The Power of Empathy and Understanding
When we struggle, we long for empathy…for connection, understanding, and safety. But what we often get is sympathy, because sympathy is easier. It’s easier to pity someone else while thanking God we don’t have the same struggles.
When someone you care about shares a struggle with you, it can often be a challenge to respond appropriately. Most of us tend to immediately release an emotional response, thinking that the faster we offer “the right words,” the sooner the person will see that we care. But unless we're well practiced in this area, our immediate emotional response is hardly ever an empathic response.
Avoid the following roles when someone shares his struggle with you.
The Dramatist: Gasping in horror with mouth agape. “Oh my God! You’re kidding!” The person already knows the situation is bad; don’t make it seem worse.
The Spotlight Stealer: Sharing details of your own similar situation. “That happened to me, too, but it was worse!” This is not about you; period.
The Eternal Optimist: Minimizing or finding the bright side of the situation. “At least you can get pregnant again later” or “It’s only Stage 1, so it will be fine!” This minimizes the person’s struggle and shames her for struggling at all.
The Counselor: Trying to solve all of the person’s problems. “Here’s what you need to do …” Unless the person specifically asks for your advice, just listen and offer understanding.
The Blamer: Telling the person how he could have avoided this situation. “If you hadn’t been drunk, that probably wouldn’t have happened.” I hope this one doesn’t need explanation.
I’ve definitely witnessed people respond in all of these roles, but the one that sticks with me is The Blamer. Seriously, someone did this to me when he heard about my sister being arrested for drugs. He said, “You know, when my boys were teenagers, we just always had the friends over to our house so we knew what was going on.” Although I had (and still have) a lot of respect for this man in other areas, he immediately created a disconnection between us. With absolutely no background knowledge, he immediately judged my parents and implied it was their fault my sister was an addict and got arrested. I still remember his response and it was 20 years ago.
Although we don’t set out to respond inappropriately, we must recognize that insensitive comments can often cause more hurt for the person who is already struggling. And that’s why it’s important to understand empathy and how to be empathic when people choose to share with us.
And I’ll be honest: I hadn’t given this issue much thought until I recently talked to my sister about the difference between sympathy and empathy and the importance of empathy in healing and recovery. My sister is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor who helps people deal with weighty issues like addiction, shame, guilt, and growth mindset. Her explanation helped me see how my own responses may have missed the mark. I am now much more aware of this issue and I look forward to working on improving my own empathic responses as a way of experiencing more compassion in my life.
Check out this video for the Reclamation Sisters chat about sympathy and empathy.
Sympathy vs. Empathy
Sympathy is feeling for someone and empathy is feeling with someone. While both are rooted in pathos (feelings or emotion), sympathy shows that you care about what someone else is feeling and empathy shows that you understand what someone else is feeling. And feeling understood is a critical component of our well-being.
When you feel someone does not understand you—your values, principles, beliefs, and feelings—you might feel alone, hopeless, isolated, unsatisfied, or simply irritated. When you feel misunderstood, connection is broken. And as well-intended as sympathy may be, it often drives disconnection and discord between people.
Sympathy says, “I’m sorry you’re in pain.” Sympathy sometimes implies, “I’m glad it’s not me.” At its worst, sympathy reeks of pity and judgement. “Oh, Poor Jane. I can’t believe her son overdosed. How sad. Thank god my son never did drugs. If only she had paid more attention, he probably wouldn’t have gotten caught up with that bad crowd.” This type of response creates disconnection, even when offered with good intention.
Feeling shamed by someone’s response to your struggle often leads to secrecy and disconnection at a time when understanding and connection are most important. This shame, disconnection, and isolation can lead to anxiety and depression.
Check out this video for the Reclamation Sisters chat about shame and guilt.
Empathy says, “I understand and I feel your pain.” Empathy says, “I don’t know exactly what you are going through, but I once experienced something similar. Just know that I’m here with you, to sit with you and listen, to help in any way I can.” Empathy then says nothing.
Just listen. Listen from the other person’s perspective. Listen to listen, not to respond. Listen without judgment or advice. Listen to understand the other person’s feelings and then use that understanding to guide your actions…your actions, not your words. If you understand that your friend is overwhelmed with all the tasks necessary in planning the unexpected funeral for her mother, then offer to care for her children so that she can focus on the planning for awhile. If you understand that the death of his wife has left him unsure of managing on his own, then deliver a meal or two that he can easily heat up for himself.
While we all could probably stand to improve our empathic responses, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. Focus on our common cravings: connection, community, and safety. Start by listening without judgment. Try to understand their perspective and connect with their feelings. Then acknowledge their pain and show your support.
I really like actor Sterling K. Brown on NBC’s This is Us (Randall Pearson), and I love his explanation of empathy. “Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It’s all through our own individual prisms.” Reality is truly subjective and we all need someone who can understand our realities.
You might also like our blog on The Addict in the Hole, a Parable of Empathic Support.
Written by Laura B. Demers, © 2020 Reclamation Sisters