I’ve long held the belief that I’m good at being there for others. My tendency, as a recovering rescuer, to consider the needs of others can be useful. Plus, I’m naturally empathetic so I get it, you know?
Ha, the arrogance! There’s actually a lot I still have to learn, and nothing has highlighted this more than trying to be there for my mother in the moments when she was sickest.
When someone I love is suffering, I tend to want to rush in and fix it. It causes me pain to see them in a bad state, so I do things I hope will make them feel better as quickly as possible. Honestly though? I do this mainly to ease my own discomfort. I struggle just to sit in the space with them and let it be, exactly as it is.
The thing is, you can’t make people feel better and you certainly can’t fix them. So it doesn’t take long until I lose patience, switch off, turn away. Or equally appalling, I compensate for the helplessness and/or fear I’m really feeling by acting like I have all the answers and I know what’s best – they just need to do what I say and all will be well.
I’m learning that really being there for someone, really being with them, requires holding a certain amount of spaciousness within yourself. I’m learning that in those times that someone needs me to hold their hand and whisper reassurances, I have to turn towards them and away from everything else (my plans, expectations, assumptions, judgements), to be here now with them – fully present – instead of creating some story about the past or future. I’m learning that I need to surrender: surrender control (an illusion anyway), surrender my desire for a happy outcome, surrender my ideas about what being there for someone looks like. In other words, I need to let go of the person i think I am and sit with them in the space that remains. That place where everything and nothing exists.
Surrending is not the same as getting stuck in the mud with them, taking on their suffering as my own. As an empathetic rescuer (is there any other kind of rescuer?) I have experienced what it’s like to give myself over completely to [my perception of] another’s person’s experience and make it my own. That’s self-abuse.
No, I’m learning that the healthy, self-loving way is to first ask myself: can I really be there for my friend right now? Can I let go of the things I need to in order to be the space in which we can sit together?
Sometimes the answer will be ‘no’ or ‘maybe later’. I’m learning it’s okay to honour what I flat out can’t or am not ready to do, rather than force myself ‘for them’. It’s good to be honest about what I’m able to give at any moment, to accept my current limitations. Because when I push past it, to pretend I’ve thrown out my rubbish when I’m actually hiding it in my pocket, the space I hold for someone else is cluttered with what I couldn’t let go of and it becomes a safety hazard.
I cringe looking back on some of the moments in my life when I believed I was being a supportive friend. In those times though, I wasn’t really listening to the person I was with, I wasn’t really present. I was busy watching myself perform and clapping myself on the back for it. I was acting the part of what I thought a good friend was, and I hoped my performance was convincing.
So how do I know when I’m being a real friend? When I’m not congratulating myself. When I’m not on the outside looking in. When I’m not busy censoring myself or thinking in a hyperconscious way (‘was that the right response?’, ‘oh shit, they’re crying – should I give them a hug or just keep sitting here?’, ‘I hope they finish talking soon, I need to get to that store before it closes’).
I know it’s real when I’m right there with them, simply being.