Empathy… something you wouldn’t think I possess if you read my recent post ‘The Christmas Bitch’, but I do, I promise!
So, this post discusses what empathy is, and how to support others with an empathetic approach. But are you truly empathetic? What’s the different between sympathy and empathy? How much empathy is too much?
First, what exactly is empathy…
Empathy vs sympathy
Sympathy is different to empathy. It is observation and acceptance of what someone else is going through. There is more distance with sympathy, hence it is appropriate in social situations where there isn’t an intimate connection between two people. We send ‘sympathy’ cards for someone’s loss, or perhaps flowers to a work colleague.
Empathy means experiencing and taking on the feelings of what someone is going through, which is quite different. It has an emotional component as opposed to understanding, which involves deep feelings of care, love and concern.
There are three parts to empathy:
- The thinking part. Imagining ourselves in a situation and what it would be like.
- The feeling part. This is like standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a person and feeling alongside them.
- Empathic action. This involves sitting in silence and not doing anything. (This is the part most people struggle with). We must not be tempted to fix, lessen, or offer advice to the person in question.
The challenge with empathy, is that it forces us to recall or revisit feelings that are often difficult. This type of support can be comforting to a friend or loved one as they sense we are listening and understand what they are going through. It brings connection.
Stepping into pain
Whilst it is good to feel empathy to support someone and connect, if we try to step into their pain, it is important that we do this with caution.
Imagine explaining what you are going through to another person, looking for support, but they respond by describing a time when they went through something similar – and how it is was worse than yours. The unspoken message is, ‘you think you’ve got it bad? Let me tell you what happened to me.’
But, as humans, many of us can’t seem to stop ourselves from doing this.
If you compare your pain verbally to somebody who opens up about their pain, it totally invalidates their feelings.
Everyone’s pain and emotions are relative.
It may be challenging when you are met with someone crying because their acrylic nail has chipped, especially if you have just had a huge row with your partner and have unpaid bills to pay. BUT, pain really is relative and that person’s experience is real and true.
I think this quote sums it up. Pain is pain. It hurts, no matter where it comes from or what we believe constitutes low or high pain. If you give off the message that your pain is bigger or worse that someone else’s, it will be interpreted as, “suck it up, and quit feeling that way.”
Another thing to bear in mind is this: if the problem sounds rather minuscule to you (such as a broken nail!), some people have hidden worries that they find difficult to bring to the surface. It may well seem a friend is over-reacting to their nail drama, but how do you know she isn’t suffering domestic abuse at home that she can’t talk about? Or perhaps she fears that her recent blood results mean she may have early signs of cancer? The broken nail may be her only way to release her angst for other underlying issues.
The same works in reverse though. If you believe someone else’s pain is worse than yours, it can trigger feelings of guilt and the belief that you should not be feeling the way you do. Don’t do it!
How can you capture an accurate perspective on your own pain if you compare your pain with someone else’s? You can’t. You must allow yourself to feel your pain independently and release your feelings in an honest and natural way. It is inconsequential that your neighbour’s husband has passed away, or your friend has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, your pain is real and should not be compared.
Best way to give support
So, comparison of pain really has no benefits; it positions you above or below someone else. So what is the solution? It’s quite simple…
‘Walk beside them.’ The best comfort any of us can receive is feeling someone is accepting and understanding of what we are going through. Think of this as being on the same level. If you imagine them on their knees praying, get down on your knees and pray with them silently. Step out of your own pain for a moment and let go of judgemental thoughts, this allows space for their feelings. You can only do this if you are present and you actively listen.
This is the best way to validate someones feelings. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason; by remaining silent they will feel ‘heard’.
We often feel we are helping by offering advice or solutions, but this is not useful. Far better, is learning to repeat things back that the person has mentioned. This consolidates what they have said and shows that you have been listening. Eg. ‘It sounds like you have a lot to deal with at work,’ or ‘losing your cat must be so difficult for you, he obviously meant a lot to you.’
It takes great strength and courage to remain silent, but this really is the best option.
What to say
Obviously it would look a little strange if you didn’t speak at all! Every situation is different, but if somebody is really suffering, I would suggest saying nothing at all as opposed to steaming in and saying something unhelpful. There is nothing wrong with saying “I really don’t know what to say,” or “I wish I could say something that would help.”
Here are a few tips with what works, and what doesn’t.
|What to say||What not to say|
|I’m sorry you are going through this.||Everything happens for a reason|
|Wow, that really sucks.||I know how you feel.|
|I hate that this happened.||This could be a blessing in disguise.|
|That must be hard.||Well it’s not as bad as poor.. (name) who got cancer.|
|That sounds really challenging.||You could try…… (insert advice)|
Always protect yourself first
Something I learnt on my first aid mental health course, is ‘do not give support to someone if you are feeling vulnerable.’ This is especially the case if you are a true empath who absorbs the pain and suffering of others.
You are ‘vulnerable’ if you have a belly full of problems currently happening in your world, and/or your mental health is at risk. If this is the case, you should politely tell the individual that you are not the best person to support them right now. You are actually supporting them by doing this, and can go a step further by suggesting who may be better positioned to serve them. Perhaps a doctor, another friend or family member.
Don’t be afraid to do this, because it is far better for both of you. It avoids the risk of saying the wrong thing or feeling ‘triggered’. You don’t want to end up leaving the situation feeling overburdened and drained of energy.
It takes patience and mental strength to listen to someone’s problems, and to do this without judgement, you need to be in a calm and stable state of mind.
Whilst this blog post may seem like it contains a lot of ‘do’s and don’ts (ooh, why did donuts just cross my mind?), essentially it is a post that is mainly common sense, and just a reminder of how we can be sensitive and kind to others.
If you find yourself supporting a friend or stranger, always express your love and compassion and thank the person for opening up to you. I thank you for reading this, and would like to end by saying: your ability to listen without judgement, could save lives.