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