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Letting the suffering of others touch us

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As a therapist Im often stuck by the unusually privileged position I have in sitting with a person as they look intently within at things that are often painful or perplexing. The stories and experiences that surface during our hours together deeply touch me and transform me.

This week Ive been talking to some of my colleagues about our experiences of listening to the stories of others. We shared together about what a honour it is to sit with people as they grapple to articulate their distress, often accompanied by the complex histories of their suffering. Sometimes these stories are intensely sad, or devastatingly cruel, or incomprehensibly tragic.

While speaking to one of my colleague about these experiences of being with a persons suffering, we shed some tears together about how intensely we have been touched by such stories and disclosed to each other how all kinds of emotions have welled up in us from time to time in our work. From feelings of anger, bewilderment and incredulity to grief and despair. And we also relected on how such feelings are often followed by a sense of love and wonder at how each person has bravely and intelligently navigated such experiences in the best way they could find at the time.

We talked about how we wouldn't do any other kind of work and how these intimate moments fill us up with love and compassion for this human existence we all share.

Later I was speaking to my supervisor about some logistical matters and mentioned how I had been affected by some stories this week. He spent some time with me and I asked for his reflections on how we (as workers) can manage to feel what needs to be felt while not getting so flooded that it becomes more than we can handle.

I jotted down these wise words from my beautiful friend and colleague Ben Swift:

"Healing occurs as 'that which has been rejected' comes into contact with love/acceptance/human presence, that does not turn away.

The fact that another persons' suffering impacts me is part of the healing process for the other. We would never want to get to a place where we are not affected by that, but that we do need to offer ourselves the same supports we offer the other person.

Its important to find layers of support. Layers of relational spaces to share and be heard and accepted and loved. To find a space for this pain and existential suffering to live so it doesn’t destroy you."

I have reflected on this for a few days and have thought that there is one more element to allowing myself to sit with these stories and not be overwhelmed and for me it is about doing my own inner work.

I am not destroyed by hearing the deep pain of others, because I have gone within to see the deep places of pain within myself. I have journeyed long and hard and befriended inner demons and loved parts of myself I thought were unlovable... and I continue on this journey.

I am not destroyed by the stories of others because I have confronted the destruction of my own story and history and have come out the other side knowing I can survive and have survived.

When I am deeply affected by sitting with someone's story I know that their pain has touched a place of pain within me that is still needing my attention.

I agree with Ben that having wrap around supports is so important. I have people around that I go to and talk with and who love me in all my fragility and confusion in those moments.

This work sometimes calls me to question my beliefs about the world and the existence of evil and suffering. Sometimes those questions make me so very uncomfortable and frightened but I know that there is support for me to navigate these places and come out stronger - just as I offer this to my clients.

I was speaking to one of my teachers who also is a Buddhist nun several months ago and I said "I feel this work 'fills me up', because in that moment when someone is sharing deeply from the anguish of their experience, rather than being scared by the depths of that suffering I am filled with hope because I know from my own experience that, 'this very moment' this person is in the process of healing". My teacher said to me simply "And that is what prevents burn out".

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You may enjoy this short video about being with another persons experience

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

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