out if their idea is viable, we are dragging them back down onto the safe and flat ground with us. We are protecting our own perception at the expense of the expansion of theirs.

* * *

Next week is part two in this series inspired by Jordan Peterson.  We will examine how our beliefs, goals, expectations, and perception play into the pursuit of happiness.  I hope you will return!

 

“Are people doing the best they can?”

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If you follow me on other platforms, you probably know I have soft spots for Brene Brown and Russell Brand. I could never have imagined the circumstances that would bring these two minds together to create, but I’m thrilled to live in a universe where this happened.. and my mind is blown by the result.

For those of you not familiar with Russell Brand, he is an outspoken comedian, actor, author, and activist. Although I did enjoy his outlandish comedy, I’ve found a new level of respect for him in sharing his experiences finding sobriety after a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction.

Brene got a brief nod in a past blog post, with a small reference to one of the first (and most powerful) books I read in recovery Daring Greatly. Holding a PHD in social work, she does research into vulnerability, shame, courage, and empathy. All topics that easily bring me to a cold sweat.

Although I’m familiar with some of Russel’s writings and videos on addiction recovery, I was not familiar with his podcast, “Under the Skin”. On this platform, he interviews a variety of influential public figures and the talk is anything but small. In his conversation with Brene they covered a plethora of hard topics including (but not limited to): handling tough toddlers, addiction, and boundaries.

The interview is over an hour and those interested in the full experience (at the time of this writing) can find it easily on spotify, youtube, or a number of other platforms. The part that really jumped out at me was a discussion on framing perception by asking the question “are people really doing the best they can?”

Although this discussion includes references to God and religion, it could easily be approached without so I encourage you to look beyond that if it does not resonate with you.

Like Brene, I’ve spent most of my life believing that most people (including myself) could be doing better. I met mistakes and poor choices as a personal reflection of value. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time being wounded and hurt by people not living up to my expectations for their behaviour, which in turn impacted my ability to be compassionate and live a peaceful existence. I spent an embarrassing amount of time being pissed off and burning bridges believing most times that people were either lazy or didn’t care.

I recognize that approaching life in this way is not only self-righteous and douchy, it isn’t fair. Reflecting on my lowest points there were days where the best I could do was not great. I remember not too long ago where the simple act of getting out of bed and to work was a monumental achievement. During that time, I was not a great friend, relative, or human. I was in survival mode and that was truly all I had in me.

At the end of the clip, Brene retells her husbands’ take on this huge existential question. Responding to her prodding, “are people really doing the best they can every day”, he says, profoundly “I have no idea. But what I do know is my life is better when I assume they are” (mic drop).

This really hit me because it illustrates so perfectly what many of us fundamentally struggle with: what is ours to control. A common concept in recovery literature is the challenge to accept the truth that you are only in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; not the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.

In this context, whether a person is actually doing the best they possibly can is irrelevant because it is out of our control; but how we frame our thoughts and perception is totally within our power. I can choose to believe that the hurt someone inflicts on me is a reflection of my value, or I can believe that, for better or for worse, they are doing the best they can and choose my actions calmly, intelligently, and compassionately.

5 Reasons Why I Try not to Give Advice

There was a time not too long ago where if you had told me any challenge or problem you were facing, I would have jumped in and tried to “fix” it with an immediate solution to your problem and a lecture which included all my supporting logic and thoughts.  Although I often do not have solutions to my own cavernous problems (and would not call myself an “expert” on most things) I would not hesitate to tell you how to go about fixing yourself. Dispensing advice is still a huge temptation for me, but I’ve been working on curbing this impulse.

I’ve touched on this topic before in my post on empathy, but have some more thoughts on why jumping in to “fix” problems is not a great approach in relationships.

  1. Dispensing advice is often more about me than the other person: although on the surface I’m trying to be helpful I think it’s more about me. Giving people solid and thoughtful advice makes me feel better about myself. It’s also self-righteous, unconsciously sending the message that I don’t think you have it under control and that you aren’t “good enough” to deal with the problem. My eagerness is about showing that I am an expert, intelligent, and insightful more than understanding you or your situation. I’m putting myself up on a pedestal saying that I understand the problem and situation more than you. I’ve also noticed my own hypocrisy in that the advice I tend to dole out is also more often than not advice I’ve refused or ignored when offered to me. I feel that my tendency to rush in and try to fix things is a reflection of my insecurity and discomfort at being present with pain and feelings, both my own and others.
  1. That’s probably not all the facts: I recognize that I only ever have one version of the events. You’ve told me your perception of what’s happening, but let’s be real! We all have a tendency to frame things in a way that suits our bias. If the issue is not flattering, we omit things or spin them in a way that avoids responsibility. Understanding this very human self-preservation instinct, I know that I am basing my judgement, reaction, and advice on a partial story. No matter how good my advice is, there’s no way that it is fair or complete because the facts presented are probably not either.
  1. Solving problems builds confidence: getting yourself out of a bind, figuring it out, and succeeding despite adversity are all incredible confidence builders. As much as it may seem like I am helping by sharing my cleverness and insight, there is a chance that by providing overly detailed and forceful instruction I am robbing you of a powerful and necessary learning and growth experience. There is also always a decent chance that I am way off side, and shouldn’t subject you to my bias.
  1. I don’t need to face the consequences: I know this is something I have not given any thought in the past. I was so caught up in “fixing” that I didn’t appreciate the simple fact that I would not have to deal with the fallout and consequences of the advice I was providing. I’m embarrassed at the drastic and pointed advice that I’ve offered over the years that called for intense and total life overhauls with no pause for how jarring those changes would be. I told people that this was the only solution to their problem with no appreciation of the level of commitment, drive, and perseverance implementing those actions would take to make them successful. In other words, making matter of fact and preachy suggestions about how people live their life was a real douche canoe move.
  1. They may not take my advice, and may think less of me for it: despite my good intentions, how clever and insightful I think I might be, I recognize that people only really accept advice when they are ready. In the wrong state, they may not agree or they may not be ready even if it is genuinely the best course of action. I understand that if I catch someone in one of those moments there is a great chance that my advice will not be well received. They may resent or ignore me totally which in turn makes me feel like underappreciated garbage. Further, advice is rarely helpful if it is delivered in an intense I-know-what’s-best kind of way. I know we are all attracted to the idea of tough love but, in all but the most dire situations, delivering advice in this manner makes people defensive, defiant, and closed; therefore, totally unlikely to take the advice anyway.  I also recognize that when I get angry at other people for not taking my advice it is an indication that I should not be giving it in the first place as it suggests that my actions are weighted on my expectations for things beyond my control rather than openness to the best outcome.

The deep irony of this situation is that the best way to give someone advice is often by not giving it at all. It’s by showing curiosity and really listening; by offering them a safe space to talk about the problem without fear of judgement. This is essentially what therapy and counselling provides. A good practitioner will serve as a guide to connect you with the answers you already have but are having trouble accessing. It’s shocking how often saying something aloud and talking it through with someone who is supportive and open to listening will be all that is needed for the person to find the solution. It is worth resisting the temptation to provide immediate solutions in favour of supporting those we care about in finding their own. I acknowledge, this may not always be possible. There are occasions where it is appropriate and needed to offer thoughts and advice but this is something I’m trying to approach more delicately. I don’t regret putting more effort into developing authentic and deep listening skills and allowing other people to share in a compassionate space.

Detachment, Dissociation, and other “D” words

I always thought of detachment as a negative, it implied an inability to connect or a barrier to relationships. In my world, pre-boundaries, when you loved someone you blended together. Their problems were mine, and my problems… well, that’s the funny thing, my problems just kind of got shoved in a corner and forgotten about.

I was F-I-N-E.

Well, outwardly I guess I was fine.

My mask was good, I convinced the people closest to me that I didn’t need their emotional support or help. Hell, I wore it so long I even fooled myself. I thought I was bulletproof and, I kid you not, even joked that I must be a cyborg. People described me as strong, independent, high-functioning, intelligent and together. Nothing would crack me and I’d rather kill myself trying than ask for help. Challenges in my path were minor bumps unless someone else was reacting to them. That’s how I lived, desperate for connection but with no idea how to go about it without sacrificing myself. I wore my strong mask and pushed clumsily forward.

I’ve discovered that those things we bury don’t ever really go away, they just fester below the surface. All those needs I told myself weren’t important and those things I put off doing for myself just reinforced my low self-esteem. Over time it impacted my relationship with myself, with others, and how I cope with life in general.

I believe the correct psychological terminology is “dissociation from the self”. Thankfully a mild case in the spectrum of this condition, a coping mechanism in which I could avoid my painful inner dialog of self-doubt and worthlessness.

In hindsight, it’s no shock that I ended up in the relationships I did. People with codependent traits are subconsciously looking for validation, someone to sacrifice themselves for to give us a sense of value.  We are also often disconnected (or “dissociated”) from their own needs and feelings. We are primed and ready for dysfunctional connections.

“Is someone else’s problem your problem? If, like so many others, you’ve lost sight of your own life in the drama of tending to someone else’s, you may be codependent.” – Melody Beattie

There are those that would argue that this is passion. Throwing ourselves into what is important, sacrificing, putting ourselves at risk for what matters most. Maybe it is, but the impractical side of unhealthy passion is that eventually even the strongest fold; there is a point of burnout, because what we are trying to do is control someone that has their own entitlement and free will to make choices. Not consciously, not maliciously, but trying to influence their path and it isn’t ours to control.

Ultimately my sense of self was tied to an outcome I couldn’t possibly force and if you have any experience with addiction you know there are a lot of days that are total uncontrollable fails.

The real cosmic joke of the addict-codependent dynamic is that in trying to save the addict, the codependent actually contributes to the evolution of their disease. The addict is looking for validation too; and by saving them from the consequences of their actions, the codependent unwittingly sends the message that their behaviour is acceptable as they remove the addict’s incentive to examine their choices and consider another path. They are justified, or at least excused, to continue using.

Consider a classic example of enabling: the addict blasts through their paycheck and can’t afford rent. Enter the codependent, desperate to save their loved one from the loss of their apartment, to give them the money they are missing. As counterintuitive as it seems (to a codependent anyway), the right action here is also the one that on the surface is allowing the addict to fail, letting them figure out the solution to the money problem themselves and hopefully *eventually* realizing that their life would be easier without their addiction. It also allows the loved one to maintain some quality in their own life rather than surviving in the centre of a tornado of chaos.

I am not suggesting that passion is always a bad thing. There is an element of risk and sacrifice to anything worth having in life but the difference between healthy and unhealthy passion is detachment. It is accepting that sometimes you need to let go of the things that matter to you to in order to get to the best place. It is understanding that unhealthy attachment is living in fear that what you want will not come and that this fear creates a trap where un-fulfillment is accepted because the alternative is the loss of the person’s misplaced sense of self.

This can be especially confusing in relationships where “love” is incorrectly labeled as holding on to someone and caring for them in all ways possible. We know that detachment is necessary in relationships; it is what stops us from taking everything personally because ultimately you can’t control everything your loved one does. It is understanding that love is about acceptance, not control. It is about both people having enough room to grow, hopefully together.

Need more reasons why detachment is a good thing? It is required not to over-generalize our experiences and carry them around with us like overstuffed emotional baggage. It allows us to learn from those experiences and leave them behind. It is important because it allows us to take a step back from ourselves so we don’t confuse our thoughts and feelings and act impulsively; it allows us not to disassociate but to understand that sometimes thoughts are just that, they are not absolute truths.

Andrea Owen (& Empathy)

I’ve always avoided the self help section of the bookstore. This was due to a lack of self-awareness, unwillingness to admit my vulnerabilities, and my natural jaded inclination to think that if people are happy or spewing rosy life advice they are probably full of garbage.

How fortuitous that the opening of my mind to the possibility of self-improvement came at a time when there is a plethora of self-help books full of curse words to comfort me, cushion my landing, and introduce me to healthy thinking.

Thanks to these foul-mouthed authors I’m getting a remedial education in basic human communication and connection. This week I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about empathy.

In her book, How to Stop Feeling like Sh*t, Andrea Owen identifies some of the common ways that we react to people’s stories. In this case, romantic relationship issues:

  • The One-Upper: “OMG, That’s nothing! I’m almost positive my husband is cheating on me with his office manager.”
  • The Pooh-pooh-er: “It’s probably not that bad. I just saw you two last week, you seemed fine”
  • The At Least-er: “Well, at least you’re married. I’ve been single for ten freakin’ years!”
  • The Fixer: “Have you gone to counseling? Or read that book on relationships? What about date nights?”
  • The Gasper: “WHAT?! I thought your marriage was perfect! You HAVE to make this work!” (bursts into tears)
  • I’m gonna make this about me: “Ah, bummer. Yeah, so me and my husband got in this huge argument this weekend. He got drunk at a BBQ our neighbours hosted and I…”

I can admit I’ve reacted at one point or another in each of these ways, and also had people react in these way to me. In my experience, all of these reactions cause me to feel isolated, hopeless, and no better than I was before I opened my mouth and shared. The reason being that none of these are true empathy.

Empathy is about sitting in that mess. It’s about looking within, finding that feeling and sinking into it… with someone else! It’s really incredibly uncomfortable but boils down to being no more or less than a compassionate witness.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those of us who have trouble bearing compassionate witness to our own feelings are really ineffective at doing it for others. However, like most skills, practice and persistence pay off.

It may not surprise you that I’ve been very selective in sharing this blog with people I know. I’m fearful of people’s reactions having not a lot of experience with giving or receiving empathy.

However, recently I did take a chance on a new friend. Having gone through a different, but not dissimilar life event, and after sharing some of that experience with me I decided to go against my normal instinct and gave her the URL. She surprised me, read all the entries and responded with the sincere and perfectly empathic response of thanking me for sharing with her and validating that I was justified in feeling pain.

Such a little thing, but so significant.

Unfortunately, it’s not always “safe” to be vulnerable. Like me, many people have a misguided idea of what being there for someone really means. Not all problems have solutions that others can help you find, sometimes the best gift you can get is someone that’s willing to sit there in the ditch with you and remind you that you can trust yourself to get out again.

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If you would like to learn more about Andrea Owen’s coaching, books, blog, podcast, or general awesome swing by her website, here.