The Edges of Compassion

My friend was struggling with the fact that a person they trusted to tell about their depression told them “quit moping around and get proactive about their situation.” I found some words in response to my friend’s pain that I want to capture here, because I might need these words as a reminder when I am the one struggling:

It always hurts when you run up against the edges of another person’s ability to be compassionate. Leaves you cut and bleeding when you’re already limping around injured. The flaw lies in the other person’s limited capacity for compassion, not in the size of your need. When you are healed and strong again, you will be able to extend understanding for their lack. Right now, be self protective.

I’ve had times in my life when I was overflowing with pain, where I poured that pain into the ears of sympathetic people. Yet I also watched. Because as I was pouring, there would come a point where my listener would sit back and say something like “Wow. You’ve got a lot going on.” That was when I would stop pouring even if I still felt full. My listener was at capacity and if I continued to speak, they would behave in self protective ways that might hurt me.

I’ve also experienced this from the other side. I’ve been the person trying to help someone who is depressed, who can’t/won’t take simple steps to claw themselves toward less depression. That “can’t/won’t” is the hard bit. It isn’t easy to tell which is happening, not even from the inside. Sometimes we think we need sympathy, but the thing that gets us moving is being angry at someone for the lack of it. Other times we’re just sliced by the edges of another person’s capacity and the injury makes getting out of the pit that much harder.

It is all hard. And messy. With no clear map.

Yet, I was a person who had so much pain that it overflowed when I tried to keep it private, and I doled it out in swallowable portions to my friends willing to listen. Now I can have visits with friends instead of therapeutic outpourings of emotion. I can move through entire weeks without crying. Slowly, carefully, self-protectively I have pulled myself out of stress and depression. I am able to re-build relationships that faltered while I was struggling. I am in a place where I am able to work on expanding my capacity for compassion rather than needing to depend on capacity borrowed from others. I wonder if it would have been easier in the hard place if I’d known that there was an “after” that I was struggling and scratching my way toward.