Some time ago I had sort of a recurrent fight with a flatmate over an open window. It was a really cold day and the rain was pouring down. This lady came into the kitchen, where I was working on my laptop, and without asking me, she opened the window and left to another room.
'Right, what an idiot,' I thought. We had this conversation in the past as she tended to do this quite often. Last time – like a month or two before – we had agreed that she had to ask the rest of the people in the room first. But once again, there she was doing exactly the same thing, not caring. So I stood up and closed it. When she returned to the room, she complained. 'Why have you closed it?' she asked. 'Why did you open it without asking? We have spoken about this already. It's freezing outside and we're trying to make this room warm. Plus I feel poorly and I'm shivering' I replied. And then she went on and on about how the window HAD to be open because she wanted it open, without even commenting on what I just said about not feeling well.
Didn't she care about how I was feeling? Was she being a complete jerk? Why couldn't she see my point of view? And I realised that she had never really empathised with anything else in the past. For instance, once she told me quite rudely to move away from the kitchen table where I was having a meeting over coffee with friends because she needed to use it to have dinner. Another time she demanded I let her use the washing machine that I was using – even though it was not urgent for her but it was for me – simply because it was her turn, she said. One other time, a friend cooked a delicious dish for my flatmates and I. Instead of complimenting her for the food and saying thanks, she behaved and talked as if that was meant to be and she had the 'right' to eat that food. These stories, and many others, just clicked in my mind.
And this made me think of a TED Talk I watched recently. Brené Brown found during her 6 years' Ph.D. research that people can't be compassionate with others if they can't be kind to themselves. Moreover, compassionate people admit that they are imperfect but worthy, and tend to bond with others more easily, to create connections. They embrace vulnerability and they feel ready to embrace in relationships, regardless the outcome of it.
But there are so many things in life that makes us feel vulnerable. From telling someone how we feel, to the fear of losing a job, being sick and having to ask for help. The problem is, Brown says, that we can't selectively numb emotions. If we numb unpleasant feelings, like, grief, we also numb affection, joy or gratitude, That makes people feel miserable. It also makes them act sometimes as jerks.
I realised that this behaviour towards me probably didn't even have anything to do with me. Maybe she was just being hard on herself for something I don't know about and has lost the ability of being aware of others along the way. Or there might be many other reasons I am not aware of. It feels like she's blaming me and trying to make me feel uncomfortable. I might be completely wrong about this but let's imagine she does blame me. Blame, in research, is described as 'a way to discharge pain and discomfort'. If this is true then she would have entered the 'dangerous' area of numbing emotions that Brené talks about and she might have done it because she's suffering in silence too. In fact I don't recall her saying anything good about herself, or feeling confident or even looking self-assured. I don't even remember her apologising for anything. I don't remember her having close friends and I remember giving her advice once about how to have a better relationship with her brother who was visiting as she was being insensitive with him too.
This kind of shows us that in order to feel strong, we have to feel vulnerable. Nobody is perfect and we just need to accept that. To become a better person, we have to start from ourselves. We need to feel pain, to empathise, to actively listen. We can't numb ourselves from the world as along with the unpleasant emotions the good ones go as well. We need to be understanding of others that may have not come to this conclusion yet. I believe that when we realise that everything that happens in life – the good and the bad – helps us become who we are; we can make peace with ourselves.