When we find out that a loved one is hurting, it’s normal to want to reach out and solve their problems. However, it’s not our duty to do so, as Vanessa Tai is slowly discovering.
I don’t know when or how this started but from a very young age, I’ve had a heightened sensitivity to the pain of others. I intuitively knew when someone was hurting, even if they tried to put on a brave front. And if the person was someone close to me, I often hurt along with them and would spend time and energy trying to make them feel better.
One of my closest friends used to suffer from clinical depression. Back then, I didn’t quite understand the disease so I tried all sorts of ways to “get her out of her funk”. I would write long letters to affirm her self-worth, devote hours listening to her grievances and gave her countless pep talks. It was tiring but on some level, I always felt it was my duty to “fix” her.
I’m sure you can relate. When our loved ones share with us their problems, it’s normal to want to find a solution as quickly as possible. Of course, if the problem is something tangible like being unable to find a job or a health concern, the solutions are more straightforward – send them relevant job contacts, recommend them a specialist, etc. However, when it comes to emotional pain, that’s where things get complicated. Because, as much as we want to, we cannot take away the pain that people feel inside.
This is something I’m only slowly coming to terms with. In the past, I used to get terribly frustrated when my efforts to cheer my friend up went to nought. I remember how she would perk up for a couple of days before spiralling downward into misery again. Our relationship soon took on a pattern where I was constantly racking my brains on how to keep her happy. It got to a point where I grew resentful of how she was draining me emotionally, and I found myself keeping my distance from her. However, she eventually sought professional help for her depression and is much better now. Our relationship has also improved.
This experience is one of the main reasons I’ve come to realise we can’t solve the problems of the people around us. Despite our best intentions, it’s impossible to fix each other. We may constantly push aside our own needs to try and meet the needs of those we love, but it’ll never be enough. Nobody can play the role of caregiver forever; the stream of self-sacrifice will dry up eventually and we’ll only end up feeling frustrated or resentful. To be a healthy caregiver, you’ll need to tend to your own needs on top of caring for the needs of others. If you’re emotionally spent, how are you going to invest into the lives of others? It’s just like the safety instruction videos onboard airplanes – in an emergency, adults are supposed to put on the oxygen mask before helping their child.
To be clear, it’s not that I no longer feel empathy for people’s problems or sorrows. When loved ones confide in me, I still experience a strong urge to throw my arms tightly around them to “hug the pain away.” But I know that only serves to soothe the symptoms, not eradicate the problem. We can never solve people’s problems anyway. We can never fully understand what others are going through, and we can never make their pain go away. After all, this is not some kind of magical Utopia. Each of us has a private pain that we carry around with us, and will probably carry with us till we die. If we truly want to help someone, the answer is not to try and “fix” him or her but simply to love and accept them without making any judgments. Hurt and disappointment will always be permanent fixtures in our lives but if we know we have the support of an unshakeable, immutable love, I think we will make it out okay.
About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 27-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.