Navigating Empathy

Navigating Empathy:
Avoiding Common Pitfalls and Cultivating Genuine Connection

As I’ve practiced giving empathy to my husband, daughters, sisters and friends, I’ve noticed some of the ways we attempt to comfort and soothe others that actually might be more hurtful than helpful. I’ve noticed certain behaviors that masquerade as empathy. If you haven’t already, please go back and read our previous blogs about empathy and active listening. Basically, we are learning and practicing loving our spouse, partner and loved ones through active listening and offering empathy.

Empathy is not pity, sympathy, advice, sharing your own story or success, gifts, or fixing the problem. Empathy is not enabling or being a doormat and it’s not giving the positive perspective or the silver lining.

Empathy is not pity.

Feeling sorry for somebody only makes them feel broken and small. Like something must be wrong with them. Or they made bad decisions and therefore deserve the hard times they are facing. Even if there is truth to that, the best way to help somebody make better decisions in the future is by understanding them. Communicate that you are with them no matter what. When we feel understood by somebody else we begin to understand ourselves better as well. Our minds clear and we can think more creatively. Mister Rogers said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are, gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.“

Empathy is not giving advice.

When we give advice, we actually communicate we have the answers, and apparently the hurting one is ignorant and couldn’t figure that out on their own. Again, there might be some truth to that! However, proving somebody’s ignorance will likely only seal the deal confirming they are incapable and leave them in defeat and powerlessness.

Again, when we see somebody hurting or struggling, we naturally want to give them advice so they can stop hurting. Actually, the goal more often is probably so that we don’t feel uncomfortable.

It’s hard to allow ourselves to feel pain, and sometimes harder to feel the pain of somebody else. Of course we don’t want to hurt or see others hurt. However, what do you have to lose? Taking a few moments to feel the sadness, frustration, or anger with somebody else communicates to them they are not alone. You may relate with one or two sentences about your own struggles to alleviate their isolation but be careful to keep your sharing brief and be sure to circle back to their struggle.

Empathy is not telling your own success story or your own sob story.

It’s not about you! It’s OK to briefly state “I remember when I went through (something similar) and it was so hard and I felt so sad and alone. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you. Can you tell me more?“ Again, too often our goal is to quickly make the other person feel better, or to prevent ourselves from feeling bad. But if we genuinely want authentic, connected relationships, we will step into discomfort and awkwardness, and take time to do the right thing. Examine your heart, what do you want? If you want to love this person well you will refrain from explaining all the right things you did to heal and fix your own problems. Empathy is loving, healing, and productive. If you can genuinely sit with someone for a few moments, you’ll likely both feel better in the end. Perhaps once they feel understood, they’ll actually ask for your advice or experiences.

Empathy is not a quick fix or giving gifts.

While these things might be helpful temporarily, they might actually drive defeat. Gifts of items, clothing, money or food certainly can communicate a heart of compassion and awareness, but without empathy may cause one to feel needy and helpless rather than loved and capable. Gifts combined with empathy will demonstrate togetherness, “call me anytime”, “I’m here when you need me, you don’t have to go through this alone”. Are you hearing “I’ll be there” by the Jackson 5? Me too.

Empathy is not being a doormat

Do not take on another’s problems as if they were your own. Again, be aware of trying to fix somebody else’s problems if they haven’t asked you for assistance. Of course, some people would probably be very happy for you to take over their problems, rescue them and be their savior! But that’s a whole other blog about codependency, enabling and dysfunction.

Empathy transcends offering mere positive affirmations or searching for silver linings.

Merely reminding someone of the positives in their life does little to erase or diminish their struggles. True empathy involves deeply listening and understanding, which can help ease discomfort and pain, allowing individuals to better appreciate their blessings and find solace. This sentiment is echoed in a verse from the Bible:

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.

-Proverbs 25:20

The verse’s timeless wisdom resonates deeply, illustrating how ancient texts continue to offer profound insights applicable to modern life.

Empathy is…

Empathy is feeling the hurt, pain, sadness of another in order to demonstrate your love, care and concern. We don’t have to do this for everyone we come into contact with, but are we able to offer a kind, listening ear to those we are closest to? Empathy is asking good questions to allow another to share what’s happening for them so that they don’t feel alone and instead feel understood and loved. Oftentimes, with really good intentions, we see someone who is hurting and we try to help. Obviously it’s difficult to see somebody in pain and not know what to do to help them. Let’s take a minute to explore things we do that might actually end up pushing somebody away and driving isolation and frustration rather than soothing the pain with comfort and pulling us closer together.)

A small caveat here- there is a time and place for everything. I’m certainly not suggesting we have no boundaries or discipline. The need to feel heard and understood does not override responsibilities, does not include manipulation, and is not a license to disrespect anyone. Being empathic also does not mean you’re held captive for hours while one unloads with no regard to your schedule. You’ll need to exercise discernment to implement and balance appropriate boundaries and empathy.

Whether your spouse or loved one is experiencing sickness, loss of a job, or death of a loved one, your ability to empathize will strengthen your connection with them. When you fail to empathize, you drive a wedge between you and the other person creating more pain and isolation.

Yes, listening may feel hard and time consuming at the moment. In the end, however, I’ll bet you’ll find what you and your spouse or loved one are looking for. Love. Peace. Connection.

Christie Orosz, LPCC-S

Christie Orosz, LPCC-S

Christie is the founder of Married Life Counseling and her passion for marriage stems from her own personal journey. Her parents struggled, and then she and her husband struggled. She has the determination to help other couples grow in their marriage.

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