8 Things We Miss On Empathy

And What We Can Say To Connect

How do we respond when someone tells us she just had a miscarriage? Our student who tells us he does not feel safe where he lives? Our friend who has recently lost their job?

My friend’s brother recently passed away and another friend just had a baby. I have never experienced either and yet, through social media, I have gotten a glimpse into great loss and great joy. I cannot begin to fathom the depth of each feeling, but despite this I take in some of what it’s like. Empathy is so very human- we are meant to feel as others do.

So why is it that we often get it so wrong? Empathy is a means of deep, vulnerable connection. We choose what is safe to instead say how we honestly relate. “That sucks” will always be the quicker, easier way. But it misses the point for a deeper connection with those around us.

What if those around us were pleading for a different way, a harder one? A path that demanded us to get our asses on the ground so we could better hear the person in front of us. No technology or walls in our way, no scripts, every possible opportunity to screw up.

This is the empathy we are getting wrong.

So let’s learn to get it right.

1. Empathy is Not Sympathy

Sympathy literally means “feeling with” while empathy means “feeling into.” Sympathy derives from the place of not understanding, not having experienced what someone is going through. Sympathy is a wall of pity and disconnection. It breeds loneliness that will keeps you from forming deeper relationships.

Sympathy is what makes us think “You poor thing, I’m so sorry!” instead of taking in what the other person is experiencing.

So if I can’t understand the person… do I sympathize with them?

Listening is the bridge between not having experienced their pain and reaching down on their level to come to understand it for yourself. It is learning how to feel as they feel. This can mean asking questions, but for the most part it is giving space to that other person to tell you what that part of their life is like.

“What was that like for you?” is such a powerful question for those willing to ask and listen.

Instead of saying “I understand,” instead say, “I appreciate what you’re saying.” It validates the other person’s experience staying true to your own understanding.

2. Empathy Is Not A Comparison

Sometimes while we hear someone’s pain we compare it to our own, which to us can feel worse or equally as bad. The truth is we cannot know what someone’s pain threshold is when experiencing difficult life events.

“You’re depressed now but at least it’s not cancer.”

No two pains are the same or comparable. This may be the most grievous mistake in an attempt to empathize because:

  1. It invalidates the feelings of the person experiencing pain.
  2. It invalidates what is causing the pain.

An example would be when someone loses a loved one. Everyone who knew that person grieves a completely different relationship. To some, she was a parent, to another, she was a life partner. Everyone involved will have a separate experience of the same event.

“No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.” -Victor E. Frankl

3. Empathy Is Not A Silver Lining

Do not think you know how to run someone else’s life, because until you have lived their life there is no way to possibly know.

Be happy! Put a smile on! It will get better!

Yeah, don’t make promises you can’t keep. You have no idea if it will get better or worse. All you can humanly promise is, “I will be here for you, no matter the outcome.”

When stepping into the unknown together, you can only guarantee your continued desire to show up and listen. We are not built to overcome all odds. Sometimes we are forced into situations where we are dependent on very undependable factors. Very few things in the future are guaranteed.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep saying it will all be fine. You have no idea if it will get better or worse. All you can humanly promise is,

“I will be here for you no matter the outcome.”

Pain and suffering make people uncomfortable, so they see a solution as a way to help those who are expressing themselves.

We find out solutions for pain ourselves, and so often it is sabotage.

Silver Linings do not heal, because not everything will be okay. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance can be the place you go together.

4. Empathy Is Not Conditional

“If only this _____, then you wouldn’t have ____.”

Empathy is a form of unconditional understanding. Empathy is not dependent on an exterior factor to be true for you, a belief of the way the world should work. to listen and accept the other person’s experience.

Empathy is not a time to judge the other person for their behaviors or lack thereof, and it is not dependent external circumstance. You address the person’s experience from a point of compassion demonstrated through neutrality. This gives space for the person to make up his or her own mind while processing emotions without being swayed by your opinion of the situation. You allow them the choice to feel and move through their feelings as they would alone, while being supported by your presence.

Note: Honor your own limitations with how much you can extend yourself emotionally. You can develop an emotional numbness called compassion fatigue over time from using up your emotional reserves. Take care of your own needs first.

5. Empathy Is Not Blame or Shame

How many times have you heard this in the media?

“Well if she/he did ____, then they deserved it.”

This is a statement of fault that does nothing but make the other feel guilty and blamed for their circumstances. There is very little point in this besides causing more pain on top of the existing one.

There is a difference between blame and responsibility, but the latter has nothing to do with someone’s pain. Responsibility can be taken for an action that resulted in the pain. Responsibility is entirely their own, not up to you to assign. It might feel good that you have something or someone to point the finger at, but don’t blame someone else’s feelings.

No one deserves to feel a certain way. Making them feel worse will not change their emotional state of being.

6. Empathy Is Not Avoiding the Problem or the Person

You see a person who is in distress and you assume they want to be alone to figure it out on their own. So you leave and then don’t bring it up when you next see that person to be polite and not embarrass them.

If the person does not want to speak, you can still bear witness to their pain. Words are not always necessary to show up for someone who needs connection.

Empathy is addressing the suffering of another person. You are affirming that their feelings exist and are valid, not turning a blind eye to their pain. You do need words to convey this message, but by choosing to stay with them you speak louder than words ever could.

7. Empathy Is Not About You

Someone else’s experience is not about yours, even if you both have lived through it together. Every person has a different lens through which they filter an experience. It is said that someone dies, even though all are processing the loss, everyone loses a different person to them. We all have our unique lens through which we process and feel experiences.

One-upping the person’s experience is also a form of making their emotional processing about you.

“Oh, well wait until you hear what happened to me.

Hearing about another person’s struggle can understandably trigger memories and fears that are our own. It is difficult to extend the attention that is needed for empathy when our mind is consumed by worry and our own emotions. If at all possible, process these emotions with another friend who can empathize with you. The beautiful part of empathy is it provides more opportunity for emotional connection within our communities. By trusting others with your story, you amplify the impact of empathy.

8. Empathy Is Not Advice

When someone shares their difficult feelings– loss, sadness, guilt, loneliness–we wish it could be different for them. We feel the pain of the other person, and we want it to be made easier. We believe that through our well-intentioned advice, the other person will no longer have their issue.

The problem here lies in the belief that by solving the issue, the feelings will resolve themselves. The distinction here unless specifically asked for advice on a situation is that the person is sharing their emotional state not looking to change it. Feelings themselves are not wrong, and by trying to solve it you make a statement on not their situation, but their emotional state of being.

To put it simply, empathy is not time to give out advice on how they can solve the situation to make it better. Instead, it is a time to listen and learn from the person sharing. You come to understand what their feelings are, and perhaps even learn where their emotional state comes from.

So What Is Empathy?

  1. Unfiltered communication of feelings and experiences received with attention and compassion.
  2. Listening and learning from the person sharing. You imagine how they feel and, if possible, draw from your own internal source of past experiences to connect with their emotional state.
  3. A risk to be vulnerable. Empathy is sometimes willing to admit you do not have the answers and experiences you thought you’d have by now. In spite of this, you are willing to sink into the level of whatever that person is experiencing. You are willing to ask deeply personal questions for the sake of interpersonal connection.

Be sure to thank those who share their story. It is such a gift to be trusted with someone else’s experience, so give your gratitude for being one of the lucky few who gets to see, hear, and know them.

For Those Hurt by Apathy

The reason I can write about this is because I have done the hurting and have been hurt by indifference.

These words are for you:

It is okay to not be okay.

It is okay to not be okay.

Anyone who has ever made you believe differently, I am sorry. Empathy is imperfect and difficult because we are imperfect and difficult. People’s actions and words toward you are most likely about them, and not about you. This could be your classmate who bullies you. Or your friend who ignores your coming out story. Or your lover who stonewalls you after you share past wrongdoings.

Lack of empathy from others makes us want to bury ourselves in the ground, never to again risk being torn down. It hurts. It’s embarrassing, insulting, and disconnecting. Empathy is the bridge that holds space for us to feel through pain, together. If you have never experienced it before then I can tell you it is a lot like love- it is worth the search and the reward.

Step One: You have to be brave enough to risk it.