I recently went to a Halloween party where I met a woman who openly shared she was bipolar to me. It struck me because I can say it isn’t exactly on my list of top five things I would share about myself.
However, it was fucking awesome.
Suddenly I felt like we’d known each other for some time because we connected over the experience of being bipolar while sharing how we approach some of our circumstances in life. When you share what you’re up against with others and they can relate with the same struggle, it gives you the sensation that you’re at least not alone.
One of the hardest and most common things I would hear from people who can’t relate to my experiences of living with bipolar disorder or having OCD and PTSD is:
“I can sympathize, but I cannot empathize.”
Sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune; condolences.
Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Sympathy is what I often get from people whenever I do decide to open up about myself. It’s frustrating as fuck and admittedly feels rejecting at times because it’s difficult for people to understand what I’m saying without it sounding like I’m either a) bat shit crazy or b) a deluded, self-involved narcissist. Or maybe I’m just both. Lol.
At least, that’s what it looks like to others. It’s easy for others to pick up a sensation of cockiness from me when I’m really just trying to gather certainty around something, which is usually driven by the desire to feel accepted.
When I was younger, I fed off of sympathy. It validated my feelings and I felt like I was getting some kind of attention toward what I was dealing with, but it did not qualify my thoughts in a way that allowed me to actually get over them.
Having someone capable of empathizing with your feelings and thoughts isn’t just a matter of making the experience easier, it’s a matter of utter survival in what is an absolutely daily battle to show up as one aspires to be for themselves and others. This is why having a therapist, especially one who can empathize with your experiences, is so important.
A therapist is like a coach who is less concerned about what you’re doing and moreso focused on how you’re doing it, your form. They observe the context in which you think rather than the content of your actual thoughts. Like a swimmer practicing their stroke, I show up for an hour and speak to some of recent mental battles and what they were like for me while my coach asks questions that help me correct my form. I am shown more plainly where I am doing well and what I can stand to work on. I am granted clarity to the thoughts I have that are merely cognitive distortions. I am refreshed in a way that gives me a new sense of purpose with each troubling thought I unpack.
Now I can talk about more than the past when I am in social settings, so I do not avoid them as much as I once did. I no longer seek sympathy as I once did because I see now how it does come off as narcissistic to be so self-involved in my own problems when fucking everyone has them. Problems aren’t the problem, either, the problems we really have are how we view our problems as bad.
Problems are not ‘bad’. That is a judgment we are making. A label we are applying to what is merely an obstacle in our way. Obstacles are merely hurdles on a track we conscript ourselves to running each and every day when we make the choices we do. Applying to a job that is far from where you live creates the future problems associated with a long commute. Wanting to write a book creates the problems of having to edit a shit ton of bad writing attempts, going through experiences of writer’s block and, on a day like today, pain while typing on what is a cold morning in San Francisco.
When you make choices, you are entering a race track that has hurdles on it. You the runner. There may not be a hurdle right at the start of when you try to do something new, but encountering one is a matter of time, not a matter of fate. The world isn’t trying to ruin you, it actually could give two shits. We are all moths to our own flames that pull us through our days and the flashes of light we show to each other are a chance to witness something new and different for ourselves.
I’ve had the privilege of finding some amazing people in my life that have shown me new light and ways of being that have pulled me away from my obsessions enough to say hello every now and then. When you put real work into yourself, what you get are real results for yourself. This starts with giving a fuck about yourself like there’s nothing to give a fuck about. You start each day with a pocket full of fucks to give and you can’t just hand them out to everyone who greets you with a smile. That is completely unsustainable and unreasonable if you’re going to make it through life in a way that doesn’t deplete you at every turn.
I’m not recommending to hold yourself back here. What I’m saying is you do not need to please the needs of others, nor help everyone just because they ask you to. You do so by choice, not out of expectation or assumption. You do not need to be in a mode where you are always catering to the wants and needs of another person. That is called co-dependency. When you live your life with respect to someone else in a way that puts your own needs and wants over theirs, you are not being altruistic. Empathy with no boundaries is utter self-destruction.
People also do not want to be pandered to. Or patronized. If they do, then they are a narcissist, so in that case I can tend to be one hell of a narcissist. I think everyone does in certain respects and that is where our attention should be if we are to combat the will of our egos. I think I can call out others if I’m doing so to myself here too.
Regardless, the point I think I’m making here is that to bother to even get up and make a sandwich for someone is a god damn favor and you better feel good about what you’re doing for others by recognizing what you’re doing and they sure as fuck should too. Otherwise, make one for yourself first. Period. On an airplane, in the event of emergency, you put your own face mask on first before helping others.
That’s not selfish, it’s just smart. We’re all animals, rotting bags of meat with an extended, but eventual, expiration date. We can also disappear tomorrow because of someone texting while driving. No matter the time of our passing, we have a biological imperative to survive at all costs and living for others without prioritizing yourself is asking to be one of Darwin’s next loser.
We may be an evolved species, but we are always capable of evolving new forms of thought, albeit gradually. Your life is not going to be fundamentally altered reading this, but applying yourself with intention toward what you want is by just acting on it.
Witness yourself first. Find someone who can empathize with you next. A therapist is a great place to start if you want to be getting more out of what you’re getting, which is hopefully some real satisfaction with yourself. The reason why we fail to strive for what we want most is because we fail to find ourselves as worthy of having such things, of being in a state where we actually can’t complain about what we have in front of us. Complaints are nice. Complaints make it easy, at least for now.
Complaining does nothing about your life but validate it as shitty. You may think you’re balancing life out, but you’re just calling attention to the suck when you talk about what sucks. You are following the shade of a palm tree over basking in the warmth of the sun when you have the option to.
Not everyone has the option to. People holding onto traumas feel like to move on and not regress back to such feelings is to dishonor the past in some way when what we’re doing is living in it. To honor our past experiences, we must upcycle them. Meaning, we aggressively appreciate and love what we have for, in comparison to our states of having the lowest feelings of nothingness, we are in an utter state of having everything. It means we address our triggers in real-time by witnessing ourselves as being triggered and reminding ourselves we only have things to appreciate around us because no one promised life would be perfect. We are only promised death and taxes. It means we have to deal. Just like everyone else.
We’re all running on this track together and the hurdles we have are the hurdles we get, whether we truly wanted them or not. What matters when we fall is not that we fell in the first place, it is the thoughts that prevent us from standing back up and getting back to it. The hurdles you have in front of you are not going to move out of the way for you by you sitting back and complaining about them. They are overcome one at a time. A book gets written one word at a time and a life is lived but one day at a time. Focus more on what you’re racing toward over what’s preventing you from getting there as fast as you’d like to.
We’re all in this together, whether we can empathize or not.