“you can’t possibly know I feel” & other ways to prevent kindness & understanding

I am often interested when people reject kindness, empathy, compassion, sympathy or help by saying “you can’t know how I feel because you haven’t gone through exactly what I have so you can’t possibly understand or help me”. I have never had erectile dysfunction, for the obvious reason, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know what it is like to have my body sometimes not work and the fear and helplessness which can happen as a result.

Sometimes another will have had to “walk in our shoes” to completely understand our distress but not always. Suffering is universal and the often lighthearted throwaway line “I feel your pain” has a lot of truth.

Perhaps it is part of the human condition to see our problems as unique beyond others understanding and trust only those who have our same experiences. A result of that faulty thinking however is feeling shame which can lead to thinking something to death believing that if we just understand it, whatever it is, that it will change on its own and the discomfort will go away.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has come to my office saying “I know what I am doing wrong but I just keep repeating it and can’t seem to change it.” I listen and hear that they often do know but the problem is that they don’t know the meaning of why they continue to do the same thing over expecting different results.

One of the things American society has is a wonderful “can do” spirit but much of the time it is purely intellectual which isn’t enough to effect real personal change. When someone comes to see me I will often ask in a very non-specific way “how do you get your needs met?” I get many interesting answers: “Are you asking me if I am needy?” “I don’t have any needs”. “Having needs is selfish”. “Why would I have needs, there wasn’t anyone around when I was growing up to meet them.” Pretty sobering but revealing answers.

Part of our society and the cultures which comprise it have the need to dismiss and devalue uncomfortable feelings, sad, angry, hurt ones, “it could be worse I could have cancer” and the bad feelings just stay around and then come out in the form of destructive anger and other harmful behaviors. Yes, thankfully you don’t have cancer but you still feel bad and allowing yourself to acknowledge it in a reasonable way and place doesn’t mean you are a needy wimp. I once worked with an 18 year old man and he told me that if he talked about his unhappy feelings that he would be a “weeny”. Small, ineffectual, vulnerable and way too risky. We figured out the meaning of his bad feelings and some ways for him to express them which made him feel better and not weeny-like at all.

So even if someone hasn’t had the exact experience you have but you see them as non critical and supportive then give them a chance. This does not take the place of professional help from a psychotherapist but I have had many good therapy sessions with patients who shared a conversation with a friend with me which enlightened and helped them and proved useful in our clinical work.

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