How Much Misery Will Fix It? How to Cope When You Care Too Much

You know those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials, the ones with the sad pups shivering and hungry, locked in kennels with big sad eyes. They’re designed to pull at your heartstrings so you’ll donate money. I’m an animal lover and I believe in the cause, but I have to turn the channel. I can’t bear it. For someone recovering from depression, it feels like emotional terrorism. It’s a montage of pitiful puppy eyes capable of destroying my frail healing heart in an instant.

Caring people feel a lot, and that’s ok.

When you’re a sensitive person, or sensitive to the suffering of others in general, everyday life can be like flipping from one terrible commercial to the next. Animals are my weakness, but for you it might be children, or the elderly, or the mentally ill, the homeless, or whatever else. Regardless of what gets you, there’s a way to lessen this suffering. You can lessen the load of the pain you feel while still maintaining your compassion and your caring spirit.

I used to get really worked up over roadkill. I drive about 100 miles a day through an enormous forest, and I see a lot of animals that have been struck by cars. As an animal lover and a depressive, this really really bothered me. I would get caught in my mind in each animal’s story, imagining what had happened and how the animal felt. If they were scared, or if they knew what was happening to them. I would wonder if they were in pain, if they laid at the side of the road bleeding out or struggling for breath. I would imagine their babies in a nest in the woods, starving without their mother or freezing without her warmth.

I knew I was hurting myself with my own imagination. I knew it was bad for me. I just didn’t know how to stop doing it. And then I had a breakthrough.

You can set a limit on your emotions.

I was driving down the highway when I realized that even if I couldn’t stop these feelings, maybe I could decide how much of my life I wanted to allocate to that kind of imagination and the feelings it creates. Maybe I could decide what portion of my mind, my mental energy, and my heart that I would assign to misery. If I had to be miserable, maybe I could still keep a portion of myself for other things, like hope or fun or love.

So instead of letting those emotions totally consume me whenever they happened to come up, I would feel them coming and ask, “How important are these feelings to me right now? How much of my heart do I want to set aside for misery?” Would it be ten percent of my heart for misery? Twenty percent? I was trying to decide. And then I realized that regardless of how much of my heart I willing to hand over to misery, no one benefited. No amount of misery can bring an animal back from the dead. Misery doesn’t protect anything. It doesn’t comfort anyone. Misery is useless.

Feelings don’t fix things.

Misery is worse than useless, in fact. It makes your big heart feel smaller and colder. Feeling misery on behalf of others makes you afraid of the world, and it makes you afraid of the people or animals that need your help. When your emotions own you, you can’t be strong for yourself or for anyone else. You become useless as well, and you have to flip the channel to save yourself. We might not be choosing misery, but we are certainly allowing it to take over whenever it likes.

I was doing it because I didn’t realize there was an alternative.

And now you know there is.

Take some control and make your own decisions.

Examine the thing that crushes you. Respect it and recognize that there’s a legitimate problem you wish you could fix. Think about how this problem washes over you and knocks your heart to the ground. Respect yourself and acknowledge that even though this problem exists in the world, you still deserve to exist too. Decide to preserve a portion of your heart that this problem isn’t allowed to affect. Now think about how much of your heart you’re willing to hand over to the misery created by this problem. Imagine your misery solving this problem, and recognize that it’s impossible. Repeat this line of thinking whenever you encounter that thing that destroys you. Feel better.


DISCLAIMER: This website does not render medical advice. I am not a mental health professional. I share the methods that have worked for me and I truly hope they work for you, but I cannot guarantee any specific results. 

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