It’s easy to tell someone we’ll stand by their side no matter what.
But when “no matter what” comes knocking, more often than not it knocks right up against our own fears and wounds.
When this happens, the last thing we want to do is stand next to that person.
But, here’s the thing: I think we should.
Screw all that new age bullsh*t about ditching people as soon as they make us feel something other than warm and fuzzy on the inside because we’re here to feel joy and ain’t nothin’ getting in our way.
When someone we love is coming undone and their pain starts to make us feel like we’re drowning in our own, this is the time to dig in.
When the sun isn’t shining, it’s time to stay. It’s time to make camp, settle in for the night, and work hard to trust ourselves, each other, and the uncomfortable trip that we’re on.
This is the place I like to call “In the thick of it.”
In the thick of it, we can’t see the bigger picture or easily remember what we’ve learned.
In the thick of it is a hard place to recognize our fears for what they are, or to remember our commitments and spiritual practice. In the thick of it, things fall apart and we start to feel very alone.
We tend to forget that all the things the podcasts and books taught us about anger management and letting people be who they are and loving them anyway aren’t so easy to apply when we’re actually hurt and angry and tumbling around in the thick of it.
This is not to say that we should put ourselves in front of people who hurt us or allow our personal boundaries of respect and safety to be crossed. No. Standing close to people when they are going through something (and when that something triggers us) is not the same thing as allowing ourselves to be mistreated or abused.
When we say we are going to be there for the people in our lives when it rains, we need to also stand by them when it floods over the head of our comfort zone.
At this point you might be saying, “Yeah, I know that and I’m ready for anything!” But at some point, no matter how prepared you think you are—no matter how many books you’ve read and workshops you’ve attended about how relationships mirror the wounds we already have and how to not let those wounds run your life—when someone’s experience triggers your past wounds, you can be sure your fears are going to take command. And they’ll do it in the undercover spy in the night drug you and haul your relationship halfway to Timbuktu by the time you wake up kind of way.
It might sound something like, “Yep, I know all about non-attachment and the small ego and that relationships trigger our deepest fears and stuff, and I know for sure this is not that…”
So what do we do when we love someone and want to support them through their process, but are in over our heads and can feel fear taking over?
How do we turn these hot-potato-get-me-outta-here experiences into opportunities to take care of one another and heal ourselves?
First, we check in.
Get real familiar (and really f*cking honest) with the cobwebs in our own closets so that we can first and foremost recognize that our reaction—to be hurt or angry—is a reflection of something that already exists inside of us and not the fault of the other person involved.
Second, find some words.
Try to communicate how you are feeling as a result of what is going on for that other person in a way that doesn’t place blame on either party. Take responsibility for figuring out where these triggers lie and lovingly and compassionately do what you need to do to allow them to be heard and soothed. If you can talk it out you’ll realize that we all have the same sh*t in our backpacks, we just unpack it in different ways. If you can talk it out you will realize it is not you versus them, but that you are actually very much in the same boat.
If that person is already in a really tough and emotionally sensitive place and you find yourself too triggered to hold space for them and your process, maybe you need to have that conversation with yourself or a neutral third party to enable you to both protect yourself and remain supportive and open to the other person’s pain and process.
These are good ideas for how to get through a storm, but perhaps the bigger question is why. Why do we stick around and do all this work? Wouldn’t it be easier to just play house with someone who doesn’t trigger our wounds? And what if it doesn’t work out in the end anyway, then wasn’t all that just a waste of time?
I’ll say it again: this is not the same thing as staying in relationships that are nothing but cyclical and painful and in the tsunami warning zone 24-7.
We do it because when we stand close to people when they are not at their best—and when we are brave enough to get real with ourselves in the times when we would rather flip the bird and walk away from them because it’s triggering and we are afraid we will break—all we actually break is our own fear of being vulnerable. All we actually destroy are our own walls. The ones that were making us feel like we were in it all alone.
We stand close to people because when we can share what hurts we can share what heals and, as humans, what we are here to do is grow and feel—and that means all the feelings and all the directions of growth.
When we stand close to people, we actually make a lot of space, and together we shed light on what is really going on under the surface.
We stay in the thick of it with each other and we reach out into the uncomfortable darkness together, so that when the rain finally stops and the sun finally comes out again (like it always does), we can stand in its warmth and grin like idiots and say, “Holy sh*t, I have never felt so light and so connected and so understood as I do now standing here with you—together.”