How To Love Someone Without Taking on Their Emotional Baggage

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“Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”

–Carol Dweck

Unless you’re a sadist and find joy in others’ misery, it’s hard to see people hurting. Although I don’t personally enjoy other people’s pain, I happen to have picked a career that puts me in contact with suffering all the time. Sometimes pain and suffering looks like it’s self-inflicted, other times it appears to be overly exaggerated, and on some occasions it looks appropriate under the circumstances. Either way, I once found it my mission to remove pain and suffering from other people’s lives once and for all, no matter the circumstance. “Come to me and I will find a way to make you feel whole, happy, and better once again,” I thought naively. When family, friends, and work burned me out, I thought I was just becoming desensitized, numb, and unsympathetic. Feeling defeated, I wondered, “What happened to that once kind hearted soul?” I felt beaten down and alone, like there was no room for my own issues; I certainly didn’t feel like a hero. I believed that my mission was to help people, so I worked hard at trying to improve at caring for other people by taking on their issues as my own, thinking that was the best road to take. However, the harder I worked, the more it backfired on me. I started feeling more like the villain than the hero.

I was losing myself in other people’s issues, by seeing their problems as my responsibility, and believing it was my mission to end their suffering. I learned that people are more than happy to dump their stuff on you if they know they can count on you to deal with it for them. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s hard dealing with your own stuff; that’s why so many people sweep it right under the rug. I used to think, “Sorry, buddy. That rug has to come up eventually, so don’t bother trying to hide stuff under it that you never want to see again.” Whether you’re a family member, a friend, or even a therapist, you can’t take on, fix, or remove others’ suffering. That’s something people have to do for themselves. Otherwise you’re just another broom sweeping someone else’s stuff for them. Things might look nice for them on the surface, but underneath it all is a pile of crap. So what do you do when someone comes to you for help? Hang up the cell phone, walk away, and tell them to deal with their own stuff? That doesn’t seem so helpful either.

Being Present

“Nothing is more precious than being in the present moment. Fully alive, fully aware.”

–Thich Nhat Hanh

There’s a balance between carrying another person’s luggage and just leaving it abandoned for security to call an alert of suspicious material. The balance comes from . . . wait for it . . . remaining present with someone without thinking you need to solve or fix anything for them. It comes from being there without picking up the broom or the heavy luggage, and being okay with exploring the presence of their pain without needing to eliminate it. That removes the burden from you, as recognizing you don’t have to solve it actually helps the situation more in the long run. The richest experiences in our lives don’t come from removing discomfort for ourselves and others; they result from us remaining present and listening to the story—doing nothing, and doing it in the service of ourselves and others. I was chasing a deep-seated desire to feel needed, look like the hero, and make somewhat of a contribution. But I was going about it in the wrong way, thinking that suffering shouldn’t be part of the human condition.

Life can be hard. Let me rephrase that. Life is hard. It’s not easy dealing with your stuff, and on the journey toward happiness, there’s always going to be some sort of struggle. People encounter a lot of disappointment, failure, and pain. Rough times will come, but they will also pass. Don’t feel like you need to get overly involved in other people’s lives to make things “better” for them. Being a good person isn’t an elusive process of forgetting about yourself to serve others; that kind of a process involves forgetting about yourself and your needs, which leads to a feeling of being burnt out. You end up knowing other people more than you know yourself. You invest so much in them that you don’t know who you are anymore. That’s not a fulfilling place to be.

Another disappointment is that a lot of people unfortunately don’t want to do anything about their own issues, preferring to just complain instead. They stop working on themselves and their own goals out of fear, thinking, “What if things don’t work out anyway?” Continuing to be their cheerleader and trying to help by taking on their issues won’t push them to change. Why would they change? They know you’re on top of it.

If you really want to help others, you need to invest in yourself. Being there for others doesn’t have to define you as a person. Instead of being concerned with making other people happy, it’s time you start getting concerned with what makes you happy. Then you can lead as an example. Setting a good example is a lot more illuminating and powerful than trying to be Mr. or Ms. Fixit.

Accept Problems as Part of Life

Life isn’t about getting rid of, erasing, or running away from our problems. It’s about learning to live within the mess and manage the best we can during the difficult times. The trick to making life more manageable is recognizing how we tend to think about our problems and how we deal with them. I love the saying by Epictetus, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” I used to think that meant fixing problems; I would fight my way through things, always believing there was a solution to everything. As I’ve evolved over time, I’ve come to understand the saying differently. I see now that we have no control over many of the situations that happen to us; the only thing we can control is how we deal with them.

I no longer react to matters with a need to fix everything that arises. Things get messy sometimes, and that’s okay. Let other people’s lives get messy. Allow them to be in pain. Don’t try to change anything. Accept life as it is: a complicated, beautiful mess that somehow always works out in the end. Trust in the process. Don’t push. Let it be. Be there for others by being aware of yourself. Be present. Listen. And know that nothing needs fixing, and things can’t be fixed with force anyway.

Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier

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