The Joy in Shared Suffering

As I sit on my back porch after leaving Lake House today, I feel at a loss for words. This pandemic and how it has impacted me is something I find very difficult to put into words. The words I come back to time and time again during the last few weeks are words that Rob Gent, CCO of Embark Behavioral Health, said to me about two years ago: There is joy in shared suffering. At first this left me stumped. I believed joy and suffering were complete opposites, how could they go hand in hand?

Of course, if you know me, you know that I had to take a dive into the research to try and understand this statement. Here is what I learned: joy is created through shared experience. The key words here are shared experience. For something to be shared, it means there is inherently more than one person required. Joy is dyadic: it is born out of the interaction between two people and cannot be achieved in isolation. According to this definition of joy, shared experience is not one sided, in that shared experience can only happen if the experience feels good or is a positive one, all experiences can be shared, the good, bad and ugly ones. What this told me is that what Rob said was true: if two people can share in the experience of suffering, then inherently, joy is created. There is something profoundly comforting and soothing in times where we have the deepest sadness, fear, and pride, and others can be with us and join us in our experience.

This phrase provides me with a sense of hope that even with the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic (death, the high level of panic, toilet paper disappearing off of shelves, shortage of hospital beds and hospital supplies) and with being faced with our own mortality and the mortality of loved ones, there are actions you can take even when you feel helpless. The main action is to focus on relationship and creating shared experience and empathy with loved ones and those who you serve.

I have pulled out some tools from our clinical model at Lake House Academy that provide tangible and actionable ideas to combat sadness, stress, and fear.

  • Eye contact: Hold eye contact and eye presence, which means making eye contact with another individual while holding in your mind your empathy and the desire to care for them. This is not an aggressive stare but a caring glance. This is the time to smile at the stranger on the street!
  • Tone of voice: Focus on matching your tone with the emotions that someone else is feeling using a soothing and rhythmic tone. When we are stressed our tone generally moves to being sharp and short, but we can override that response to be kind and gentler in our tone.
  • Closeness and physical touch: Provide safe, physical touch and soothing actions, like a hand on the shoulder or a hug.
  • Facial expressions: Don’t try and hide your feelings or expressions on your face, it is the neutral face, absent of an expression that is the scariest to others (see Dr. Edward Tronik’s ‘Still Face” experiment for an example). Make sure the expression matches the emotion of the person you are talking to, but it doesn’t mean to just put on a happy face- be authentic!
  • Regulate ourselves: Others can feel your emotional state and the state of your nervous system without saying anything. Seek out your own co-regulation and practice self-regulation.
  • Breathing: When feeling dysregulated intentional and controlled breathing can help bring your nervous system back to baseline. I recommend the Calm app as there are some free and relatively short guided exercises to promote breathing, which is directly linked to decreasing our own stress.
  • Empathy: Practice the ability to emotionally ‘see’ another person for what is going on for them. Emotionally resonating with others helps them feel safe and understood. If others are not as kind or gentle, perhaps they are stressed, try to practice empathy for them too. Make sure to also have this for yourself!
  • Play: Play naturally moves an individual out of fight, flight, freeze or withdrawal and back into social engagement. Work to find moments of play or projects that can focus attention, decrease stress and promote relationship.
  • Predictability: Keep routine as true to typical daily life as possible, even amidst the felt lack of safety. This will enhance regulation and experience of safety. Where we have holes or the absence of events that typically happen, try to replace it with something else that is predictable and can happen in its place on a regular basis.
  • Boundaries and limits: Focus on keeping boundaries clear, firm and strong in times of increased stress, even though it may be tempting to be flexible or give some leeway.

This is a time for humanity, humility, and connection. We may not be able to single-handedly stop the virus or control the outbreak, but we can control how we connect in relationships and can create joy out of shared experiences of suffering. In the face of this tragedy, I hope you join us in our quest to deepen connection, even if we can’t always be physically close to those we love right now.