These are my ‘Dorothy’ shoes, named by my friend Elizabeth. I don’t do sparkly, diamantes and fairy dust, and so these are probably as close as I am going to go to ‘Dorothy’ shoes. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go spend a few hours watching the Wizard of Oz, and keep an eye out for Dorothy’s shoes.
This picture was my Facebook profile picture for a long time, partly for the reason that by seeing the picture I was reminded to imagine myself walking in the shoes of the person I was talking to on Facebook. That was in my days of my primary activity on Facebook being support groups.
After all, that’s what we’re told to do, isn’t it? Walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you judge him. It’s a pretty good philosophy in my mind because it reminds us not to judge another until we know what their life involves. It allows us to go some way towards offering empathy, something we all want and hopefully are prepared to give.
Empathy, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is:
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; also : the capacity for this
In the mental and physical pain that many of us carry each day, what we want is for someone to say “I get how it is for you.” What strikes me is that while we’re on a never-ending quest for understanding, would it ever be enough for us? I’m not sure. I’m not convinced that anyone, unless they know me exceptionally well (and there’s very few in that class), can really know ‘how it is for me‘.
I don’t mean for that to be as depressing as it may sound.
Even if you walk a mile in my shoes, that does not mean that you are going to understand who I am. After all you need to be me in my shoes, for you to understand me. If you just walk in my shoes, you may have a completely different experience of me.
When I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia I joined, signed up or ‘liked’ many websites and pages relating to living with fibromyalgia. I thought I would be understood. I thought I would meet people with the same experience. I didn’t. I thought it would make my experience of fibro better. It didn’t. If anything I felt more isolated partly because even these people didn’t seem to ‘get it‘ for me.
I don’t mean to offend anybody because those sites are all offering good information and support, but actually I didn’t feel understood, I didn’t feel I was with like-minded, and like-suffering people and all that happened was that I felt pretty isolated and depressed. I pulled back, fast.
One thing I did find before I left was a whole lot of posts available for members to share with their friends and family, like this one:
It’s crying out for empathy, but it’s not the way I’d go about it if I was looking for empathy, and I doubt it would be that effective. Personally I see these types of posts and I groan inside. Maybe I shouldn’t, but then I’m human. Maybe I’m allowed to say this because I have fibro (then again, maybe I shouldn’t) but while fibro is a hellish existence which I don’t enjoy, this description of it does not capture fibro for me. This is begging for attention! And who likes people who do that? I would never share this with my friends and family. Then again, I accept that it could well be the very real experience of the author. We are all different.
I’ll take another subject I know only too well. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). People with BPD suffer immensely and the quote above, with a few minor alterations, could be used for us. But why stop there? Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Dissociative Identity Disorder, to name a few? Which mental illness does not include great suffering, and leave sufferers feeling like they are imprisoned? And who doesn’t want the understanding? Chronic physical illnesses of all types are also the same.
My point is this. We can cry out for empathy in these ways. We can beg people to understand us. But they never can fully understand what we’re experiencing, because they’re not us. They can only understand to a limit and then we have to live with our own understanding beyond that.
I don’t have people in my life who fully understand what I am suffering both in mental, or physical terms. A few have some idea, but then I have to remember that just because they might know someone else with BPD, doesn’t mean they understand my reality of BPD. Like most disorders there are many variances which make reality different between individuals.
But you know what? I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter if they don’t get my suffering. That’s not what I need from my friends and family. Yes, it would be lovely if people understood exactly what my needs are, but I’m being unrealistic. What I need is absolute acceptance of who I am, as I am. If they can give me that, then I can put that with my own compassion toward myself.
I believe that I would be more effective in getting my needs met if I didn’t push my demands for understanding on other people so much, but started practising self-compassion, in order that my needs be met.
I need to focus on what I can do to meet my own needs. It doesn’t make me a hermit, it just makes me aware of what I need, and find ways to meet those needs… without having to go begging for everyone to understand me. I also think if I can love myself and take care of my own needs without begging for friends to ‘get‘ me, then I also become more attractive as a friend to others. And that leads to more of my needs being met.
Is that confusing? It would be quite remarkable if we all had friends and family who understood our suffering, but it’s not going to happen. These are human beings we’re talking about. If I can appreciate and accept my own suffering, identify for myself what my needs are, and be compassionate towards myself? Then I am starting to make progress.
One final thought. Think about the dog or cat who gives you unconditional love. They don’t understand your suffering. They just love you anyway. And isn’t that enough?
“If you celebrate your differentness, the world will, too. It believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy. Expect to be accommodated.”
― Victoria Moran, Lit From Within: Tending Your Soul For Lifelong Beauty