Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Do you ever feel guilty for feeling good when someone else is feeling bad? Does part of you feel like you should suffer after watching all the "bad news" on TV? If you visit a sick friend, is it better to be upset so they know you care or to be in a good mood to help them feel better? It is possible to care about the other, show concern, and feel good. The combination may help cheer them up.

"Mutual misery" versus "Mutual happiness" as a sign of caring. Many of us have learned that "If we care about someone who is feeling bad, we should feel bad too." We have learned to measure our degree of caring by how badly we feel when the other hurts. According to this mutual misery philosophy, the more you suffer when I am suffering, the more you must care about me. If, on the other hand, you feel happy when I am miserable, then you must not care about me and you are a "bad," "uncaring" person.
The logical conclusion of the mutual misery philosophy is that both people will end in dramatic expressions of suffering. You may have witnessed people who suffered together dramatically and created beautiful misery together to convince everyone how much they care. Is that what we want? Wouldn't it be better if caring could be expressed more simply and honestly, and both people could end feeling happy?
There is a philosophy other than the "mutual misery" approach. I call it the mutual happiness approach. In this approach we do not have to prove that we care for one another by our own suffering. We show our caring by our gifts of understanding, comfort, or whatever it takes to help us both feel happier.
We can express sensitivity and empathy by asking them how they feel and be willing to listen if they want to talk about their feelings. Being upset ourselves is not what the other person needs. The clients who come to see me don't want to find a therapist that gets depressed over their problems. They want someone who will listen effectively, show caring, and help them solve their problems. They want someone who is confident and realistically optimistic.
In the mutual happiness philosophy, we measure how much we care by how much we attempt to contribute to the other person's happiness. We express our caring by doing something active to help them. Or we might decide that the best gift is freedom and support so they can take care of their own needs. That is especially true in codependent relationships.
A student of mine, who had been gravely ill, recently read this section. She said that people visiting sick people needed to understand how important this section is. When she had been in the hospital, she disliked having people visit her who were too upset about the seriousness of her condition.
They not only increased the "gloom" of the situation; in addition she said, "I wanted to cheer them up; but I was so sick, I felt a tremendous burden." On the other hand, she looked forward to seeing people who were happy and cheerful--she felt no burden and their cheerfulness helped her feel better. Just what the Doctor ordered!
The best way you can help me when I am feeling bad is to feel good, because I care about your feelings. Similarly, if you care about me, I expect you will ultimately want me to feel good after your misfortune. Both bad feelings and good feelings are contagious. Which do you want to give?