I used to spend my limited energy going over and over my grievances about how some of the people in my life treated me. “She never asks how I’m doing.” “He never acknowledges my limitations.” “She’s never asked me to explain my illness.” Then one day I realized that the true source of my unhappiness wasn’t what they were saying or not saying; it was my intense desire for them to behave the way I wanted them to. I had thought that the suffering I was experiencing was caused by them, but it wasn’t. It was coming from my own mind.
The fact is, you rarely know why people behave the way they do. A friend who never shows an interest in being educated about your illness may behave that way because she assumes that if you wanted to talk about it, you’d bring it up. It’s also possible that your medical condition triggers her own fears about illness and mortality, or that she’s too caught up in problems of her own (medical or otherwise) to be able to take the time to educate herself about your health. Just as you can’t force people to love you, you can’t force people to behave the way you want them to.
When I feel let down by a friend or family member, I cultivate equanimity, mindfulness, and compassion. These three practices stem from my years of immersion in the Buddha’s teachings, not as a religion, but as a practical path for finding peace with my life as it is.
I recommend that you start with equanimity. With practice, cultivating the evenness of temper that characterizes equanimity can help you feel at ease in the midst of life’s inevitable ups and downs, successes and disappointments. This calm and balanced state of mind paves the way for accepting that some people will treat you the way you want and some won’t.
I practice equanimity by recognizing that even though it can feel as if I’m suffering because of another person’s behavior, the true source of that suffering is my own wanting mind. And even though I can still feel hurt by a friend or family member’s seeming lack of understanding or interest in my health, I don’t actually know what’s going on in that person’s mind. In the end, my sense of well-being depends on my ability to accept that other people’s behavior rarely conforms to the ideal I’ve mocked up in my mind.
Mindfulness and self-compassion are also essential tools for making peace with family and friends whose behavior isn’t as supportive as you’d wish. If you’re angry, frustrated, or hurt—or any combination of painful emotions—first mindfully acknowledge that this is how you feel. Pretending that you’re not feeling what you’re feeling tends to intensify whatever emotions are present, so do your best to fearlessly turn your attention to what’s going on in your mind at the moment. Then allow compassion to arise for any suffering you’re experiencing due to the presence of painful emotions. In my view, there’s never a good reason not to be as kind to yourself as you’d be to a loved one in need.
Next, reflect on how there are many possible reasons why your friend or family member is not giving you the support you’d like to have. These reasons could be related to his or her own conditioning, life history, and current concerns—and the stressful emotions that can accompany all three. It’s not about you, so remind yourself that there’s no reason to take it personally when someone resists your attempts to educate him or her about your health struggles.
Finally, work on wishing the best for your friend or family member. More likely than not, he or she cares deeply about you but is simply unable at this point to be present for you in the way you’d like. Understanding that others have their own “demons” can lead to compassion arising for them, even though they’re letting you down. Compassion for others tends to ease your own emotional pain because it takes you out of your self-focused thinking.
As you experiment with these practices, be patient. Don’t blame yourself if it’s too hard at this point in your life to feel compassion for a friend or family member who is disappointing you. Instead, give yourself credit for having had the courage to plunge in and try.
My heartfelt wish is that your family and friends will be open to understanding and accepting what life is like for you, but that if they aren’t, you’ll be able to accept them as they are without bitterness.