What a 700-Year-Old Story Can Teach You About Supporting Someone
Maybe you learned this lesson during your own experience of heart-griping anguish, but if not, here it is: Human emotions are a package deal. Repressing unpleasant feelings anesthetizes us, rendering us numb to joy as well as to pain. The only way out of numbness is to plow directly through the very emotional hell we hope to avoid. And if we can help one another through this process, our lives become infinitely richer in purpose, meaning and peace.
You've probably already taken Dante's journey at least once. See if this sounds familiar: At some point you found yourself in a murky wilderness (emotional numbness) with no clear idea how you got there. Unseen, frightening beasts (unfelt emotions) lurked everywhere. Eventually, you found someone who seemed to know what was happening (for Dante, it was Virgil; for you, it may have been a therapist or a friend). This counselor guided you into Hell (helped you feel all those scary emotions). Down you went, to the lowest point possible. Then, because you'd passed the center of the earth, you found yourself going up toward the other side. Slowly, you climbed in the direction of the light and regained your ability to experience happiness.
If you're nodding with recognition, you're an Inferno survivor. Which puts you in a unique position to become what Virgil was to Dante: a psychopomp, from the Greek, meaning guide of the soul. You may yearn to step into this role, especially if you're watching a loved one disappear emotionally after a loss or abuse substances to avoid emotional pain or sink slowly into a bitterness they won't acknowledge. You know they need to feel their feelings, and you want to help. Doing this for someone is a kindness rarely equaled in human interaction. But how can you help someone feel emotions they don't even know they have?
As an Inferno tour guide, I've made just about every rookie psychopomp mistake possible. I've learned that offering help to someone in denial gets you the big smackdown, that over-empathizing mires you in another's misery, that trying to hurry the process slows it down. I've also realized that Inferno is a very instructive blueprint. Throughout Dante's epic, Virgil sends four simple, consistent messages: "I'm here for you," "I'm fine," "I know this place," and "I trust this journey." Send those messages, and you'll find yourself helping all sorts of numbed-out people feel their feelings.
Be careful with that first message. "I'm here for you" doesn't mean getting all up in someone else's business. It means loitering nearby in a state of almost disinterested nonattachment. Denial doesn't respond to preemptive strikes like "Hon, we both know you're not okay," or "When you want to vent that rage, I'll be here." Remember that feeling nothing is a defense strategy. If you proactively try to strip it away, your loved one will push back. Hard. Sometimes with a restraining order.
Learn from Virgil, who lets Dante feel fearful and confused, even while he's standing by his side. This works because denial is not joy and numbness is not peace. Unfelt pain emits a steady toxic stream of uneasiness and dysfunctional behavior, which worsens over time until it's so unbearable that entering the Inferno feels like a relief. As someone once said, "The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." To hasten that day for others, just hang around while sticking to your own damn business.
There's one exception to the rule of bland patience. If your loved one is doing something harmful, react honestly. Don't protect anyone from the consequences of denial and its appertaining vices. If someone's neglecting their kids or goldfish or having violent tantrums or drinking compulsively (all popular denial hobbies), don't pretend everything's normal. Express your concern about the unfed children and pets. Get away from the rager. Throw an intervention to let the alcoholic know you won't let their addiction ruin everyone's lives.
No matter how competently and good-heartedly you take these steps, it won't always work. There's this pesky little thing called free will, and many people use it to choose emotional numbness all their life. This is painful to watch—so painful it might send you to hell. In that case, please find a psychopomp of your own.
In many cases, however, responding honestly will help their feeling-avoidance mechanism reach its failure point. In recovery circles, this is called hitting bottom. When it happens, the person usually reaches out for help. Where Dante turned to Virgil, your loved one may finally visit a therapist, begin reading self-help books, attend a 12-step meeting, or talk to you. At this point, you'll be tempted to rush in and rescue. Don't. Just keep hanging around, being healthy and stable. This approach is like a magnet that draws people to you and makes them want to open up.
So let's say it's finally happened. Your mother, who's seemed frozen solid since your dad died, breaks down sobbing. The friend with the awful husband confesses her marital misery to your book group. Your husband, who's been claiming that being unemployed doesn't bother him, admits he's scared. The next message you must send is, "I'm fine." You must remain cheerfully unconcerned as your loved one enters Hell.
What? Cheerfully unconcerned? I know this sounds heartless to any good psychopomp wannabe. But remember, for someone barely able to cope with any emotion, an intense reaction from you can be overwhelming. When Dante reached the terrifying gate to the Inferno, Virgil remained calm—and it helped inspire Dante to risk going forward. When your numb loved one begins to feel, ask simple questions like "So, what's going on?" but do it from a place of peace and comfort. Don't worry if they lapse back into numbness, and don't get too worked up if they inch into Hell. One of my own psychopomps once told me, "I care what happens to you and how you feel, but I'll never lose sleep over it." Her calm assurance that she was fine, no matter how miserable I became, was exactly what I needed to let my emotions surface.
As you continue to send the messages "I'm here for you" and "I'm fine," your loved one will likely experience a trickle, a flow, then possibly a flood of painful emotion. This is because your response is creating what psychologists call a holding environment, a safe space with a compassionate witness where it's okay to feel what we feel. All this person will know is that talking to you allows emotion to surface. Weirdly (to them), this will feel compellingly good, even though they're experiencing pain. As they venture deeper into their feelings, it's time to send the message, "I know this place."
Virgil was always happy to tell Dante what level of the Inferno they'd reached and what was happening there. You can help your loved one in a similar way, by confiding that you've been through this kind of hell before—you've had your heart broken or survived a trauma or lost something you cherished (your job, your money, your confidence, your hair). Without dwelling on your own story, let them know you've been through Hell, and that feeling those excruciating feelings brought you out the other side.
By now you may have noticed the great thing about effective psychopomping: It's not all up to you. You never have to push anyone past denial and into their feelings—their suffering does that. Once they begin to feel, you don't have to move them forward—your simple, calm presence does that. Virgil never shielded Dante from the horrors of Hell. He just strolled along beside him, always letting him know he was there. If you do the same for your friend, spouse, or relative, the time will come when both of you find yourselves moving upward into the sweet, pure air. Maybe even on to Paradise.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One.