I recently watched a YouTube clip of Brene Brown, and in it she discussed the difference between empathy and sympathy. This is something that really resonates with me of late.
Often, I share with people the fertility struggle that we have been going through for the last two and a half years and the first response is one of the following:
– Try and fix it (have you gone to see… have you tried…)
– To minimise it (well at least you have…)
– Offer me an example of someone they know (their cousins, uncle’s, neighbours, doctor’s, friend’s daughter) who has gone through something similar (note: not the same) and how well things turned out for them.
– Tell me it will happen when the timing is right.
I don’t want to seem horrible, but please don’t do this! This is sympathy. It is standing from afar, and feeling FOR me. I know that it is coming from a place of good intention, but it means people can keep their distance. They can keep their barriers up and not let their own vulnerability show. By ‘making me feel better’, they don’t have to really feel the space I am in, they don’t have to deal with my feelings, and possibly their own. At a time when I am sharing a very personal, emotional and frankly bloody hard piece of me, the last thing I need is emotional distance. When you repeatedly get sympathy from people it makes you feel really lonely, because it seems as though no one understands what you are going through. In this particular example, this loneliness adds to the loneliness I am already feeling that society has created for women without children, and the loneliness I am feeling when I can’t engage with my friends in this space.
What I need is connection. I am sharing this with you because I want you to be with me, to feel this with me, to be angry with me, to cry with me. I want, and need empathy. Rather than feeling for me, I need you to feel WITH me. It doesn’t mean you have to have gone through what it is I am sharing, just walk beside me, stand with me, be present in my feelings. Brene Brown talks about how the simple gesture of touching one’s hand without speaking is more powerful than a sympathetic verse, and I agree. It is ok, to just say how shitty this is, that you don’t know what to say, to shed a tear with me, or to simply provide an affectionate touch. I will feel that you get what I am going through, that you are with me through it.
I also understand that no one wants their friends being upset and feeling shit, people want to make it better, but here is the thing…you can’t. Just as a friend who is going through a relationship break down knows I can’t change his behaviour, or the cousin who has a child going through sickness knows I can’t make the child better, you can’t change our situation, and that is not why I am sharing it with you.
I am of course only speaking my truth, and others may feel different, though I suspect there are many who would agree with this. But for me, here are some simple tips to remember when a loved one is being vulnerable with you and sharing something causing pain:
– Be present. Obviously don’t be on your phone, or checking other devices, but also don’t be thinking of what to say, what questions to ask. Just listen and be present.
– Avoid comparison. This is similar to being present, but something I have noticed a lot which frustrates me. Situations are unique, and so comparing could make it worse, it could remind the person of how much harder their situation is, how ‘hopeless’ it is for them.
– Match the vulnerability. If that means crying with them, or showing other emotions then do that. You don’t need to ‘be strong’ and try and make the person feel better all the time, because in all honesty there are no words you can say to me that will lessen this heartache.
– Don’t offer an “at least..” comment. Brene Brown talks about this too, and I have to say I laughed out loud when she said it, as I have heard it many times. “At least your marriage is strong” “At least you are healthy” “At least…” Really. Not. Helpful. This again avoids the vulnerability, minimises the experience of the person and although I am all for gratitude (and practice it daily), it really pisses me off. Please just let me feel what I am feeling.
I know this sounds like: just don’t be positive, but it is not about positivity or negativity. I am actually a really positive person, contrary to what you may think after reading this blog. It is about being with people, feeling with people, being vulnerable and letting me feel all the range of human emotions that come with life’s struggles. I know this is hard, it is hard to let people just feel, and often it is hard to just let ourselves feel (this is something society has drilled into us, but that is a whole series of blogs on its own!)
But if you really do this with others, really let them feel, and feel with them you will give them what it is they want and need at this time…to connect, and isn’t this what we really look for as humans?
Mel H x