Empathy: If You Truly Want to Help, Get Down in the Muck

We’ve all been there. A friend has just shared gut-wrenching news. They are getting a divorce. They just received a diagnosis of cancer. They lost their job. They just totaled their car. Their child is failing out of school… The tears are flowing. Your friend feels hopeless, lost, confused. Their world is shattered, and they have no idea how they are going to take the next step.

During these difficult times, we want to be helpful. We think, I want to fix this. I want to bring some light to their darkness. I want to bring them hope. We look for the right words to say to make it all better. This care and concern, along with the desire to see them happier and in a better place, is called sympathy. Sympathy comes from a good place within you, but it might not be the most helpful for your friend at this time. Your friend is nowhere near being ready to move on to a better place; not yet.

What your friend truly needs at this tragic, dark moment is empathy. Empathy is the ability to share the emotions that your friend is experiencing. Sympathy is different from empathy. Let’s look at it this way. Sympathy is like throwing a rope to someone who is in quicksand. Empathy is more like jumping in the muck with them. Wow, that sounds uncomfortable and scary. Yes, it can be. There is an emotional cost for being empathetic, but if you truly want to help your friend, it is worth the price.

Showing empathy should involve these three things:

  • Listen more than you speak. Try to avoid the urge to share your own misery or trauma with the hopes of helping them feel less alone in this tragic time. I know I fall into this trap sometimes when I say, “Yea, I totally get what you are saying. This reminds me of a similar time when I…”  This is actually drawing the attention away from their situation and can lead to them feeling like you just “don’t get it.” You want to make sure that the focus is on them. They need to know that no matter what, they are the most important individual at the moment. Sometimes just listening to them so that they feel “heard” can be exactly what they need during this dark time.
  • Avoid making comments that “help” them feel better. Never start a statement with “at least…” It may seem that you would be giving them a positive spin on the situation, but it truly communicates that you are not grasping the breadth of their agony in the current moment. Also, try to avoid distracting comments. We may think that distracting them or putting a positive spin on the situation will help them feel better. Later in time, this may be correct, but in the darkest moments, they aren’t ready to welcome these more positive thoughts until they process the suffering and pain that they are experiencing at the moment. Examples of non-helpful statements include:
  1. At least you have your health
  2. At least you had a marriage before it fell apart
  3. At least you’ve had some really great life experiences along the way
  4. Let’s forget about it and go get some ice cream. You love ice cream.
  5. You really don’t need him anyway; you can do better.
  • There might not be any perfect words that you can say to make the situation any better, and that is perfectly OK. When we listen to someone in distress our minds can be aflutter with thoughts of “what can I say to make him/her feel better?” In reality, there are likely no words that you can say to change the situation, and nothing you can say or do will make things any better. Sometimes the best we can do is make them feel “less alone.” It can be comforting merely to have someone with you during a time of darkness and struggle.

Empathy requires vulnerability to get down in the muck with the person struggling. It requires connection with the other person and identifying with something within yourself that knows what they might be feeling. Listening and being there with them is first and foremost, and rarely are there any words that you can share that will “fix” their problem. It is much better to be honest and say something like, “I am so glad that you shared this with me. I can’t even imagine what you must be going through right now, but know that I am here for you; you are not alone.” What makes people feel better is connection and relationship, recognizing the soul and energy in the other person as a reflection of our own life force, and getting down in the muck with them during their time of need.

**This is a reflection of Brené Brown and her explanation of empathy. She has written many books on empathy and vulnerability; check them out. And find her YouTube video on empathy here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

One Year Later: 5 Most Important Lessons Learned From Shifting My Life and Career

Heather Hardin, July 2019. One Year After Changing Her Life

It was exactly one year ago, that I boldly followed my heart. My soul was screaming for me to make drastic changes in my life. Enveloped in stress and shame, I realized that I was not living a life aligned with my spirit and purpose. No matter how successful I was at work, I still felt empty. My health was failing. My nights were spent anxiously staring at the ceiling. My relationships were suffering. And more importantly, I felt empty, unhappy, and unfulfilled.

After wrestling with the devil and angel on my shoulders and draining my husband with endless late-night discussions on the topic, I made the courageous decision to resign from my upper-level, successful job to find more joy, peace, and purpose in my life. Let me jump to the end of the story for you. This was the best decision I have ever made in my life (well, second to marrying the most dashing and intelligent man on the planet, of course). Today I want to share the 5 most important lessons that I learned during my life shift. I pray that these bits of wisdom might provide insight into finding more purpose and joy in your own life.

  1. God, the Universe, Life…Everything is working FOR you, not against you. It can be easy to get distracted by all of the negativity around you. You can get consumed by your perceived failures and struggles. But life is full of blessings. You need only adjust and open your perspective. What are these experiences teaching you? What is this struggle opening the door to; how is it making space for your next opportunity? Perhaps you could never find that new perfect job if you didn’t realize your unhappiness with the current one. Life is full of amazing experiences, some tragic and some exhilarating. Blessings and lessons abound in all that you experience. The current moment is the result of your past steps. Your future lies before you as a clean slate to write as you wish. Choose to trust in the flow of the universe. Trust in God’s wisdom. All is moving forward for your own good. Believe in yourself. Believe in the blessings of your life.
  2. Find Your Center. What does that even mean? It means taking time to find out who you are; who you truly are. For this, you have to be still and learn about yourself. We often spend our time “doing” for our career, for our family, for others. We can easily lose sight of ourselves. When you take time to get to know your true Self better, you learn more about what you truly enjoy, what you value, and what you truly want out of life. Find time to break away from your usual routine. Take a walk at lunchtime or after work. Sit by the ocean or a pond. Sit on a bench in the park. Find a simple, relaxing place to be still. Calm your mind (easier said than done, but with continued practice, you’ll be an expert). Try to view your surroundings as if you were a child experiencing them for the first time. Notice the details: the leaves on the trees, the birds’ songs, the wind, the sky. Take a deep breath in, and start to connect with the soul within you. You are a spiritual being having a human experience. No one else is experiencing what you are at this very moment. No one else can, because you are the only amazing you there is. What a blessing to finally grasp the unique person that you are, and then live your life celebrating your experiences with all of the other fellow souls trying to find their way home.
  3. Relish the special person that you are! Stop trying to fit into some mold that you created in your mind. Perhaps it’s who your parents expect you to be. Perhaps it’s some dramatization that you believe society expects you to be. Perhaps it’s some idealized personal expectation that you created for yourself based on a lifetime of trial and error. Listen to these next few words like your life depends on it: Be Honest with Yourself! If you are unhappy, then take a look at your life and be honest about what you want to change. Don’t hold onto goals, jobs, or relationship choices because you think you “should” be happy with them. If you are not happy, then accept that, and then do something about it. If you continue to live a lie to make someone else proud, you will be doomed to a life of unhappiness, stress, and disappointment. Who YOU are is way more important than what people EXPECT you to be. Once you connect with the amazing person that you are and follow your own personal passions, your life will begin to flow along a pathway filled with the most gratifying and joy-filled experiences. Work will become less “work,” and relationships will flourish in a way that seems effortless and light.
  4. You Are Worth It. Having a servant attitude helps us live in sacrifice to others. You are likely very thankful that you have a job and life roles that benefit the ones you love. We appreciate our opportunities to serve others and are proud knowing that what we do benefits those around us. Yet, we lose ourselves in these roles so much so that we are left feeling unworthy ourselves. “Oh no, not me. Happiness is for someone else. I mean really, who is ever truly happy?” In order to serve others, you must find time to fill your own cup. We can serve others so much better when we serve from a place of fulfillment. Again, I implore you to lean into these words: You deserve to be happy. You deserve to live the life of your dreams. You deserve to be respected. You deserve to laugh, love, and find peace. You are worth it!!!
  5. You Can Do it. Nothing is impossible. It may seem that way, but I am here to inform you that it CAN be done. How easily you can talk yourself out of something. Let’s see; what are all of those reasons? Oh yea, you’re not strong enough. You’re not smart enough. You’re not _____enough (fill in the blank). Oh and then there is this… “I can’t because_____.” “Maybe when (this happens) I will do it.” Remember Jesus’ words, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid? (Matthew 8:26 NIV)” Why do you hesitate when you feel it in your soul. If it makes sense to you, and if it feels “right,” then go for it. How fulfilling life will be to create a path that is meant for you. It is right there waiting for you to decide to take the next step. You know what you should do. Now be courageous enough to trust in yourself and take that first step. Remember, life is there waiting to play out for your good. What are you waiting for??

Gifts of Life

Watching a child open birthday presents is such a joy. They are “beside-themselves” excited. As they rip the bright wrapping paper away from the first gift, they quickly glance at the package inside. Just as quickly, they toss the revealed gift aside, reaching anxiously for the next present. “Wait,” you say. “Look what you were given. See how shiny it is? Hold it; isn’t it wonderful? Listen to the beautiful music it makes.” But your child is distracted by the better possibilities hidden within the other boxes wrapped in shiny, colorful paper.

Life is full of gifts that fall in continuous grace upon us. Our lives are lavished with blessings, yet we are just as children. Often as quickly as a gift is upon us, we are reaching anxiously for the next opportunity lest it pass us by and we miss out on something better. How many precious moments have slipped through our fingers because we did not take the time to relish them? How many gifts have rained down upon us, while we paid them no mind, busy stretching forward to what is next?

We can get caught up in the undertow of our experiences. Drifting along, our lives can become a fast-moving stream. For many of us, this is not merely a stream, but a white-water river churning and barreling over jagged rocks. You try to swim harder to keep your head afloat, not really steering your way, but merely being pulled along an uncontrollable, sometimes treacherous flow. You reassure yourself that at least you are moving forward. Others are in the river, too. They seem to be doing well, so this must be the way to keep moving ahead. As you keep working harder, you struggle and lose a little bit of footing. You take on more projects to be better than the next person; that should help gain more control. Your footing is now non-existent. The river feels foreign. You don’t feel in control, and you really don’t even know if you are succeeding at what you are trying to accomplish. But you are “accomplishing;” that is for sure. If achieving is success, then you should be happy and fulfilled. Are you? If you are, then you are deeply blessed. Keep swimming; you have found your purpose. If you are not, then perhaps you need to find a way to re-center yourself.

Getting swept up in the river of your life and career may lead to unhappiness if you don’t take time to enjoy the journey. What a travesty to be traveling along such a lovely landscape and not take the time to enjoy the gift of it all.  Would your life or career suffer if you took the time to occasionally swim to the shoreline for a moment? Sit on the bank and listen to the birds. Touch the prickly grass under your fingertips. Breathe in the smell of the cool air. Look above you at the tree canopy with the sunlight dancing through the leaves. How your heart would dance. Oh, how your soul would sing. Think of the memories you could make, fully enjoying the gifts of this life. What memories are you creating with those around you? Will their memories be of how hard you worked within the river of life, or of those abounding moments when you stopped and enjoyed the “gifts” along the way?

Contrary to what you might think, taking time to be still and present won’t cause you to miss anything important. The rushing river of your career is still there, waiting for your next twist and turn. The flow of life can wait for you to unwrap the moment and enjoy the blessings along the stream. Opportunities will not cease to come your way just because you take the time to enjoy the journey. Your purpose will be fulfilled. Trust in yourself. You have come this far. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you knew everything would work out well? The common quote is “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” Well, if you couldn’t fail (and I know you, you won’t), you would be free to take time and swim to the shore occasionally. When you find stillness and presence in the current moment, you can look-see-touch-smell every aspect of the gifts around you. Often this will clear your mind and remind you of your “why” for this journey in the first place. When you take the time to enjoy the journey and focus on your “why,” you can make clearer decisions when you are in the throes of the river of life.

Stop and take time to be still and enjoy your gifts and blessings. You don’t always have to be working harder to get there first, to be the best, to do more, to reach anxiously for the next opportunity. Don’t get to the waterfall of your life and look back to see the beauty of the river bank that passed you by. Wouldn’t it be better to float away with a smile on your face remembering all of the deep, amazing blessings you fully enjoyed, and yell, “WOW, what a ride!”