Sitting With Isn’t as Satisfying as Fixing

We don’t want people to hurt. We especially don’t want our loved ones to hurt. When we care for others and witness their pain it hurts us for them. We want to fix their pain for them. We want to fix their pain for us. If someone’s injured we can administer first aid. If someone’s choking we can apply the Heimlich Maneuver. In the right circumstance it’s vital for a responder to provide CPR. This begs the question, however, what do you do when someone you love is suffering a pain you can’t fix? This might take the form of chronic pain (think fibromyalgia or arthritis) , illness (think MS, HIV, Parkinson’s, and the like), or reactions to treatments or medications (think chemotherapy). Maybe it’s emotional pain associated with trauma, depression, anxiety, or grief. There are no Heimlich Maneuvers for emotional pain.

What can you do when your loved one is in pain that you can’t fix? Sit with them. Be present. Hold their hand. Let them know they’re not alone. Sound easy? It’s not. We’d rather fix. It’s more satisfying. Sitting with someone in pain is much harder than it sounds. To do it well we must be able to manage our own reactions and hold them as we stay in the room.

These things are easy to say or to type but they are hard to do. Here are some tips to help you stay present or “in the room” as I say when someone you love is in pain and it’s a pain that you personally can’t fix.

  1. Shift your focus to you. When our love hurts we can become so focused on them that we ignore ourselves. While we should never be oblivious to what’s going on with them we should likewise never be oblivious about what’s going on with us.
  2. Name what you’re feeling. Emotional literacy is the first step to emotional mastery. By the way emotional mastery doesn’t mean that we control what we feel. Rather it means that we know what we feel; we understand that emotional message from ourselves; and we know what to do in response to those feelings.
  3. Get aware of how intensely you’re feeling. Give yourself a score of 1-10. 10 is the most intense version of the feeling. For example a 10 on the 1-10 anxiety scale is panic. A 10 on the 1-10 anger scale is rage. A 10 on the 1-10 sadness scale is despair.
  4. Breathe deeply. Repeat as needed. I usually take a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. As I breath slowly in I imagine I’m breathing that feeling in (see #2) and then breathing it out of my mouth. Do this as long as it takes for your emotional intensity to drop down to whatever your manageable level is. That might be a 6, a 3, or a 1 depending on how different emotions effect you.
  5. Shift your focus back to your partner. When you’re okay go back to providing reassurance. Ask them what they need from you. Hold hands. We’re all wired to receive soothing from touch so touch if it’s okay with them.