Have you ever worried that you didn’t do a great job showing empathy? Have you been in a situation where someone shared something troubling and you didn’t know what to say? I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all been in a situation where we didn’t know how to respond or relate. That’s why I’m sharing this simple tip you can use to be more empathetic starting today.
What is empathy?
Psychology Today defines empathy as “the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.” Brené Brown has a better definition. She says that empathy is “feeling with people.”
Trying to truly understand what someone is experiencing can be hard. We all have a unique lens which we view the world through. We’re distinctively wired and have had a lifetime of incomparable experiences.
In an effort to try to make people feel better, we sometimes relate our own experiences to what they’re going through. For example, when someone loses a family member, it’s not uncommon to hear people say, “when I lost my mother (sister, dog, brother) …” While sharing our experiences can be comforting and healing, this isn’t always the best way to show empathy. We are all dying to be heard, so I think that empathy simply means listening, be present, and relating.
That Time I Failed at Empathy
Last summer I realized that a few of us were doing a pretty poor job of showing empathy to a friend. He grew up in a very different environment than the rest of us. He’s an only child from a wealthy family. He grew up in a huge house with a pool and spent summers at the lake. When he visits his family as an adult, he heads to the lake during the summer and Florida during the winter. The gifts he receives are often big-ticket items the rest of us wouldn’t purchase for ourselves. To the rest of our crew, it seems he’s lived a life of ease.
As a result, his concerns about family and life were often brushed off as though they’re not a big deal. The rest of us had real family problems. During one of those conversations, I remembered something I read in Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong, about comparative suffering. She wrote:
Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us. @BreneBrown Click To Tweet
Comparative suffering is a function of fear and scarcity. Falling down, screwing up, and facing hurt often lead to bouts of second-guessing our judgment, our self-trust, and even our worthiness. I am enough can slowly turn into Am I really enough? If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked.
My husband died and that grief is worse than your grief over an empty nest. I’m not allowed to feel disappointed about being passed over for a promotion when my friend just found out that his wife has cancer. You’re feeling shame for forgetting your son’s school play? Please—that’s a first-world problem; there are people dying of starvation every minute.
The opposite of scarcity is not abundance; the opposite of scarcity is simply enough. Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who’s going through a divorce. Yes, perspective is critical. But I’m a firm believer that complaining is okay as long as we piss and moan with a little perspective. Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.”
I realized I was doing the same thing to my friend that when done to me, drove me crazy. I can’t stand it when people make assumptions about me and treat me differently because of what I am or am not. Yet we were doing the same thing to our friend because he was raised in an environment that was different from what the rest of us understood.
Earlier this year we all got together and this friend told us about a recent experience that frustrated him. Another friend responded and implied that his frustrations were trivial. I responded, “But none of us really know what that’s like.” My friend jumped up from his seat and shouted, “Thank you! That’s the first time anyone has ever understood. Everyone tries to compare my experience with theirs, but they don’t know what it’s like …”
That got me thinking, maybe the most empathetic thing we can say is that we don’t know what it’s like. This simple statement opens up the conversation for others to share their experience. Then rather than comparing it to our perspective, we can feel with them and experience true empathy.
Months later I found myself in a similar situation. I had to send an email backing out of a commitment due to circumstances that were out of our control. The first response said, “I can’t imagine what you all are experiencing right now.” I thought to myself, you really can’t. I was reminded again that simply stating the truth is one of the most empathetic things we can do. Saying that you don’t know what to say, or that you can’t imagine what that must be like, shows that you’re listening and that you care.