Much has been written about empathy and how best to respond to someone who is hurting. Yet many of us continue to struggle with the concept of seeking to see another persons perspective. This happens on both the grand scale (see the Great Bathroom Debate of 2016), and the small scale (see the people in your life that use your pain as an excuse to brag about how much worse they have it).
What is Empathy?
Empathy is basically a person’s ability to connect another person’s lived experience to their own. It is a skill that can be learned, and it is also an instinctive response.
When we see a person hurting, we are driven to do or say something because we instinctively know what it means to hurt.
But there are pitfalls to expressing empathy, and some of them can do more harm than good. So when you see someone in pain, do your best to avoid these unhelpful statements.
“Don’t Feel Bad”
This is a very common response to someone who feels ashamed or embarrassed. You have probably heard it, and you’ve probably even said it to someone that you were trying to comfort. The problem is that it doesn’t work. Feelings aren’t just something that can be turned on and off like a switch; they’re a tangled mess that needs to be sorted through. Telling someone not to feel bad is like telling them to just untangle Christmas lights: Yes, that’s the general plan, but it’s a process that takes time…And a hug…And possibly some foul language. The point is: It’s not easy to sort one’s feelings out, and saying “Don’t feel bad” can be seen as at best an obvious statement, and at worst, a platitude.
Instead, try to identify what it is that they are feeling. There is no need to problem solve, and you don’t even really need to be right. Just reach out and try to understand what the other person is going through.
“This is Just Like…”
No it isn’t. This is a unique experience that a unique person is having. My mother passed away in 2015 from cancer. I can tell you that if someone had come up to me and said it was just like anyone else dying of any other thing, I would not have been terribly pleased with that person.
It’s not a problem to relate the other person’s pain to your own; but do your best to recognize that regardless of similarity, this is a whole unique experience. To go back to my example of my mom’s death, it was far more comforting to hear statements like “When my mom died, it really hurt” as opposed to “I know how you feel.”
When in doubt use this statement as a sort of prompt: “When I went through an experience like this, this was my reaction. I hope we can connect through this.”
“Why Don’t You…”
One of the great tropes of relationships is that people tend to want someone to just listen when they are hurting rather than tell them what to do. Yeah, the answer may seem obvious, but at the same time; the “problem” isn’t always the issue. We as individuals want to be heard, we don’t always want our problems to be fixed. Honestly, feeling connected to the people around us is the solution to a large number of our problems. So start there.
What’s the Common Theme?
When we try to respond with problem solving first, we are generally trying to soothe our own discomfort at the cost of cutting off genuine connection. When we connect with someone else, we put ourselves in a very open and vulnerable position, which we have been taught is a bad thing. Well I’ve got news for you: it isn’t. When we open ourselves up to empathy with another person, we open ourselves up to experience perhaps the greatest, rarest, and most fundamentally human of experiences: connectedness.
Empathy is one of those topics that could easily fill books, and at the end of the day, every person’s experience will be different. I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject!