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

Choices and Chickens

Your journey is a result of a zillion choices. Some choices are big, like where you decide to go to college, or who you choose to marry. Obviously, those choices have major impacts on the course of your experiences. Yet even small, subconscious choices shape your own distinct path of life. I can think back to many small choices that I have made that have shaped my life and created who I am today.

When I graduated from pharmacy school and began working, my time off was extremely valuable. Between spending time with my husband and two small children, doing chores, and shopping for shoes (a pretty big priority), my time was limited. Even though I was fully focused on these responsibilities, I had a little tickle of an idea. Because I had enjoyed my time as a student at the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy, I made a choice to sacrifice a few hours each week to return to the college and sit in the back of the pharmacotherapy classroom. I had every intention of merely sitting there re-absorbing the plethora of clinical information without that ominous concern for “what is going to be on the exam.” It felt good to be there in that learning environment again. It felt right … Hold that thought. We’ll get back to this in a sec.

Fast forward about nine years. Though it wasn’t my favorite topic, I took on the responsibility of teaching a lecture on Behavioral Barriers for Diabetic Patients. I had to stretch my thinking outside of the medication treatment itself; an area in which I had little expertise. It was not something I would have chosen to teach about, but I was thankful for the opportunity, so I pushed ahead and set a goal to teach myself about the struggles of diabetic patients beyond drug treatment. The lecture ultimately contained more global holistic issues that hinder a patient from reaching improved health outcomes. These included feelings of social stigma that may occur when having to give themselves insulin injections in public, and a lack of self-efficacy (which is basically self-confidence that “you can do this”) … Again, hold that thought, this will all make sense soon.

Another path-defining choice I made was to raise chickens. Yep, I am a crazy chicken lady. I love those little hens. They are great listeners when I need to practice any presentation. They just cluck and cluck, and tell me how awesome I am. I digress … Oh, yeah, I became a crazy chicken lady. You may not know this, but there is an actual attraction between chicken people (not romantically, but socially—come on; stay with me). Once we find out that the other person has chickens, we can sit and discuss chickens for hours; what color eggs they are laying, how they are molting during this hot weather, how those foxes are so annoying. You get it. We connect with each other on a chicken level … Again, wait for it, the wrap up is coming.

I could go on and on, but I at least wanted to give you a few examples. These small, sometimes subtle, choices helped me find the most rewarding and exciting journey in life.

Because I made a choice to spend that one hour of my off time to go back to learn more at my alma mater, I eventually was asked to not just sit in the back, but to assist in teaching a few topics. A few months later, I got a phone call I’ll never forget. I was invited by the College of Pharmacy to join their team as a faculty member in developing and growing what is now the very successful Center for Quality Medication Management at UF. I became a UF Professor!! What?!?!?!? I would never have dreamed it; what an honor to be able to be in that stellar learning environment with those amazing students, and they were going to pay me! I was humbled beyond comprehension (and still am).

As I evolved in my teaching career, I later took on the lecture section about behavioral barriers to address improved health outcomes. Because of this experience, I have grown to become a clinical expert who is now creating a concierge life enhancement business that not only helps patients with safe and effective medication usage, but truly guides them holistically to great success in achieving positive health outcomes. I gained the knowledge that if we, as pharmacists, truly want to help our clients/patients effectively manage their conditions and become healthier, we cannot merely counsel them on medications. If we truly want to help our patients, we must take the time to address all of the other influences in their life that are barriers to health success. These include providing coaching in nutrition and fitness, identifying social and economic hurdles, and addressing psychological factors that prohibit them from feeling that they can achieve great health outcomes (and deserve to). Because of that one lecture experience, I am blessed to be creating a business helping my clients in a personal, holistic fashion as a concierge pharmacist.

Now, what about those chickens? Well, because I made the choice to own chickens and become a crazy chicken lady, I have connected with many people that I might not have met otherwise. One of my connections has been instrumental in donating his time to help me create my website for my new business. What a blessing! Who knows how well my business would have kicked off if I had not met my amazing friend; if I had not chosen to become a crazy chicken lady.

In every moment of your life, you are making choices; choices that affect your next minute and your next. Sometimes we regret the choices we have made. Sometimes we don’t even choose, we just “move.” Buying coffee at Starbucks versus the local coffee shop may just lead to a personal connection that opens up a new opportunity. Choosing to be a nerd and stay home to read a book your friend recommended may just lead you to try out that idea that has been bouncing around in your head.

It is important to realize how your journey is influenced by every choice you make and to realize that YOU make the choices in your life (at least the choices that you control). How and what you choose will lead you to your next step in YOUR journey. You are creating your path of life that is uniquely YOURS. Avoid basing your choices on what your friends do, or what you think you “should” do to be accepted. I mean look at me. Owning chickens is not always what most people would choose. And if you try to choose like someone else, you won’t end up where YOU need to be. One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” Be conscious of the decisions you make; be purposeful. Listen to your intuition; follow your heart. You will be glad you did when you arrive where you are truly headed.

 

 

You Are Enough!

We all strive to be our best. We try to eat right.  We try to be active. We try to take time for ourselves. All while also trying to be our best for those we serve; our work teams, our boyfriend/girlfriend, our spouse, our children, our parents, our friends, our pets. It can be overwhelming. We can often put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect. We set expectations that are almost impossible to achieve.  We can begin to believe that we will never be able to earn our “halo.”

Listen to me: You don’t earn your halo.  You have always had one, and believe it or not, it is still there; bright and shiny.  You are perfect just as you are, just as God created you.  You are enough!  Let me say that again.  You are enough!!  Within you is all of the “specialness” that is YOU.  The world has been waiting for you to come along and share yourself with us.  And everything that you are IS ENOUGH! You were “fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful” (Psalm 139:14).

You may say to me, “but I don’t necessarily like who I am right now; I know I can be better.”  Awesome!!  You have goals; you want to be better than yesterday.  You may not be able to achieve all that you want at this moment, but you are trying, and that is what is most important.  The great news is that today is a new day, and with each day we get to try again.  And be honest with yourself; each day is full of successes.  Did you wake up today?  Did you smile at someone today? Did you pack your kids lunch? Did you let someone in front of you in traffic? Did you take the stairs today? How far did you walk from the car to the office?  Are there veggies in your lunch today? Do you have a bottle of water with you right now?  Look at that; you are doing great!  You should celebrate and take a few extra minutes to sit quietly and be thankful for all that you are and all that you were able to achieve today.  You ROCK! Tomorrow you are going to start there and achieve a little bit more.  You got this!

I implore you to start today with a deep breath and a smile; don’t just jump out of bed and hit the ground running.  Center yourself first.  Even a sprinter before a race, will breathe deeply, stretch a little, and mentally visualize running and winning the race.  You deserve the same as you start your journey today.  You are so very strong.  You are brilliantly smart in all things “you.”  No one completes all the wonderful things that you will today like you will.  Actually no one could be a better you, than “you.”  That is your stabilizing constant success; being you.

Life may seem like it is more than you can handle or want to handle.  It may seem overwhelming.  Most of us have more on our plate than we will be able to complete today.  Society seems to place great worth on how much you can achieve.  Society encourages us to believe that achieving more will make those around us happier with us or more accepted.  The bigger tragedy is that we may even internalize this concept over the years, and now believe within ourselves that we must achieve more in order to be proud of ourselves. I mean, look around you at all that everyone else is achieving; you don’t want to fall behind.  STOP IT!

You have lots of responsibilities today and guess what?  You will likely knock most of them out of the park.  Really, you will.  Think of all the things you will accomplish.  You are driven and motivated.  You will not let something slide.  You will do all you can to follow through on your commitments.  You may not be able to accomplish everything, but what you do, you will do to your best at the moment.  And like a small stone in a pond, your actions will slowly start to affect the world around you. The world needs you.  You have a purpose.  We all do.  Most of us are still trying to figure out what it is.  I believe that ultimately our purpose is to share ourselves with the world, our true selves.  Purpose is revealed in even the smallest act you make.  Maybe you don’t complete that project today.  Maybe you don’t finish that manuscript.  Maybe you lose that account that you have been working so hard to get.  But in the journey lies your purpose.

Don’t forget to reward yourself for the small things.  Merely waking up today, showing up today, being “you,” is exactly what the world needed.  And let me say for all of those that you touch today, THANK YOU!  We all appreciate what you do today.  We may not show it.  In fact, sometimes we are struggling in our own path and find it hard to show gratitude to others, but you know what?  Just you walking with us at that moment, helps us, even if we can’t find the energy to show you.

So take that breath, smile, stretch, visualize you running the race of today, and pat yourself on the back.  You will be able to walk your path today like only you can do.  You will rock this!