I recently read a synopsis of a study that demonstrated that people receive a more empathic response from someone who has not been through a particular difficult experience than from someone who had survived something similar.
At first glance, it seems counterintuitive. After all, who knows how rough it is better than someone who has lived it?
But that’s not the whole story.
Because the people that have experienced the trauma have been changed by it.
And that alters not only their perception, but also their response.
Protective Amnesia vs. Unrestrained Fears
I remember trying on the idea of living without my husband a few years before he left. The exercise wasn’t prompted by anything in the relationship; I was simply reacting to the news of a coworker’s impending split by trying to put myself in her shoes.
And I couldn’t wait to take them off again. My imagination went wild and my pulse followed suit. It was her living nightmare and it was my envisaged one. I responded with nothing but, “I am so sorry” and “That has to be so scary,” using my own unrestrained fears as a bridge to her situation.
It’s different now. I’ve lived those fears. But, to be completely honest, I don’t really remember the pain in the rawest sense. I know I felt it; I can read my journals and emails and see the devastation in the pictures of me from that time. But it’s almost like it happened to someone else.
My brain has slid a protective cloth over the worst of it, softening the pain like the sun’s harsh rays through a gauzy curtain. The protective amnesia allows me to function without the sharp memory of the pain. And it also means I can easily underestimate how bad it really was and how horrible it is for someone else in a similar position.
Known Present vs. Imagined Future
When we haven’t experienced something, we have no benchmarks. No reality checks. It’s all imagination and prediction. When somebody’s character is being tested, it’s easy to use their current situation as a template for their future, assuming that the way it is is the way it will be. Face to the tree and blind to the forest.
But once we’ve been there, we see the larger picture from our vantage point above the woodland. We appreciate the struggle and yet we know that it is able to be mastered.
But when someone still has the imprint of the bark on their flesh, the last thing they want to hear is about the view from the top. And yet sometimes the message they need to hear is that there is a top somewhere above the trees.
Progression vs. Isolation of Thought
It you want a hug and commiseration, you may be better off turning to somebody who has never been through your trial. They will view your situation as it is. Isolated. You will be nurtured and they will cry along with you.
If you want reassurance that it can get better along with a kick in the pants, talk to someone who has been there. They know the progression of effort that it takes to climb out. And in many cases, they appreciate the gifts hidden within their struggle It may not feel as nice to hear their perspective, but sometimes a dose of tough love is needed.
They were once in a position where they didn’t know if they would survive.
And yet they did.
And they know you can too.