Empathy is one of those things that keeps popping up in my life.
Like it’s yelling “Look at me! Look at me!”
But empathy was also one of those things that I thought I knew. So I would ignore empathy as it yelled thinking “I’ve already looked at you, I need to look for something else.”
You see, I’ve always considered myself a very empathetic person. And I do believe I am. At least my emotional intelligence test says I am. And that sounds pretty official. So I think between my feeling that I am and my test results, I can almost kind of confidently say that I’m an empathetic person.
What I realized this weekend. Is you can be an empathetic person and still not treat people with empathy.
AND MY JAW DROPPED.
I am empathetic because I can easily sense what other people are feeling. However, I have rarely treated people with empathy. I have often treated people with sympathy. I have often tried to silver line their situation. I have often tried to help solve their problem. I thought that because I was naturally empathetic, this was treating people with empathy.
But it’s not.
Turns out treating people with empathy is much much simpler than this.
Like scary simple.
And, while being empathetic helps with treating people with empathy, you can also develop your ability to recognize emotions in other people.
So what does treating people with empathy entail?
Listening and then reflecting back the feelings they directly or indirectly told you about.
Because by doing that first of all you’re showing you really were listening and second of all, you are validating their feelings. And sometimes all we need is validation. Sometimes all we need is to know that it’s ok that we feel the way that we do.
Ok. So here’s an almost real life example of this. And this is a good example of how, even though this sounds easy, most of us have responded differently for so long that it’s hard just to get us off our one-upping, silver-lining, solution-finding auto pilot.
A lot of the details of this story have been altered. They are unimportant.
The other day my friend Janet called me up. She was in tears. Her brother had lied to her about something, and he got caught in the lie. When she confronted her brother about it he said he thought it would be better for her to not know the truth.
At first I started telling her to remember that his actions are a reflection of his character and his issues and not a reflection of her. But then I literally stopped midsentence. I said, “Forget all that. It sounds to me like you’re really disappointed and very upset by his behavior. I am sorry that you feel that way.” And I heard her voice calm down a bit and she said “Yes, that’s how I feel.”
And in my mind I was like “BOOM! Empathy!”
For a while I’ve talked to my therapist about how I feel like a lot of people come to me in times of trouble (“Let It be” just started playing in my head). She told me again and again that I don’t need to give advice or try to fix anything, I just need to reflect what they said to me back at them.
She didn’t call it empathy, but that’s just what that is.
It’s hard. It’s hard when someone you care about tells you they’re hurting to not immediately try to fix it, to provide methods you use, or ideas you have.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to not take their hurt very personally. This is the idea of feeling for them instead of with them. You can’t take someone else’s feelings away by feeling them yourself. You can only share in their hurt.
Sometimes I take it personally in that their hurt must mean that I am a bad friend/partner/daughter/sister. This is horribly selfish of me and something I’m working really hard to not do.
But at least I’m trying. I challenge you to be aware of how you react when people are vulnerable to you. I always assumed I reacted well because I’d always been told I was empathetic. But there have been many times that I have reacted horribly. I wish I could go back to those times and do them over. But we cannot change the past, just learn from it.
OK, now go watch this video.