I was taught to cultivate empathy and compassion by trying to understand other peoples’ experiences based on my own. This strategy makes a lot of sense to me as an ongoing process, and Jane Elliot’s blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment titled A Class Divided comes to mind as a perfect example of why “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” is a good idea. But used shallowly and in passing, this tactic falls short.
When a situation demands I reveal that I am or was in pain, people often try to relate:
“Yeah, I just had the worst headache yesterday too.”
When someone says “I just had the worst headache too,” I do entertain the possibility that their headache was just as disabling as my migraine attack, but sometimes I wonder if they think I’m a wuss when I cancel plans to lie about in sweatpants or if they think that migraine pain is merely a distraction or irritant (which, maybe it can be for some). The “headache” label also seems to be the norm in medical communities where the far-reaching, disabling, depressing effects of chronic migraine are definitely understood.
Here’s my beef:
Migraine symptoms do not always involve head pain. A migraine attack can express itself as any combination of nausea, visual disturbances, sensitivity to light (photophobia), sensitivity to sound (phonophobia), magnified smells, yucky tactile sensations (think bras turning into boa constrictors), muscle aches and weakness, chest pain, and abdominal pain among other things. Essentially, it is the nervous system going haywire. Burning, throbbing, searing, aching, shooting, tingling, sharp, and tingling don’t even come close to describing the dynamic sensations that ensue. To try and describe last night’s attack, for instance, I might say that every cell in my body turned into an electrified whipper snipper while I sank rapidly into the pit of despair, and that’s the best I can do.
If someone tells me they have a bad headache, I can offer sympathy, water, ice, or quiet, but I can’t say I know what they’re experiencing, because a) I’ve had very few non-migrainous headaches in my life, and can’t say that I even remember quite what they feel like, and b) there are probably infinite ways to experience pain, and we generally don’t have the dexterity in spoken word to express it. No “universal scale” or number of eloquent metaphors would allow me to understand, precisely, what they are experiencing.
Perhaps a better way to cultivate compassion and empathy for someone in physical or emotional pain is to recognize that their experience might be outside of our realm of understanding. Perhaps our knee-jerk reaction to suggest solutions and relate is not always helpful for people in distress. Perhaps in lots of cases, a simple “I’m sorry to hear that,” or, “is there anything I can do for you?” or “what do you need?” followed by some active listening will do.
If all else fails, make a nest: http://www.robot-hugs.com/nest/.