I have a dear friend who is one of the most sensitive people I know. If I share some pain with her, I know she will respond deeply. She will truly feel my pain. I can see it in her face. I love that about her.
My challenge is that she then turns it into her pain, almost immediately. The conversation might look something like this.
Me: My dog, Bongo, died and I’m absolutely sick about it.
Her: (possibly tearing up) Oh my goodness! That is so sad! You’ve had her for 14 years. You must really be hurting.
Me: (sniff) Yeah. That dog was a true member of our family.
Her: I remember when my dog, Scruffy died. I didn’t get out of bed for three days. (Insert here: 20 lines about Scruffy, what she meant to my friend, and so on.)
There are two things that really bug me about this. One is that I know I do the same thing, and I don’t like that about myself. I’m really good at empathizing because I can call up similar experiences. But too often I get caught up in my own pain and forget about my partner’s pain.
The other is that, while I would have had space to hear about Scruffy eventually, I wasn’t done feeling my feelings about Bongo and whatever feelings of loss and abandonment his passing triggered.
I remember when I was four, I waited with my grandmother for what felt like an interminable time (it was probably not 10 minutes) to ride the carousel. When it was finally our turn, I picked out a cool looking horse, and my grandmother helped me up. Against the background music of the player piano and the smells of the carnival, I was giddy with anticipation.
The ride started, went around a single rotation, and then stopped. I sat on my horse in the up-high position for a few minutes before we learned there was a mechanical failure. My grandmother helped me down and we left. I wasn’t sad enough to cry, but I really felt cheated out of the promised ride.
That’s how I feel whenever my friend so quickly turns my pain into her pain. I don’t get the full ride. I’d rather she draw me out, maybe even let me cry a little. I’d like to feel those feelings, because I know the more deeply I can feel them now, the less they’ll linger over me like a dark cloud. My friend is even talented enough, if she is so inclined, to take me back to a more primal pain to help me heal some of the core suffering I’ve been carrying around for 50-plus years.
Empathy is really hearing your partner. Love is hanging in there for the full ride.