Life: Should we share feeling low?

I wrote a blog post A reminder today, for me, of the important things a few weeks ago when feeling mega-stressed and it struck a chord with a few people, sparking off several recent conversations. On Friday, after visiting friends over from Poland with their new and delightful baby up in the NE (i.e. making time for the ‘important things’!), we made a dash back to West Didsbury to attend the book launch for a new Twitter friend and author Thea Euryphaessa; the book is called ‘Running into Myself’. I am looking forward to a good read it as it sounds fascinating, describing Thea’s life journey and her interest in mythology, spirituality and the Self. Whilst there we got talking and spoke about how we Brits are and what happens when someone asks us that all too familiar question ‘how are you?’ – we all say ‘fine’, even when we’re not! Thea spoke about how limiting she finds this and how dishonest it is, that many times we want to say ‘Actually I’m absolutely shit and having an awful day/week/life’, but we don’t. I agree with her and wonder why we do that? Is it because we don’t like sharing our weaknesses and if we show them, we think people will judge us and find us lacking in some way? Thea has spent a lot of time in the US and described how different their attitude is over there and how her book is likely to do much better there before people ‘get it’ in the UK. She’s right, Americans do share and reveal much faster and more openly, but maybe too much so for us and us Brits feel that those raw emotions are somehow cheapened by being revealed too quickly.

Then yesterday a crisis. I became involved in gaining access to the home of a friend with whom I have had a falling out, but who is in a very low place at the moment. When people go awol, other people worry about them, if they are lucky enough that people still care for them. The concerns aired took me back to a time when my dad and I found a tenant who had committed suicide in one of my flats and I still feel partly responsible, that I could have done more. I resolved then to do so should a similar situation ever arise again. So yesterday I did ‘get involved’, a safety net seems to be in place now and communication is open again.

When you see a person at their very lowest, there can only be two main reactions – compassion pity or contempt pity. The former is born from an instinctive & deep desire to help and protect, for if you see someone at their lowest ebb, you see the very essence of a person, the core of them, the bit they hide away under layers of life, the part they protect from the world. When you are that low, you no longer have the required energy to hide it away. This is the tiny part of us which holds our fears, the naked part where everything else is stripped away. A part which doesn’t see the light very often and with some people never sees the light of day at all. When I see this part of a person, I turn into Mrs Practical, c’mon lets get you washed/dressed/sorted/straight, it’s just a weird natural instinct which comes out, a gut reaction, can’t help it, can’t change it. It came out yesterday and it never fails to surprise me.

In some people, seeing that lowest ebb elicits contempt or rejection, which is really just more fear. They see the fear and fear it, maybe they’ve never felt that low or been honest enough to recognize or reveal that part of themselves, so they can’t deal with it when someone else does. There’s no compassion because there’s no recognition.

How do you react when someone tells you they are feeling low and need help? Do you say you’re fine when you’re not? Is it better to hide those feelings away until after the port like the Brits or get ’em out on the table before the starters have even arrived like the Yanks?

Anyway, I’ve got a kitchen to draw, where should I put the fridge, now THAT’S a question.

3 thoughts on “Life: Should we share feeling low?

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  1. I enjoy your reflective, contemplative blogs, Sian.


    This comment piqued my interest, though:

    “When you see a person at their very lowest, there can only be two main reactions – compassion pity or contempt pity.”

    I’m curious: Why only two reactions? And why does ‘pity’ have enter into the equation at all? Perhaps consider another face of compassion, such as its fierceness, its strength, its ability to fully present to someone while allowing them the space to grieve, to be depressed or upset, without trying to move it or fix it.

    An “I’m here if you need me/would like me to listen,” or a “Thinking of you” card/note popped through the letterbox should never be underestimated…(Particularly when someone’s just not up to facing the world.)

    I’ve sat with friends and clients as they’ve wailed, flailed, sobbed and screamed, and the hardest, but ultimately the greatest gift you can give, is to simply allow the other person to ‘be’ in whatever emotional state that happens to be moving through them at the time. Difficult, I know, and doesn’t sound particularly caring or compassionate, but giving someone the space to be is not something many folk are truly able to do. A lesson for us all, perhaps?

    Most of us are afraid of seeing another bleed openly or of revealing the soft underbelly of their wounds in front of us, as you so astutely nail in the paragraph below:

    “In some people, seeing that lowest ebb elicits contempt or rejection, which is really just more fear. They see the fear and fear it, maybe they’ve never felt that low or been honest enough to recognise or reveal that part of themselves, so they can’t deal with it when someone else does. There’s no compassion because there’s no recognition.”

    I know it must have been difficult for you, but there was nothing you could have done to stop your tenant taking their own life. As I say in my book, I came dangerously close to slipping into the jaws of that same dark abyss myself – I just happened to catch myself. But not everyone does.

    You raise a number of complex, nuanced issues in this piece, Sian, and I’m sure there are a great many people reading who will be grateful of your honesty and openness. I could easily ramble on all day – but I’ll stop myself.

    But, before I go, I wanted to share a dedication that one of my mentors (Marion Woodman) opens her memoir with:

    ‘To those who have dared the darkness, and those who have walked with them, without pity.’


  2. I mean the words in this way – compassion pity is the wanting to help because you empathise and that can then take many forms, whether it be my natural active response or the silent listening accepting kind of response which may be more appropriate. I guess when I spoke of low in this blog it was the very lowest form of low, not just where someone needs a shoulder to cry on, but where they are drowning at the bottom and aren’t getting themselves out again. The opposite form is then the contempt pity, where the person ‘in control’ does want to help the person in need but is almost incapable of helping, almost repelled at the sight of someone so in need, because the sight is so alien to them. Does that make sense? Depends whether the word ‘pity’ is thought of as a positive or negative reaction, I think it can be positive, as long as it’s not condescending and recognises that the low state is a temporary one and one we could all find ourselves in?

  3. You’re absolutely right – words are essentially neutral in and of themselves, but, whether we like it or not, they are charged/associated with particular emotions (I was playing Devil’s Advocate when I asked you about your use of the word ‘pity’).

    But what you describe as ‘compassion pity’ – I think you hit upon a better word with good ole’ ’empathy.’ When I was drowning in the depths of my own despair (and it was for several years), the last thing I wanted was for anyone to feel sorry for me, let alone pity me – which was why I never opened up to anyone.

    As a writer, and because of the work I’ve done with others around helping transform various aspects of their lives, I’ve grown acutely sensitive to which words can potentially push buttons and alienate people, and which ones are more conducive to sidling up next to someone and encouraging them to open up and share how they’re feeling.

    But yes, you make sense. Unfortunately, most people are afraid of their own innermost feelings, let alone those of someone else. And you make a good point that, just because we haven’t necessarily experienced something ourselves, doesn’t stop from us from withholding judgement and empathising with another. However sorted we believe our own lives to be, however ‘together’ we believe we are, we all have a soft, vulnerable underbelly…

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