On trusting others with their own pain

One of my first blog posts focused on being an “empath.” At the time, there was a fundamental question that I was trying - and, in practice, failing - to answer: How do I deal with the fact that others’ emotions so strongly affect me? How do I deal with the fact that, in relationship with other humans, I am inevitably going to pick up on their energy - even when it’s bad? How do I avoiding resenting others their sadness, especially when I love them? Especially when their sadness is my sadness, too?

I was recently at coffee with a friend, and we were pondering this same question. She resents her husband his moods, and I could relate; I have been similarly resentful of low moods in a previous relationships. My friend's tendency in situations like these is to get angry. My own tendency is to leave; at the very least, I must leave the moment - and sometimes, I feel compelled to leave the relationship, too. Are my friend and I selfish? Should we be more tolerant?

The word "should" typically means you are asking the wrong question.

With most people, I don't tend to struggle with this. Unless it is prolonged, self-sustained, and explicitly fixable, I don’t tend to resent people their misery. Indeed, as an Enneagram four, I typically suggest we fill a kiddie pool with misery and then just sort of splash around in it.

In romantic relationships, however, demonstrations of misery often have me looking for the nearest exit. I used to tell myself that it wasn’t about being selfish at all, but rather about being selfless. I feel others' pain so much that of course I can only take it in micro-doses. But while the empath hypothesis is a nice one, I’ve recently started entertaining alternative possibilities.

As I've mentioned, I was just at an Enneagram talk lead by a fellow four. The speaker suggested - well, more like un-self-consciously declared - that each personality type has one major perceptual block. Eights have a hard time assessing intensity, whereas nines are clueless when it comes to rightly estimating conflict. Sixes overestimate risk at every turn, and fives wouldn’t know healthy distance if it smacked them in the face. (Which it never would, because it would never get close enough.)

According to our speaker, fours struggle when it comes to accurately assessing drama. We’re never really sure how big of a deal anything is. This is partly because, at least in matters of the heart, everything is a huge deal. As a four, I can - and often do - analyze a single interaction or statement until I’ve made it more-or-less emblematic of the human condition. Any one of my girlfriends who has heard me recount a first date or even just a day at work will tell you that, on a scale of 1-10, I tell it at 11.

In matters of the heart, I’m always at 11. But when my partner is at 11, it scares me. If I myself am in an ocean of pain, I feel reasonably confident that I can just sprout gils and build a home at sea. Maybe I’ll buy a catfish and live off antioxidant-rich algae. Maybe saltwater is good for the skin. Maybe I’ll hang a shingle and teach the stingrays how to really get in touch with themselves instead of, you know, stinging everything.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Meanwhile, when someone I love is in pain, I worry that they will be no match for ocean life. I worry that they’ll drown. I’ve always joked that I like “resilient” guys (and lucky for me, there’s a local employer who recruits nationwide for that exact personality trait.) I like the guy who, when faced with an ocean of pain, just climbs into a boat. (This is not to be confused with the guy who actually owns a boat, the crisis-signaling sports cars of the sea.)

I like this guy because I don’t have to worry. After all, who cares how long he can tread water? He’s not swimming. I don't need to trust him to cope effectively with his own pain. I don't need to be a life raft.

So what’s my growth edge? How do I express trust? I could start by telling my future partner the best way to prepare algae so it’s crispy and not soggy. I could introduce him to my dolphin friends and let him know about the major market opportunities among stingrays. He can choose to swim to land if he needs to. But in the meantime, I can trust him to wade in the pain.