Showing Up

nelson mandela quote

I read a blog post written by someone who was very disturbed by a comment she received on one of her posts. She moderates her comments and never posted the one in question but she wanted feedback on if she handled the situation the right way. The commenter told her that he was going through a rough time and that he was considering taking his life. She was understandably freaked out and while she considered emailing him directly, she ultimately chose to ignore it altogether. The situation bothered her so much that she even considered not blogging anymore. What I found interesting is that of all the comments people left in response to her dilemma, only one person suggested that she had missed an opportunity to reach out to the man and to suggest that he seek professional help. All of the other comments echoed the same thought that she was right to protect herself from a possibly unhinged stranger.

Now, I’m not one to judge her choice to ignore the man’s comment. I haven’t exactly reacted lovingly to strangers myself when caught off guard (you can read all about it here). What her reaction brought up in me was the years I spent being intolerant of other people’s suffering. I still struggle with it because often my first reaction when someone is in pain is to ask what is this going to require of me? I’m a lot better at showing up than I used to be but it’s not my first instinct.

One of my biggest regrets from my drinking days was being completely intolerant of other peoples’ pain. I couldn’t just sit with a friend and hold her hand while she cried. I missed out on cultivating deep friendships because I either turned away from friends in their moment of need or I tried to solve their problems for them.

Lisa at Sober Identity wrote a great post on why we tend to veil the truth. She talks about how we can’t be comfortable with other people knowing us if we’re not comfortable with our own truths. Not only did I avoid my own truth while I was drinking, I wasn’t comfortable with anyone else’s.

I had to try to fix your problems because I was tied to the outcome. If you failed because you didn’t take my advice, then it meant that all the pain and suffering I had endured in my life was for nothing. Something good had to come from my years of struggling and that something was my ability to fix you. If you didn’t take my advice, I washed my hands of you because clearly you didn’t really want my help. And if you did take my advice, I was terrified because who the hell am I to be giving advice? I was barely holding on myself (not that I’d ever let you see that). I’d distance myself so that I didn’t have to see my counsel fail you. If by chance things worked out for you, I’d take the credit because it was clearly my experience and wisdom that helped you turn the corner. Whew! That was a close one.

It was important for me to appear knowledgeable and I knew just enough psychobabble to convince you that I had my shit together. If your problem fell outside my areas of expertise, well then, you were on your own. I’d pull away from you until you resolved your crisis and I could safely be in your presence without risking my fragile emotional well being. I’ve been hurt by people like you too many times before.

I didn’t know how to accept friendship either. Sitting with someone through their pain and distancing yourself from them because you can’t tolerate it can look the same to someone with an addicted mind. I know because I often couldn’t tell the difference. I can look back now and see when someone was letting me work through my thoughts and feelings without trying to offer solutions but at the time, I resented them for it. Clearly they didn’t love me enough to try to fix my life. Yet, if they offered advice, I most certainly wouldn’t take it because I needed them to be wrong. I needed to be different, an individual, alien. No one could share my pain because I was unique. It was exhausting to want to be connected to people but feel constantly compelled to put up the armor that kept me separate.

I have a friend that I’m not close with anymore, mainly because I turned away from him when he was suffering. He endured an unimaginable loss followed by a deep depression and suicide attempt. I felt helpless to do anything for him so I did nothing. The pain I felt over his suffering was so agonizing to me that I couldn’t bear to be with him. I felt unusually pained by his situation because it brought up so many of my own fears and demons. I couldn’t sit with not being able to fix him and I couldn’t sit with the feelings that his circumstances brought up in me so I walked away from our friendship. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

Now days, I try not to offer advice as much as share something that happened to me that might be relatable. I don’t hold on to the outcome because I have enough respect for my friends to trust that they know what’s best for them. If I’m asked directly, I might give my opinion but I don’t try to fix anyone or anything. Trying to take away someone’s pain robs them of the gifts that suffering can bring. An unavoidable truth is that we can’t wholeheartedly appreciate love, understanding, gratitude and connection unless we’ve experienced the dark side. Mostly, I just try to show up. Sometimes, a friend just needs me to say I see you.

I love this video below of two young men trying to make homeless people smile. They’re not trying to save the world. They’re not even trying to change anyone’s life. They’re showing what it looks like to connect to someone in need with a banana, a t-shirt, a bottle of water and a hand shake. They’re saying I see you.

21 Comments on “Showing Up

  1. When we’re not well on any level (physical, emotional, etc), we hardly hear anyone else: our own voice is too loud. The self-perceived need.

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  2. Wow, Karen, this is a wonderful post. You write about things in such a way that I say, “Oh yeah, I never thought about it,but I do that too!” So thank you for opening my eyes to choices that are not always obvious, but are important to recognize!

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  3. Thank you for your honesty! Looking deeply at my motives is hard, especially when I am acknowledging selfish or fearful traits in myself. When I am connected to my compassion, I also struggle with knowing how to help or when to accept that being a witness is the best service I can give. The question of “could I have done more?” will paralyze me if I let it, and that serves no one.

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    • That question can paralyze me too. I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes but I’m really not good at receiving help sometimes so I second guess myself! Like you said, being a witness is sometimes all we can do.

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  4. Well said. I do believe until I learn to be with my own pain, anger, sadness, joy, delight, etc. it is extremely difficult for me to be with anyone else’s. I think we have to give to ourselves first before we have the reality to give to others. This is a very good read, Karen.

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    • I agree. When I’m being particularly good to myself, I’m more giving and empathetic. When I’m overly critical of myself, I’m more critical of others. Thank you Brenda!

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  5. Karen, this was a beautiful post. I could relate to it so much…the need to be right and in being right fix someone else and then have that fixing validate my life. I was a great friend, but I expected an awful lot in return and when people couldn’t give it or, more often, give to me in the way I wanted it, I would write them off in a huff, or slink off in a self-loathing mess.

    I thought my life was unfixable, therefore if I tried and failed to fix yours, oh well. I had a very lazy approach to all of this.
    And then I got sober. In sobriety I have jumped through those hoops of trying to save the world, and am finally now understanding that the only world to be saved is mine, and that then I can shine as a beacon of hope to others. (or not!)

    Now I do just show up and sit with folks, in my grief practice, in my sobriety practice. I have no answers besides MY answers and those are not one size fits all. I am learning to let go of the outcomes but still do the work, hoping for the best and accepting whatever happens, knowing that I didn’t cause it nor can I fix it. There is great freedom in that, and there is TRUE compassion, which I want so badly to cultivate in my life. Just sit, just be, just listen and just hold the hope that things will get better for that person….that is what I can do. That is what it looks like you are doing….and why I follow your blog and your posts. Always something true and good here, always something to make me think or nod in agreement.

    Thanks for this

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    • It is so hard to just sit with someone else’s pain, especially if you’re close to them. I think I know what you mean about cultivating true compassion where you’re equals, where there’s no pity and where the deeper meaning of it all isn’t always understood or ever will be. It’s so, so hard to not want to run or fix it. Thank you for writing your blog and for reading mine. It means a lot.

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  6. Did you steal one of my posts from my drafts folder? Ach…well, it doesn’t exist, but if it did, it wouldn’t nearly be anywhere as fantastic as this. You read my mind / experience / soul on this one. How dare you! lol. This is groovy stuff, and I can relate to all of it on all levels. now, I could have easily just gneo line by line in your post and say “I understand” or “me too!” or “brilliant”. But that would take a lot of time, and really not illuminate anything other than your uncanny way of reaching this wonderful insight. Or I could have gotten really deep and philosophical and pull out some big shares…but everyone beat me to it. So I have nothing else left in my bag of tricks. Other than to say thanks for a poignant and kick ass piece here.

    Blessings,
    Paul

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  7. I really identify with what you said about trying to fix other peoples problems and also expecting them to help you fix yours. In the past I have tried, many times, to help fix something for someone, only to have them either not take my advice (how dare they!), or take it and still fail. Either way, I lost! I either got a huge resentment, or I felt really guilty for having steered them in the wrong direction. But just showing up and being there wasn’t something I was very good at. I needed to take action, darnit!

    When it came to my own problems, just like you said, if someone didn’t try to fix it for me, then I thought they just didn’t care. It occurs to me now that I probably wanted someone else to fix me because then, ultimately, I wouldn’t be responsible for the outcome.

    Since I have been sober it’s become easier to just show up, and I’m finding that a lot of times that’s all it takes to help someone in need.

    Thanks for the post, I always love what you have to say.

    Jami

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    • Because then, ultimately, I wouldn’t be responsible for the outcome. Yes! That’s it exactly. I spent a long time holding other people responsible for my misery and it never occurred to me that drowning it in alcohol wasn’t helping. I agree that it’s easier to show up now. Sometimes silence is sacred. I read a great post (http://hengilasinn.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/heart-silence/) where she called it heart-silence. Thank you Jami!

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      • Thank you for sharing that post, it really is great. I like her concept of heart-silence and how, through others, it exemplifies God. Very powerful.

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  8. 1) I feel like opening up about something that is hard for me, so I guess I will heed my own advice and jump from my comfort zone. I love the feeling that you give me when you “see me.” (via this blog friendship) People say I am not accessible/approachable because my blog is part of my work, but I disagree. I am just like everyone else. I, too, want friends via blogging, friends in recovery, friends to share parenting, friends to count on, friends to dialogue. It’s not all work for me it’s my recovery too. My blog is part of my social life and my recovery. The blog just happens to be a way for clients to get the opportunity to know me and how I work and think. But first and foremost it’s a lifeline when I can’t be at “the meeting.” I see the blogging community as my friends more than anything. I think you are a wonderful friend, for me, via the blog. I just wanted you to know that.

    2) When I read today’s post I was blown away.The title speaks volumes. I never knew how to show up for anyone without an ulterior motive. I was so overly invested in everyone else’s outcome and manipulating all the pieces. It took me getting and staying sober to see the depth of my character. I think that’s why I loved being coaching so much, I love that someone taught me I have all the answers, but only to my questions/my troubles. I don’t have anyone else’s answers. I have questions, lots and lots of questions. (Stephen Covey wrote about this in his book, “The 3rd Alternative”) … anyhow, I love this idea of the darkness (dark side) and healing. Sober Identity’s e-coaching lesson was on this very topic—today of all days. I love that I get to be in the darkness because the light always comes again. The dark in necessary for my evolution. I’m healing because I can be in the dark and be okay.

    3) I don’t know how I would have responded either (above mentioned post), but I do know that today I am open to God’s direction and I would turn there if the situation arose.

    4) Thank you for seeing me as a friend, an equal. You opened my heart today. And I almost forgot, thanks for sharing a bit of sober identity. xox

    5) Sorry so long, but apparently I had a lot to say.

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    • Thank you for sharing something that isn’t easy for you. What I love about your blog and your business is that you’re real. I see you as very accessible because you engage nearly everyone who comments on your posts and you frequently comment on other blogs. It’s obvious to me that you put real thought into what you say. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m more likely to comment on a blog when the writer responds because it’s not an online community unless there’s a conversation and interaction. I really appreciate that about you. Your encouragement and friendship mean the world to me!

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  9. I love all the smiling and that they were not afraid to hug people.
    It’s hard to cope with other people’s pain – you want to fix but somethings are fixed in entirely different manners. Just being there is the most wonderful thing one can do.

    I don’t know what I’d have done in the blogger’s place (read her post quickly) – I can’t say if I’d emailed or not.

    I’d have to negate what you said about not being a able to accept friendship – you’re a freakin’ excellent friend, my friend.

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    • Thank you my friend! I like to think that I’m a much better friend now than I used to be.

      I’ve been in that blogger’s position and I reached out to someone but you have to be able to let go of the outcome. She was understandably concerned about the fact that her blog is not anonymous. It can be tricky so I don’t have an opinion on how she responded.

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