Why empathy not Sympathy?
How can we support others when they are in pain? So often when we are feeling down, someone – usually with really good intentions – may say ‘well at least you haven’t got A, B or C…’ More often than this, it’s what we can tell ourselves. ‘Oh, stop wallowing – at least I’ve got a roof over my head!’
Whilst it may be true that you do have a roof over your head – does it mean that the pain you are experiencing is any less valid? Any less painful or confusing?
Pain is relative to the person. In our quest to help someone we love to feel better; this need to rescue them and to take their pain away is strong. This is when it can lead to us using this dismissive language.
Have you ever done this and then felt a knot in your stomach or thought ‘I shouldn’t have said that’? Or as you have said it you see that slight flicker from the other person? Has the other person become angry or more upset?
What should we do?
How can we reframe the language that we use to do what we intended it to do in the first place?
- Acknowledge the pain felt
- Appreciate their (or your) experience.
- Change the way that you begin your response
- If you don’t know how to respond – simply be honest but recognise their emotions without needing to minimise them.
- Show compassion
Brené Brown speaks about how to be more empathic with ourselves and with others. She points out that ‘never did an empathic sentence start with ‘at least…’. Instead, Brené encourages you to think about different responses. For example, ‘It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.’
Empathy can take time to learn, especially when culturally, many are conditioned with automatic responses such as ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘I’m sure it’s not that bad’. Our need to help others feel better can lead to feeling panicked and wanting to help as quickly as possible.
I know exactly how you feel…
Have you ever said to someone who has recently lost a person they cared for and said, ‘I know exactly how you feel?’ What was their response to you? Quite often it’s anger or frustration, or they may just zone out.
The thing is, we don’t know exactly how another person feels. We may be able to relate to how they feel if we have experienced a similar loss. But we need to remember that we all experience the world in a different way. When pain is raw – hearing those words can just feel dismissive and hurtful.
I’ve no doubt that when most people say these things, it’s coming from a good place, and it’s a response to their pain – to help lessen it. But understanding empathy can help you provide the support that you want to.
‘Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection’. (Brené Brown, 2013)
It helps others to know that they are not alone, without dismissing their experience or their feelings. There is no shame in feeling upset, angry, frustrated or worried. They are real emotions. Sitting with someone as they talk about these things shows compassion.
The more we give and receive empathy and compassion, the more we will all be able to open up without shame or worry.
Have a listen to this short animation of Brené Browns talk on Empathy. It’s a great visual to demonstrate what Brené is saying.