Healing From Pain: The Limitations of Empathy

I was raised to see everyone empathetically.

I was raised to believe that, if you knew someone’s story, their whole story, you would love them.

And, you know what? I still do believe that.

I believe that no one acts with the express purpose of causing harm and making the world worse off unless they are extremely hurt people who are acting out of pain or anger. I believe that everyone, end of day, wants to make the world a better place, wants to do good and help people, but sometimes they fall short because of ignorance, or mental illness (not to imply that everyone who has a mental illness will do nothing but harm in their lives; that most certainly isn’t the case).

I believe that the person who hurt me most in this world did not want to or intend to hurt me, but wound up doing it because he did not know better, and he did not have the capability to question what he was doing. I believe that, if he was able to fully comprehend what he has done to me, he would feel terrible about it.

But that being said, as much as I believe all of this, there is another side to all of this that still needs to be discussed.

Because the thing is, when someone has hurt us, especially when the pain is still raw and new, their intentions can only matter so much. And constantly taking their intentions into account does pose the risk of making the healing process that much harder for us.

I have known many people who have been hurt by people that they love, people that they know and understand, and so even when all is said and done and the two part ways, the survivor still does not want to come forward or confront their pain because they do not want to hurt the aggressor by doing so.

I have known many people who have been hurt by someone deeply, irrevocably, and yet they were so constantly bombarded with questions of, “but how could they have done anything? They’re such a good guy!” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean it; have you tried looking at it from their point of view?” that, eventually, they started to question their own perception of things. Maybe they’re right; maybe I am being unfair. Maybe I made it all up in my head, maybe they didn’t really do anything all that wrong. Maybe this is somehow my fault.

And as I said, I fully, truly believe that nobody is entirely evil and worthless. But sometimes, when you’re trying to cope with pain, you might need to forget that to a certain extent. Maybe you need to see things as black-or-white in order to heal.

Because when all we can see is how hard this is for them, how much they are losing because of their actions, it becomes more difficult for us to move on. If we feel guilty for our anger and pain, then we do not allow these natural emotions to run their course. If we become stuck in this idea that we were the ones who acted wrong (because, obviously, they didn’t mean it), then we never show them how their actions were wrong, and they never change or grow.

And, yes, in a perfect world, we would be able to accept that they did us wrong, but they are only human and they did it because of a very human fallacy. And maybe someday, we will be able to come to that conclusion and find comfort in it. But when the pain is still fresh, when we are still trying to sort through all of these messy emotions and we are still in the thick of dealing with it, maybe we need to separate ourselves from them a little bit, so that we may protect ourselves.

Now, that’s not to say that we should completely and totally discard them as worthless human beings, and that’s not to say that we use our pain to justify hurting other people. All that I am trying to say is that, while we should remain aware that they are a human being who deserves all the dignity and respect that the simple act of being human affords one, there is nothing wrong with separating ourselves from someone, even with hating them while the pain is fresh, if that is what you need to do to heal.

If hating them makes you realize that what they did wasn’t right and that you deserve better, then hate them. If hating them helps you heal and grow and get yourself out of a bad situation, then hate them. Do not feel guilty for putting yourself first when you need to, and do not feel like you are wrong for how you feel.

And hopefully someday that pain might become a little less fresh. Hopefully we’ll be able to see things from their perspective, to forgive them, not for their sake, but for our own peace of mind. Hopefully we’ll come to understand eventually that they were not pure evil, that they simply did the best that they could with what understanding they had at the time. But for the time being, do what you need to do to protect yourself, so that you may eventually reach that glorious “someday”.

 

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Me Too: Why We Need to Keep Talking About Sexual Assault and Harassment

If you have been active on social media lately, you might have become aware of the fact that every feed, dashboard, and home page has become an endless scroll of heartbreak. You sign on, and you receive an awful punch to the gut as you realize just how freaking common sexual assault and harassment is, all by reading those two little words that actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all those who have experienced it to post:

Me too.

Nearly every woman who I’m friends with or following on social media has posted it, and some men have as well. I have seen it posted by close friends, family, and people who I haven’t spoken to since high school. In some cases, it wasn’t a surprise, and in some cases, it was.

And all of a sudden, I find myself transported back to the first time that I realized sexual assault and harassment wasn’t just a horror that existed; it was commonplace. Back to being thirteen years old and discovering the statistic that one in four North American women would report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Back to telling a group of my three closest friends this statistic, and upon doing so, having it strike me for the first time that, if this was true, then chances were that one of us would be assaulted at some point in our lives. These were girls that I cared about too. Close friends of mine who I didn’t ever hope to see get hurt, not in any shape, way, or form.

This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was in that moment that I first realized just how astounding this statistic is. And the thing is, the statistic isn’t even where it ends. It is estimated that for every 100 rapes that occur, only 6 are reported to the police. I have known women who were raped, and then discouraged from seeking police involvement because it was her word against his and they didn’t think that they would be able to do anything with that. I have known women who were raped by their boyfriends, and then didn’t seek legal involvement because they cared about him, or because they didn’t realize at the time that what had happened really was rape. I have known people who were raped and then didn’t come forward because they didn’t want to deal with the shame that would inevitably follow.

In short, I have known too many people who have been raped. And none of these people even count toward the statistic of ‘one in four’. So, yeah, to this statistic that caused me such horror when I was thirteen years old, I call bullshit; the number is much, much higher than that.

And that’s just rape. This “me too” hashtag encompasses much more than that; it includes sexual harassment as well, like being groped without consent, having others make obscenely sexual comments toward us, or being offered unwelcome “rewards” (like raises, or a job) in exchange for sexual favours (etc.). And it seems like every woman has a story to tell in this regard, even if she hasn’t been sexually assaulted.

Let me take this moment to offer my own “me too” to this discussion.

So what do we do with this information? Right now, the internet is over saturated with “me too”s, but what do we do about that?

Well, personally, I think that this whole “me too” hashtag is actually starting us off in a good direction: we need to talk about it.

And I understand; not every survivor of sexual assault or harassment necessarily wants to talk about it right now. PTSD is a real and terrible issue that should be considered in all this, and nobody should feel pressured to talk about a trauma that they aren’t ready to discuss.

But, that being said, societally, we need to start talking about this, and we need to talk about it now. This isn’t just some horror that we hear about on the news; some senseless tragedy that we can’t understand but will never touch us in our cozy little lives. This does affect us. This affects every single one of us, in one way or another, whether you’re the survivor, or you’re the person who chooses not to hear the survivor out because you just don’t want to admit that there’s a problem. Either way, we’re all involved.

We need to start educating our children on consent. We need to start telling our boys that their worth doesn’t come from dominating others, or that they’re any weaker or less manly because they were assaulted. We need to start telling our girls that it doesn’t matter what they were wearing, or if they were drinking, or where they were at the time; they still didn’t deserve it, and they still deserve justice, or at least the right to feel safe in public.

We need to stop doubting survivors when they come forward. We need to listen to their stories when they try to speak out. We need to encourage others to come forward, and we need to create a safe space for them.

And this “me too” hashtag is a great idea, if for no other reason than that we can’t log onto social media without coming across it right now. It breaks my heart to see how many people have dealt with all this, because I wish we lived in a world where people (and predominately women, femme, or female-identifying people) felt safe to go out in public, or go to work, or even take the fucking bus. But at the same time, this hashtag is a great method of forcing us to realize just how common this issue is, how it has affected so many. It helps us to realize that we aren’t alone in all this, and that’s a wonderful thing for people who have been silenced (which many survivors have) by society.

But at the same time, I hope that this conversation won’t end with this hashtag. It’s great that we’re talking, but we need to keep talking; we need to keep drawing attention to the issue. Because only by spreading awareness and continuing the discussion can we enact real change.

Are You Unlucky?

Sometimes, I do want to think that things are outside of my control.

And I’m not necessarily talking about situationally, well-I-did-all-I-could-now-all-I-can-do-is-wait-for-the-results kind of outside of my control. I’m talking about higher powers than teachers or employers or friends and family. I’m talking about luck, this idea that some people do well in this world because some force outside of their control has decided that their worthy.

I think we all like the idea of being lucky, and we’re consoled by the idea of being unlucky. When something goes wrong, then that’s okay; we just weren’t lucky, there was nothing else we could have done. When something goes right, then that’s great; we’re lucky, and things are going to keep going right for us. Either way, the result was outside of our control; we didn’t necessarily have to do anything to earn it, we just earned it by way of existing. For some people, this might be a comforting thought.

But at the same time, it isn’t really true.

Not everything is always within our control, of course; sometimes things just happen, whether they’re bad or good. Sometimes we are subject to the choices that others have made. Sometimes we lose something, or someone. Sometimes we can control what happens to us, but not always. Not often, in fact, and trying to control everything will only make the world that much more frustrating for us.

Life is a game with too many players, too many chances, for us to be in control all the time.

So when bad things happen to us that we can’t control, why wouldn’t that be because we were unlucky?

Well, in my opinion, it’s because these bad things don’t necessarily have to be bad things. We sometimes get so lost in this idea that life has dealt us a bad hand, life is being so unfair, we are so unlucky and doomed to be unlucky forever, that really, we create our own suffering. We’re so focused on the idea that we’re unlucky, and so that is all we see: terrible luck, everywhere. But the truth is, bad things happen to everyone, at one point in their lives or another. And maybe this is a rough patch in your life. Maybe things are a little bit harder right now than usual. But things like that happen to everyone at one point or another; you have not been singled out by the universe.

And more than that, I am firmly of the belief that even bad things have their purpose and meaning. And, yes, I know that can be a controversial statement for some people: people want to know what the meaning for some of the world’s most terrible crimes can possibly be, and I don’t have a blanket answer for every single scenario. But what I do know if that, in my life, my greatest suffering has been used for a purpose. I learned from my mistakes, lessons that I never could have even imagined if I hadn’t gone through them. I took my pain and I used it to relate to other people in a similar scenario, to help them. I do not regret a single tear that I have shed, because they all led me to where I am today.

So, ultimately, I don’t know if the bad things in our lives can necessarily be labelled simply as ‘bad’, not when they have their good sides as well. They most certainly hurt, yes, and they might require time to heal from, but they don’t have to be entirely negative aspects in our lives.

So when you fail, when you get knocked down and suffer loss and betrayal, can it be said that that was entirely bad luck? Is the scenario bad because it caused pain, pain that you may eventually heal from, stronger and smart than ever? Or is the scenario bad because you have decided it is bad? Are you unable to see the potential growth and change that it can offer you because you are too single-mindedly focused on the pain?

Flowers grow from mud, after all, but not if you stunt their growth and ignore them.

And I know, the world isn’t even as simple as all this: saying that all you need to do is change your perspective and focus on the good is all fine and dandy in a world where mental illness doesn’t exist. But, unfortunately, we live in a world where it does, and depression and anxiety sometimes does all it can to obscure our vision of the good. But, again, from my experience, that doesn’t mean that the good isn’t there, and that doesn’t mean that you can’t train yourself, try, to see it. All you need is time, patience, and practice: just keep looking for it, even when it seems impossible.

And, of course, you aren’t always going to see it, even if you don’t deal with mental illness. Sometimes the pain is still too fresh, too raw. Sometimes the good is hard to find, or far away, waiting to be discovered at another time. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to look for it.

Finding the good won’t magically turn the situation good, either. I’m not trying to say that we will consistently have ‘good luck’ throughout the rest of our lives if we do this. All that I’m saying is that we won’t consistently have ‘bad luck’; we’ll just be. Sometimes, things will hurt, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t grow from it and that doesn’t mean that all of our lives are pain. Sometimes, bad things happen, but that doesn’t mean that we are unlucky or that only bad things ever happen to us. That’s just the way that life is; messy and complicated, but not awful. Not so long as we train ourselves to see the brighter sides that do, most certainly, exist.

 

Giving Others Your Light

There is this quote that I have seen bounced around on social media, by an unknown author:

“Good people are like candles; they burn themselves up to give others light”.

There’s something about this idea that struck me, and it has to be more than a somewhat accurate metaphor.

Perhaps it’s this idea of self-sacrifice (to this degree) being connected solely to good people, the implication being that, if you aren’t willing to douse your light for another, then you aren’t a good person. And perhaps this wasn’t the author’s intent when they produced the quote; more than anything, this quote strikes me as a lamentation about how unfair life is, that good people are harmed by doing good for others. But the idea that the only way to be considered a ‘good’ person is by putting out your light is, admittedly, an interesting one to me.

Or perhaps this quote struck me because I have known people who did, in fact, burn themselves up to give others light. I have known people who gave everything that they had, all of their time and energy, and it still wasn’t enough.

I have known people who do, in fact, expect others to sacrifice their light for them, and dismiss those people as ‘not good enough’ if they spare a little light for themselves.

But, personally speaking, I do not think that giving others everything you have, right down to the meat and marrow, is the only way to be a good person. In fact, I don’t even think it’s healthy.

This quote relies on an idea that we have in our society, that you need to give people your 100 percent greatest effort at all times, especially if they are family, or if you have made a commitment to them such as marriage. If you don’t do this, then you aren’t trying hard enough. If trying harms you emotionally, then that’s your problem that you need to work on, because that person needs your attention. Society has decided that you owe them that.

But the thing is, a relationship between two people should not be draining.

You should not feel like you are a candle, melting away to give light to others; ideally, you should feel like the moon: solid, stable, giving light effortlessly and receiving light in return.

Remaining in a toxic relationship and allowing the other person to drain you away to nothing does not make you a good person, and walking out of that relationship does not make you a bad one. These really are not moral questions. If someone is hurting you, or making you feel like you are diminishing, then sometimes the best thing we can do is walk away, for our own sake. Because not everyone in this world is going to make us feel this way; sometimes certain people just aren’t good for us, and it doesn’t matter if they are family or if we have made some sort of commitment to them in the past. Sometimes, the only thing that good people can do is leave.

And maybe that does mean that the other person has to go without light for a little bit, but they will find it again, even if they have to create their own. But if you allow yourself to burn out completely, you may never get yourself back. You only have one you, so value it.

There is nothing wrong with putting yourself first from time to time. There is nothing wrong with needing your own light for a bit. We put too much emphasis on giving everything we have to others, that sometimes, we forget that we need to give something to ourselves as well, and this doesn’t make us bad people. It just makes us human.

 

Is Happiness Really a Choice?

I think we’ve all heard the phrase “happiness is a choice” tossed around every now and again. Sometimes we hear it used seriously, by people who actually, genuinely believe that it is true. Sometimes we hear it used sarcastically, by people who are struggling, in one way or another, and cannot imagine how such a thing is possible.

And I have to admit, coming from the perspective of someone who has dealt with depression and who, chances are, will always live with anxiety, I do come to this phrase with a slightly… different perspective from what might be considered the average person who takes it seriously.

I mean, I know that happiness sometimes isn’t a viable choice. When my depression returns, and my mood takes a shocking dip into not-okay territory, I can’t instantly stop that just because I don’t want it to happen. If I could, I would do it, because you know what? Being depressed isn’t fun. I don’t like waking up and wondering what the point of my life is. I don’t like feeling like I haven’t contributed anything to the world, or like nobody would really care if I stopped being here. Those are all feelings that I would choose to avoid if I could.

The same goes for my anxiety. I mean, have you ever had a panic attack? They’re embarrassing at best and exhausting at worst, and most of the time, even I’m aware that they’re about nothing. I know the world won’t end if I don’t finish this project on time, or if I take on something new, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t worry me.

That’s just the nature of living with a mental illness; you can’t just banish it because you don’t want to deal with it. Trust me, I wish I could. I have wasted hours, even days of my life, wishing that I could just think and be like any neurotypical person would.

But at the same time, I still sort of believe that happiness is a bit of a choice.

And I know, I know; what I just said sounds incredibly contradictory, and like I’m turning my back on my mentally ill brothers and sisters. But hear me out:

While not everyone who uses this phrase will understand that happiness isn’t an immediate choice for people living with depression, anxiety, or any other breed of mental illness, I don’t think that means that it can’t be a long-term choice.

We can’t banish a depressive episode because we don’t want it. We can’t suppress a panic attack because we choose to. But what we can do, what we do have power over, is how we choose to react to the fact that we have these issues.

You have two options when you’re faced with these issues: you can choose to seek help, in whatever way that might mean. You can try to talk to people, whether that be a friend, a family member, a doctor, a therapist, a support group, a journal, an online blog, your guinea pig, or whatever. And, yes, sometimes this can be a bit outside of your control too: sometimes the people we choose to talk to don’t understand us, but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying. And if we feel comfortable and if we can afford it, there is also the option of medication, which has been proven to improve the lives of countless people living with mental illness – not by making them neurotypical, necessarily, but by making the more dangerous and harmful parts of their mental illness easier to deal with. Not only that, but there are several other options that have been proven to make life easier for people living with mental illness, such as healthy eating, exercise, and meditation.

Or, you can take the second option: you can choose to suppress it. You can not talk about it. You can not seek help. You can never awknowledge that there might be something causing you to feel the way that you do, and as a consequence, you can continue to suffer under the weight of your mental illness. That is your choice.

And I know – trust me, I understand that sometimes, the lines between these two choices get blurred when you’re dealing with a mental illness, especially if you haven’t been diagnosed yet or you’re still questioning whether the way you feel is valid or not. When you’re depressed or anxious, your mind – which is, I repeat, ill – might repeatedly tell you that you’re wrong, that you’re just looking for attention, that there’s no way to help you and you should just give up. But there are options for people living with mental illness. If one doesn’t work, then you try another until you find something that does. People can and have found ways to make their life not only bearable, but happy and worthwhile, despite dealing with mental illness.

We talk about people who are depressed or anxious or otherwise mentally ill as though there is no possibility that they can ever lead a happy, fulfilling life, but that just isn’t the case. I might get depressed from time to time, I might have to make a point of moving gingerly around my anxiety lest I set it off, but that doesn’t mean that, overall, I’m not happy with my life. I am. I am taking strides to make life easier for me in the long run, and I am working toward my goals and dreams as best I can.

And when we say ‘happiness is a choice’, I think we too often confuse it for ‘constant happiness is possible’. It isn’t. Even if you aren’t dealing with a mental illness, there are going to be times when life, quite frankly, sucks. Sometimes, people die, or tragedies strike, or our relationships crumble, or we get let go of jobs. And when that happens, of course you are going to be sad, of course you are going to be hurt and angry and resentful. But the difference between people who choose happiness and the people who don’t, is that those who choose happiness eventually try to do something about their bitterness, and even if it doesn’t work immediately (heck, it very well might not), they do eventually let go of it and move on. Those who choose otherwise don’t. They hold onto their pain like a lifeline, feeling justified in being cruel and miserable because life wasn’t fair to them.

I have known too many people who have become addicted to misery, who feel lost without something to complain about and feel slighted from. And by knowing these people, I came to the conclusion that I never wanted to be that. So, while it isn’t always easy, while it’s not consistently possible at every moment of the day, I work hard for my happiness.

And that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have panic attacks that make me miserable and pull the proverbial rug out from under my feet. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have depressive episodes that last for days, sometimes even weeks. All that means is that, when I hit rock bottom, my goal is always to pick myself up and start climbing again. And maybe all that is difficult and exhausting, and maybe it sometimes does feel impossible. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile.

I don’t choose constant happiness because that isn’t an option; what I choose is overall happiness.