Is it true that people only like you when you’re happy?
The virtual world of the internet would certainly seem to back this up.
It’s one of the risks with choosing to live authentically – sharing the downs as well as the ups.
I find that, for example, if I put out a Facebook status update with an inspiring quote or message, I get loads of people “liking” it, but relatively few comments.
If I share an update that is honestly and openly talking about something that might not be going so well, I get close to zero likes, but loads more comments.
And the funny thing is that the comments tend to fall into two broad categories:
- Sympathy, empathy, it’s ok to feel the way you feel, isn’t it terrible
- Trying to “fix” me and telling me why my response is wrong!
(Obviously, I’m generalising a lot! And I have regularly done both of these myself – so I’m holding my hand up on this!)
When we respond by diving into someone’s “story” and their “pain”, then we not only risk taking on those emotions for ourselves, but we risk reinforcing their “woe is me” story and keeping them stuck.
If we dive straight in to telling them how to “fix themselves”, then we’re at risk of denying their pain and trying to persuade them to pretend it’s not there, which is a dangerous habit, for both mental and physical health.
We’re also teaching them – and ourselves – that we have to behave in certain ways, in order to be liked or receive a loving response. That’s why living authentically can be so hard; we’re so ingrained in habits designed to make us behave the way we project others want us to behave.
What about compassion?
From the ancient Latin, compassion is often defined in terms of sympathy and empathy – about entering into “co-suffering” with others. That’s not a state I would wish on anyone! But it’s where we’re at risk of ending up, if we regularly practice behaviour 1, above.
HH The Dalai Lama defines compassion more in terms of “loving kindess”. It’s about understanding the other person’s pain, whilst wanting to help them alleviate their suffering.
We are told that Buddha talked of compassion as
“Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed. “
That’s definitely not where we’re going, if our response to someone’s suffering is to tell them how lucky they are in so many ways and that they should pretend their suffering isn’t happening.
It may well be true, but to each individual, their “chosen state of suffering” is, in that moment, very real.
It’s like standing on the sunny side of a bridge and yelling at someone on the shady side, with their eyes closed, saying “come over here and join me!”
If they don’t know the way to the sunny side, a much more compassionate response is perhaps to go over to their map of the world and meet them there without judgement (with compassion).
And then we could lead them by the hand to the sunny side – if that’s where they want to go.
What’s the deeper impact of these behaviours?
Diving into someone else’s pain quickly teaches us that we get more attention (and perceived love) by feeling miserable. It’s one of the most common causes of “secondary gain” that I see with clients. Secondary gain is something we’re getting from our negative behaviour / thoughts / emotions, which is rewarding us enough to mean we don’t want to change (but we often don’t realise it!).
Asking someone to deny their pain and simply “be happy” doesn’t teach them how to get from “sad” to “happy” so, at best, they’ll always rely on you to show them the way. At worst, they’ll never make it.
I also saw a wonderful quote from Debbie Ford today (timing is always perfect!):
If we are willing to allow our dark side to be a part of the whole of who we are, we will find it comes equipped with all the power, skill, intelligence, and force needed to do great things in the world.
If we expect others to always pretend they are feeling happy, then we are asking them to potentially deny their shadow side – and possibly even denying them an opportunity for growth and healing.
Accepting and honouring our shadow aspects is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves – and humanity.
If we all learned to love those aspects of ourselves that we usually reject, then we would become more whole, feel more inner peace and be less likely to attack those around us, in order to deny our personal, inner pain.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if we could all just love ourselves – and each other – for who we are, warts and all, there would be no more war.
Yeah, yeah, soap box away and magic wand back in the cupboard till Christmas. 😉
So what is the answer?
How can we best show compassion for those who tell us they are suffering (for whatever reason), without either keeping them stuck or asking them to go into denial?
I have deliberately been a little provocative with this post, as I’d love to stimulate some discussion on this one. It’s such an important topic in our current times.
How about sharing your views via the comments box?