Facing other people's pain

Sometimes, it’s very hard for people to acknowledge other people’s suffering.

It sometimes follows this kind of pattern (I picked arbitrary names to make it easier to read):

  • Sam is suffering in some major way
  • Otto finds this incredibly painful to witness
  • Otto can’t fix the problem that is causing Sam pain
  • Otto pressures Sam into reassuring him by pretending that he’s feeling ok and it’s not so bad
  • This allows Otto to ignore what’s going on, and to not have to be upset about Sam’s pain anymore
  • Sam’s situation gets worse, but Otto gets to feel better

It’s easy to fall into treating someone this way without realizing it, especially if you’re in a helping profession. If your identity is centered around being helpful to others, it can be very painful to acknowledge important things you can’t fix. It’s still really important to acknowledge them, because otherwise you end up hurting people. It’s really important to develop emotional coping skills to be able to acknowledge pain that you can’t fix.

If other people are doing this to you, it can sometimes be disorienting, especially when the people who do it are otherwise genuinely helpful. It’s really degrading when others pressure you to pretend to be ok so that they can feel better. Sometimes, this is hard to detect clearly. Sometimes, people are making it much better than it’s ever been — and you’re genuinely grateful for that — but at the same time, it’s still pretty awful, and they want you to convince them that everything is wonderful.

Most people experience both sides of this dynamic at some point in their life. Whichever side of it you’re on, it helps to remember that it’s a thing, and that it’s not ok. People shouldn’t pressure others to pretend they’re ok when they’re not.