We all struggle through hard times in life. Dealing with them yourself can be difficult enough, but what about watching your friends and even the world struggle? It can occasionally happen that we look around and find ourselves surrounded by nothing but sadness, pain, and negativity. Even if we aren’t the ones suffering, it can be hard to keep a positive outlook when everyone around us seems to be hurting. So what can you do?
Whether it’s friends divorcing, family strife, illness and death, or world events, the sadness and despair we see in our surroundings can weigh heavily on us. And there are a wide range of different feelings that crop up as we watch those around us deal with hard times. Everything from guilt for not feeling miserable, to sympathetic sadness, to undefined feelings of depression can occur.
It can be hard to recognize the toll these things are taking on you. Very often we try so hard to focus on how lucky we are and how thankful we should be, that we fail to notice what being surrounded by misery is doing to us. It is important to be aware of these effects, however. If you aren’t then you can easily become an unwitting example of the adage, misery loves company.
What Happens to You When Everyone Around You is Suffering?
If you are in a positive and grounded spot in your life it generally shows. People who aren’t in crisis or suffering through tough times, typically display a more confident and happy attitude. They may smile more, have an even temper, fewer complaints, and just over all seem good. And they are usually noticed for it. This being the case, those who are going through tough times can be drawn to them.
A healthy, reasonably happy person may seem like someone who can help to those who are struggling. As such they may be sought after for advice or guidance. That’s all well and good - after all helping each other when needed is a sign of compassion and humanity - but at some point that healthy individual can find themselves mentally and emotionally saturated with other peoples suffering.
When you constantly take on the weight of other people’s problems you can start to find that your own happiness gets undermined. Even if their problems don’t affect you directly, they can influence the way you view your own life and your attitude. This is even worse for those who have are highly sensitive and empathetic.
I worked once with a woman who, although doing well in her own life had, among several other things, a close friend battling cancer, a sister getting divorced, a mother who complained constantly about her father, and she worked with at risk youth. She also had a regular habit of watching the news and following world events, something that just added to the sadness she already saw all around her. She had finally gotten to the point where she said she felt like she was drowning in misery and none of it was her own.
She found she was feeling anxious all the time, angry for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint, and resentful of people taking her time to discuss their problems. All of this led to an overwhelming sense of guilt that prevented her from enjoying anything at all. She was unhappy and struggled even more with it because she couldn’t personally justify her own unhappiness.
These feelings aren’t uncommon for those who are dealing with other people’s strife and pain. And sadly, they often go unaddressed leading to problems for otherwise healthy and happy people, like depression, anxiety, and anger management issues.
What Should You Do?
So what is an empathetic, happy person to do in order to maintain a positive outlook? There are few things that can help if you are finding yourself surrounded by the sad situations of others.
1. Recognize that the problems aren’t yours.
Everyone faces problems in life. Some are certainly far worse than others, but no one gets away with a perfect life. So, when faced with the difficulties of others, offer support and compassion but remind yourself firmly and often that these are not your problems. You don’t bear the responsibility for fixing them and your sympathy and personal sadness at the suffering of others won’t change things. You will have your fair share of things to deal with in life, so living the problems of those around you isn’t necessary or helpful to them or you.
2. Set boundaries.
This is something counsellors and therapists have to do regularly and it can be particularly difficult, especially when you care about someone who is unhappy. But setting boundaries is necessary for their sake and especially for yours. Your time is allocated to many things and helping others should be one of them, but there has to be a limit.
The same is true for your mental energy. When those who are in crisis or going through difficult times come to you, try to take a moment and mentally draw a line for your time and level of involvement. Then don’t be afraid to articulate this to them if you find yourself being drawn more deeply into things than makes you comfortable.
3. Give yourself permission to be happy.
Just because others are unhappy doesn’t mean you need to be too. You will also face periods of unhappiness in life, so if you are in a position where things in your life are positive, enjoy it. You will also be serving as an example for others and showing them that happiness is possible.
4. Push back at guilt.
Feeling guilty for not being miserable or not having problems is counterproductive. While you may have friends or loved ones who are in heart-breaking situations, the fact that you are not is something to be thankful for and not feel guilty about.
Sad or negative things are a part of life - we simply can’t get around that. But we can make a point to enjoy those times in our lives when things are going well. Sometimes that is far harder to do than we even realize, however. So if you find that you, like the woman I mentioned above, feel like you are drowning in sadness that isn’t yours, take a moment to recognize your own happiness and own it – you earned it. Then find ways you can be supportive without sacrificing your own mental health and well-being.