Particularly if we grew up in a family system which was dysfunctional or alcoholic, we’re likely to have developed an acute awareness of other people’s moods and internal states. A hypervigilance occurs where we learn to be incredibly attuned to cues signaling a shift in mood – a tone of voice, a facial expression, a hand gesture.
Like sponges, children unknowingly soak up the energy in a room, whether it’s one of rage, anxiety or sadness. They cope in different ways, often taking on certain roles in a family in an effort to help.** Some children respond by being good and overly responsible. Others lighten a depressed or hostile mood by playing the clown. Some learn to be invisible, escaping into fantasy worlds and cutting themselves off from others or their own needs. Others become problematic, angry or defiant, distracting attention away from the real issue in the family.
In adulthood, this high degree of sensitivity to shifting mood states can be useful, but it can also be burdensome. When we’re very attuned to somebody’s inner experience – a spouse’s anger, a child’s fear, a parent’s sadness – we may feel it so intensely that we want to fix it or make it go away.
When there’s a simple solution, this impulse to help is unproblematic. Often, however, there isn’t an immediate answer and the urgent need to heal a daughter’s low self-esteem, a son’s rage or a husband’s shut-down, doesn’t lead to action that is actually helpful. Why? Because the anxiety that motivates the so-called “help” usually exacerbates the problem. The loved one now has to deal with the original issue and the helper’s anxiety or overwhelm.
So what is actually helpful?
1) Practice sitting with difficult feelings (your own or somebody else’s)
We often think we’re motivated by the need to end somebody else’s suffering but when we look closely, the sense of urgency comes from wanting to stop the discomfort inside of ourselves. Their emotions are difficult for us to sit with, because actually we’ve never learnt how to be comfortable around certain feelings, whether anger, sadness, fear or failure.
2) Understand the role of guilt and learn to question automatic thoughts
Guilt can play a large part in the anxious urge to help, particularly for parents and spouses. Consciously or unconsciously, we believe we’re to blame or somehow responsible. What we don’t realise is that certain automatic thoughts – “it’s my fault” , “it’s up to me to save them”, “it’s my responsibility to make this better” – may be a legacy we’ve carried with us from our own childhoods.
3) See the bigger picture and widen your perspective
Strangely, we often help others the most by relaxing into a deeper knowing that everything is okay just as it is. When the mind isn’t caught up in the latest drama, it’s possible to access peace. We remember that life is short, that the details don’t matter so much and that even suffering has its purpose. When we settle into this relaxed energy, others soften also and genuine answers or solutions materialise.
** Family therapist, Sharon Wegscheider Cruse, famously described the different roles that children take on in alcoholic/dysfunctional families – the Hero, the Scapegoat, the Lost Child, the Mascot. To read more about these roles, click on the following link http://www.mudrashram.com/dysfunctionalfamily2.html#roles
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