When I was 20, someone close to me had a fatal accident. In wishing me condolences, several people told me, “I know how you feel,” shared, “I know how you feel, I [insert example of loss from their life]” or, blathered my (not) favourite, “I know exactly how you feel.”
It was their way of empathizing and relating. I understand that now, and I understood it then. Still, each time I wanted to respond to their politeness with an impolite two-word expletive that ends in “you.”
[I’ll let you think about that for a moment.]
I wouldn’t do it, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to.
I’d silently think, “No, you don’t know how I feel. You didn’t have a relationship with [this person].
Even if you did, no one else who knew him knows how the others feel. I don’t know how his parents feel because I can’t know what it’s like to lose a son. I don’t know how his brother feels or the friend who saw him last. Each of his friends is grieving differently because they experienced their relationship with him differently. No, you don’t know, [insert name]” – But I didn’t say any of it. That would be impolite and awkward, and grief is awkward enough.
Because of this experience – my knowing only that I don’t know how anyone feels, I don’t try to empathize with others in similar situations. I share words of condolence, and I give them the space to grieve in their own way. I rarely give advice, but when I do, my standard advice is something like,
“It’s okay to want to tell well-meaning people to [insert expletive], including me right now.”
I sometimes assure them that everyone grieves in their own way, that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do it and that all of their feelings are valid.
There’s a reason I’ve just shared this with all of you:
Today, all of this came to mind while reading the book The Gift (2020) by Holocaust Survivor Edith Egar. The context was different, but the message is relevant.
Chapter 2 begins with an example of how when her children were young, Egar lacked the ability to be present with feelings, and she didn’t know how to let her children have their feelings. Egar says,
Sometimes I do try to empathize through relating and sometimes I do offer platitudes.
However, when we “empathize” by relating our own stories, we make it about us. It’s not always intentional, but it’s a risk. Sometimes the other person ends up having to the person doing the empathizing. It’s not a good position to be in.
When a parent turns a child’s pain back on themself, making about them on and their own pain, it can be an example of narcissism. depending on their response to their child’s pain, it can be a form of gaslighting.
When parents dismiss their children’s feelings – perhaps avoiding them with offers of food as Egar did, the children learn to bottle up those feelings. In the paragraph previous to the one in the screenshot, Egar shared that her child’s sadness made Egar “sad and uncomfortable” and so she led her daughter by the hand into the kitchen, made her a chocolate milkshake, and served her a big piece of Hungarian seven-layer chocolate cake with unsalted butter.
We all know or have heard of people who use food to cover up their feelings. Addictions to food, alcohol and drugs are often the result of self-soothing. Egar’s example shows where this self-destructive behavior can originate.
Some months ago during a meditation my inner voice told informed me that I don’t always give people the space to experience their feelings. Instead, I jump to wanting to make them feel better. I often want to give their situation a silver lining, a bright side, an “It is what it is”. It’s in my nature to be nurturing.
However, I realized that in skipping to trying to make them feel better, I’m taking away their need to feel, process and express their feelings. Trying to cheer others up is dismissive.
And who is it for? Is it about nurturing them? Does it act on a need to make them feel better or make myself feel better?
Am I simply trying to avoid the awkwardness of someone else’s feelings?
Something to think about.
Although this isn’t really ADHD-related, it can be when we consider emotional dysregulation. So many of us feel our feelings strongly. I discussed that in a previous blog post
Read The Gift. It certainly is a gift.