I have a few very un-empathetic people in my life. The tough love believers. A while back I expressed some hurt feelings in a sort of, I will admit, whiny and verbal vomit kind of way. Most people ignored it, let me vent, but this one person, true to their nature, told me to basically suck it up. It was all in my head. It was hard to hear. It upset me and took me a while to shake off, but when I did I then sat down and put down these thoughts on empathy. They are not perfect and I want to invite you, my reader, to give me feedback. Let me hear your stories. Help me perfect my empathology.
Empathy is not, “suck it up”.
Empathy is not tough love.
Nor is it, “look on the bright side”.
Empathy does not tell you, “it is all in your head”.
There are no, “at least” statements.
- At least you have your health
- At least tomorrow is a new day
- At least now you know what not to do
- At least you are stronger now
There is no “it could be worse” with empathy.
So then, what is empathy? Because sometimes it feels a little abstract…
Empathy is getting into the muck and mire—into the dark pit with the person.
Empathy is feeling those feelings along with them if you can, if you share a similar experience.
Empathy is an arm around the waist, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold.
Empathy is being there, simply there, even with nothing to say.
Empathy might be crying.
As Fred Rogers once said, and I believe him to be the king of empathy:
People have said, “Don’t cry” to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, “I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.”
I’d rather have them say, “Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.”
This is empathy.
But empathy is not easy, it goes against our selfish nature. It goes against our comfort. We often make the mistake of thinking we have to fill the void of pain with words. Instead of actively listening, we hear, but are busy trying to think of what to say. We may even pass the baton, saying and believing that ‘so and so’ is much better at this or has experience with this and ‘you should go talk to them’. Empathy, like most worthwhile things, is a skill that must be learned and honed. A muscle that must be stretched and exercised.
Here’s a place to start: first think of sad, hurt people not as problems to avoid or run from, but as opportunities. We all know how we would like to be treated when we are upset, use that as a foundation. Mr. Rogers said:
Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle’. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.
No one gets things perfectly all the time, so give yourself some grace. Remember love is a struggle, likewise so is empathy.
Second, you are not fixing. As the quote says, ‘strive to accept that person’ right exactly where and as they are. In moments of hurt, people do not want to know that they are broken, that they are wrong or even that a solution exists. Not at first anyway and possibly not from you. They just need to know that you care for them as they are in their shattered state. Later, when they ask for guidance, if they ask for guidance, then you may give it, tenderly.
Third, usually people know what they must do, what needs to be fixed. But in the midst of hurt they just need a shoulder. Empathy is just being that. Only that. You are a crutch until they can begin to help themselves.