Once there was an 8-year-old boy named Timmy. He was a good boy who always did what his mother asked him to do. She trusted Timmy and gave him age appropriate freedom. One day Timmy said to his mother, ‘Bye, Mom, I am going bike riding with Johnny”. His mother replied, “OK, Timmy. Just be home by 6:30 PM for dinner.” The afternoon passed…. 6:30 PM came and went. His mother was starting to worry, because Timmy was never late. 6:45 came and went. She was starting to panic. Then at 7:00 PM Timmy walked in the door looking dejected. Frantic and angry, his mother exclaimed, “Timmy, where have you been? I have been so worried and you are half an hour late!” “Oh Mommy”, Timmy said sadly, “Johnny’s bike broke and I had to help him.” “Well, how can you help him with his bike, Timmy? You don’t know how to fix a bike.” Timmy replied, “I had to help him cry.”
Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, shared this parable at a talk I attended with a dear friend many years ago. I had gone to hear him speak with my friend who was dying of breast cancer because we were both trying to make sense of what was happening to her. Kushner’s story was powerful for us at the time and remains powerful for me today personally and with my professional work with clients.
When someone else is suffering we are often tempted to try and fix the problem. When we try to fix the problem, though, instead of just feeling with the other person, we are often trying to avoid our own discomfort. And although we care about the other person’s pain, it often feels too unpleasant to feel the other’s pain so we try to assuage this by becoming the fixer. The result is often that the other person, who is already in pain, feels misunderstood and dismissed. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson write in their new book, The Yes Brain, that: “empathy is rarely about giving advice or finding a silver lining. It’s much more about listening, being present, and sharing feelings.”
The last thing we would want someone in pain to feel is that he has to take care of us. If we cannot tolerate being with his hard feelings, then, in essence, that person may feel that he has to protect us by not sharing his truth. We want to give that person permission to have and share difficult feelings. We give that permission by being with him at this difficult time. If he knows we can handle it he is more likely to be open, honest, and genuine. When Timmy sat and cried with Johnny, Johnny had permission to feel sad about his bike. That feeling of attunement can feel like a warm blanket when we are in pain. That is healing.
If we are the ones in pain, it is also alright to ask this of those we love. If we are sharing a painful experience and the other person starts giving us advice, or telling us there is nothing to worry about, and that is not what we need at the time, we can let that person know we just need her to listen to us, to be present with us. We don’t need solutions.
Listening and being present with the other is important whether the other is our friend, partner, or child. It may be especially hard to just listen, however, in the role of parent. As parents, we often feel like we have to solve our children’s problems; make things better for them. Our children need to know, though, that we can just be with their hard feelings, that we can hear whatever they need to say. When our children know we can tolerate whatever they need to tell us, they are more likely to share difficult feelings with us. That makes it possible, then, for us to provide support and eventual guidance.
Perhaps, just being with someone in pain feels like it is not enough. But, it is not easy to be able to cry with someone we love without fixing the suffering. It is the listening, the being with that can be the most healing. It communicates that the person is seen, heard, and understood. And what feels better than that?
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist