I had a session this morning with Dustin, who had recently relapsed. Before giving in, he'd suffered through four or five days of subtle indicators that a girl he was dating was no longer interested. He found himself in a state he described as "nebulous." He was in distraught. His brain craved relief. He went back to porn.
Toward the end of the session I asked, "Dustin, if you had a friend who had been suffering that way, you probably wouldn't have handed him your phone and said, 'You can access porn on this. Maybe that'll help. Give it a try.' What would you have said to him? How would you have tried to comfort him?"
"I'd have said, 'Things are going to be fine. You're better than this. You'll get over her and move on with your life. Don't worry about it.'"
Ouch. If I were his friend, I wouldn't really feel understood. I'd know that he wanted to help, but his attempt just minimized my pain. I would have felt felt like my hurt was being dismissed. If I were his friend, I'd have known right then that I'd have to look elsewhere if I wanted empathy. He wouldn't be the one that I could share my heartache with and have there as a support while I was mourning the loss of my dream and licking my wounds.
"That's what you'd tell a friend? Is that what you've been telling yourself?"
"I can tell you wanted to be supportive, but did you notice how you encouraged him to distance from his emotion? The message seemed to be that he shouldn't be reacting this strongly in the first place, and the sooner he got over it the better. Is that the way you feel toward yourself?"
"Well, it's no small thing to sense that a relationship is slipping away. You were once in this privileged status. You two were developing this sense of exclusivity. You were infatuated, so was she, and you could tell she liked you. If you heard a funny joke you couldn't wait to share it with her. Not with just anyone, but specifically with her. She was the first one you thought about. You looked for any kind of excuse to text or call. It was a bright spot in your day. And you loved sensing her reaction. But then suddenly things started going cold. There was ambiguity where you once felt confident. You kept floating stuff out there and checking her response. And you kept getting the cool vibe from her. Or there was no response at all. That really ripped the rug out from under you, emotionally. That hurts!"
Dustin's eyes had reddened.
"It's understandable that you were hurting. Anyone going through that would have felt bad. The heart really aches at times like that. Feeling those reactions to an experience like that is a part of being human. It's okay that you were going through that. It wouldn't have been more preferable for you to not be impacted by her withdrawal--to have been calloused and cold-hearted about it. Or to have suffered for a day and then whoosh, suddenly it's 100% behind you. Heartache has a timetable of it's own, and we're just along for the ride."
Then I encouraged Dustin: "Try this on and see how it fits. What if you had said to a friend--or to yourself, 'Ouch. You're really hurting right now over this, aren't you. What the two of you had together meant a lot to you, and when it got ripped away it tore a piece of your heart out with it. Your heart just aches, aches, aches.' Then imagine that once you joined with your friend--or yourself--in their emotional state in that way, you were silent for a time. You just sat there with them, having let them know you were feeling for them, and let your presence and patience speak for itself for a time. You just settled into the emotion they're feeling and didn't run from it, didn't rush to get away from it. You were willing to just sit there and feel their sadness and heartache. Just be there with them for a time. What would that have been like?
I'll be the first to admit that I've never said something like the above to a friend. In fact, this exchange might sound very odd between a couple of guys. Perhaps a compassionate response a guy might actually utter would be something like, "Oh, wow. Ouch. That sucks. Sorry to hear that, man. I know how much you liked her." But I wanted to keep talking to help Dustin get in touch with his feelings. And I was having Dustin imagine saying it to a friend because I thought he might be able to muster more compassion toward a friend than he had for himself.
Dustin admitted that it would have been very different for him to respond that way to a freind, but it was an even further stretch to imagine having that kind of compassion for himself.
"Nonetheless," he concluded, "as odd as that seems to me now, I know for sure that my typical way of handling emotional pain does not work. I run to porn when my life gets really hard, and then porn makes my life even harder. I can see the potential value of trying your way out."
That's all I could ask of Dustin. And it's all I ask of you. Give self-compassion a try. Then please let us know if it helps.