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

How in the World Did This Chocolate End Up in My Mouth?

You are fired up!  You’ve got this!  You have been talking about eating a healthier diet and reaching a healthier body weight for years.  Oh, yea; today’s the day!  You have planned it out; the kitchen is full of organic, healthy food choices.  Your salad is packed for lunch today.  This is the grand moment that you will turn over a new leaf.  Doesn’t it feel awesome?  I mean, really, don’t you almost feel healthier already?  This is going to be easy.  You are prepared and motivated.  You feel so strong and hopeful about your future success.  You can envision the finish line, and you look and feel amazing standing there as your future self.  Nothing is gonna stop you this time. No way.  No how.

After eating some oatmeal and fruit.  You drive to work, patting yourself on the back.  Great start!  So far, so good.  Walking tall and feeling like a million bucks, you stroll into the office confident that you can take on the world today.  When you arrive, you realize that you have an unplanned meeting with leadership, and they want you to present the results of your current project.  No problem, you remember…you got this today!

Wow, the meeting was brutal and took three hours. A huge chunk of time has been devoured.  Suddenly you realize how much energy was zapped out of you. Feeling hungry, you smile and grab the protein bar you packed.  Haha, see, this is easy.  Why haven’t you done this sooner?

Sitting down at your desk, you are suddenly overwhelmed by how many emails you have received.  By the time you have answered all of your emails, it has been two hours.  What?!?!?  And lunchtime is now almost over.  No worries, you packed that salad.  Whew!  Scarfing down the salad, you realize that you feel a little unsatisfied and wish you had more time to actually enjoy it.  But who has time? Now that it is already 1:30 pm, you must get to your actual work for the day.  There is so much pressure on you to hit the next deadline, get that order out, network with 8 clients, answer more emails, and go to two more unplanned meetings. You are racing the clock, giving 200%. Later in the afternoon, you are sitting in… OK, let’s just say it… boring meetings that are keeping you from getting your “actual workload” done.  With a big sigh and a rub of your forehead, you leave the last meeting of the day at 5:30 pm. Wow, you should be driving home at this time, but you just received information from this last meeting that has to be acted upon today.  As you walk by a coworker’s desk, without thinking, you casually pick up a shiny piece of chocolate from the dish.  You deserve a little sweetness after this crazy busy day. You open it up, pop it in your mouth, and giggle as you read the saying within, “Nothing Can Stop You Today!”

WHAT JUST HAPPENED!!!  How in the world did this chocolate get into my mouth!!  Oh, no!!  What am I doing?!?!? What a goober I am; what a failure.  How could I have let a little piece of candy get the best of me today? Really?!?!? And you thought you were so strong. Yea, right. The phone in your office rings and distracts you. Oh, yea, your boss said he would call you after the meeting and get you those figures you need. Running to your office, you put your “self-bashing” on the back burner.  You will deal with this failure and your weakness later.

Driving home at 6:30 pm, you are exhausted, mind a whirl, stomach growling. You had really planned to get home early and grill that chicken breast. Traffic just has to be horrible today, right? And this wanker in front of you is driving 20 miles under the speed limit blocking the fast lane.  At 7:30 pm you pull into the garage. Today definitely did not go as planned. Where was all of your drive, your confidence? When you left this morning, you were so sure that you were stronger than anything that life would throw at you. Wow, you really deceived yourself. What a lie you told yourself this morning. You should have known that you would fail at eating healthier. Who do you really think you are?

Sitting on the couch about 10 minutes later, you are shoveling ice-cream into your mouth as you watch another episode of your favorite Netflix show of that dysfunctional family. Yea, that’s you. You’ll never change. You, too, are stuck in the body of someone destined to fail in life.

How did this happen when I was so strong and motivated today? I am so ashamed and disappointed. I trick myself into thinking that I can change, but it is hopeless. I might as well fill my pantry with sweats and pasta and enjoy my short, unhealthy life.  I’ll never be able to do this.

Does this sound all too familiar?  You can get so very motivated with great plans, and then life somehow quickly unravels your best intentions.  How did that chocolate get into your mouth anyway?  Did your coworker plan out a huge conspiracy to place a bowl of candy directly along the path to the boss’ office?  Did your leadership know that you were trying your hardest today and devise a wicked plan to keep you tied up in meetings? It might be easy to feel like life purposefully worked against you today. I usually blame the devil. He is always laughing at me as he throws out another curveball. Perhaps the universe is trying to “keep you down.” Likely not.  Likely it was something much more powerful than these.  It was a few long-trained habits.

Habits are like a stalking lion. They are usually quiet and unnoticeable until they pounce, and before long you are sitting with a spoon in a quart of Haagen Dazs.  Habits lead you blindly to repeat a behavior that is ingrained in your psyche. They are extremely powerful and effortless. Did you hear that? Wait a minute. What if we could bend the will of those habits to work “for” us instead of “against” us.  If we could harness our habits, we could accomplish so many of our goals without much effort or thought. Sounds great, but you’ve tried to stop them before. This isn’t the first time you binged on ice cream.  I hear ya.  Those bad habits have been conditioned over many years; they won’t relinquish their hold easily.

How will we retrain them? It took many hours of focus and conditioning to bring you the wonderful skill of blindly listening to your subconscious when it comes to snacks and treats. Listen to me. This is the part where I tell you it is not easy, but it is so very effective and worth all of the time you spend on improving them. You absolutely CAN retrain your habits to be healthier and work for you instead of against you.

Habits are like children. They listen well to your plans for them but quickly get distracted by the shininess of a candy wrapper. You will have to constantly tell them “no, this isn’t good for you” and lead them back to the path of your will. Believe me when I tell you this as well: It gets so much easier. If you commit yourself to change your unhealthy habits to healthy habits, you WILL succeed. “Yea, right.” I hear you whispering to yourself. You’ve tried that before, and yet here you are again. That is the best news I’ve heard because that means you have already accomplished the first phase of harnessing your habits. Step 2, try again. Step 3, try again. This is called conditioning. And conditioning is exactly what it takes to harness those habits. It will become easier as long as you continue to try and change them.

Your children frustrate you, yet you continuously forgive them because you know they need your help and will eventually see your grand plan for them. Habits, like children, need your forgiveness and love. When the bad habits happen again, accept them for what they are. You are not a failure. You are working towards creating a healthier life, and this is part of the journey. Take a deep breath, forgive yourself for succumbing so easily again, and remind yourself of your goal. You are blessed with the opportunity to try again. Believe it or not, next time it will be easier.

The great news is that you can harness the power of your habits and achieve a healthier and happier life. Once your habits are trained, they become a roaring lion that works for you effortlessly and subconsciously; they are your most powerful tool for reaching your goals. Before long, you will walk past that candy dish (and every candy dish) wistfully and without hesitation. And you might just be 10 pounds lighter in your step.  Forgive yourself, keep trying, and celebrate every small win.  You CAN do this. Believe in yourself and the power of your spirit. I believe in you. Now forgive yourself, put that ice cream back in the freezer, get out there again, and harness those habits.