If I know anything about kindness, it’s only what I’ve learned from my many failures to show kindness to others. I’m pretty sure we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. So today I want to share a few things I’ve been thinking about lately.
Empathy is fundamentally about emotions. It’s the ability to understand and respond to another person’s emotions, and even to feel their emotions for yourself. Like most things, it’s a skill that requires constant refinement.
Let’s start with what NOT to do:
Don’t be relatable
The other day my friend shared an insecurity she is dealing with. I related to what she was saying and I had the urge to butt in my own experience. As I was speaking, I began to feel awkward. Did my anecdote help my friend? I doubt it. Did getting it off my chest give me relief? Not really.
Reflecting on our interaction made me think of a quote from professor Brené Brown:
“Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us…Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.”
When someone is vulnerable, it’s a logical reaction to try and relate to them. It seems empathetic: “Oh I feel for you, I know what you’re going through because such and such happened to me.”
Sometimes it’s reassuring to share parallels between someone’s wound and our own. But unless the traumas are identical, making the connection may seem to trivialize someone’s pain.
Actually, even if the circumstances are identical, it can still be unhelpful.
The week I graduated from college I had my heart broken. I sat on the edge of my bed sobbing in the middle of the afternoon and my two housemates sat on either side. One of them had been through a breakup recently. She said, and I remember her exact words:
“Since I broke up with [ex] I have more free time, and I can take Korean classes so I’ll be able to talk with my Mom! So there is always a bright side to breakups!”
Any other time I would have been excited for her classes, but in the moment I felt more devastated than ever. Now I had a broken heart and I wasn’t even learning another language. Lol.
Although her intentions were kindhearted, when she compared her breakup to mine it stung in the worst way. The lesson: to be empathetic, don’t try to be relatable. This is good news. We don’t have to scramble through our bad memories or dig up a list of past misfortunes. Our task is simple:
Accept the full spectrum of human emotion
Emotions may be intense and volatile. They may be completely under the surface and difficult to read. Or they may float somewhere between extremes. There is a high probability that someone’s emotions will not match what you would expect.
When I turned 18 I joined a government service program called Americorps. I flew to Denver, Colorado with a big duffel bag and no idea what I was getting myself into. It was my first time away from home, and here I was living in a dormitory with several hundred young adults from all over the country.
Something horrible happened on my third night there. Our campus was bordered by a 4-lane boulevard where vehicles routinely went over the speed limit. Directly across from us was a strip mall with fast food restaurants and a dive bar. The crosswalk was way out of the way. To cross at the stoplight, you had to walk an extra half mile. Needless to say, there was a big problem with jaywalking across the busy street.
The dive bar was lax with ID’ing patrons so it was a popular spot with all of us. In the early hours of the morning, I was walking back from the crosswalk with a group of people. We came across a crowd gathered at the side of the road. Someone was lying on the sidewalk. It was one of our crew members who we had just been drinking with at the bar. He was dead. A car had hit him as he ran across the street.
All I knew about him was that he was 18 years old, away from home for the first time, and very excited to be part of the service program.
I cried in my bunkbed that night. Meanwhile my roommate—who had actually seen the incident occur—had a very different reaction than me. She was stoic and kept saying, “death is a part of life.”
In the cafeteria the next morning some people wanted to replay the event in detail while others seemed anxious to move on. We all went together to the big auditorium where the regional administrator spoke to everyone. I will never forget something he said:
“Look around this auditorium. There’s 350 of you here. That means there are 350 different and equally valid emotional responses to this tragedy.”
Only when we can truly accept the emotions of our loved ones is it possible to:
Just be present
Humans have an innate desire to be seen and heard during vulnerable moments. To show true empathy requires you to do less, not more.
- Listen with your full attention.
- If you say anything, let it be something simple:
“I’m here for you.”
“I am so sorry you have to experience this pain.”
“I don’t know what to say, but thank you for sharing with me.”
Of course, you don’t have to say exactly those phrases. You can say any variation that fits the mood.
Sometimes the best thing to do is say nothing at all. Just be quietly present with someone and soak in the moment. Back to my college breakup story: my other housemate did not say a single word to me while I wept. She just rested her hand on my knee and I felt very comforted by her simple gesture.
These same principles apply when someone shares a joyous moment with you. Nothing can deflate someone’s excitement as quick as another person elbowing their way into the spotlight. “Oh you have that? Cool, let me tell you about how I have THIS!” One-upping is the opposite of empathy.
Another thing to remember is that when someone confides to you during a personal crisis, 90% of the time they do not want your advice (unless they specifically ask for it, and let’s be real, sometimes not even then). Again, this is good news. Unless you are a licensed therapist, do you really feel qualified to give advice? I know I don’t!
Define and defend your boundaries
If I asked you what your boundaries are with your friends and family, could you tell me? I couldn’t answer this question for myself until very recently.
In relationships, I’ve often prioritized what others want over what I need. This is surprisingly easy to do when you never even ask yourself the question: “What do I need?”
My husband has helped me understand that I have a tendency to be a people-pleaser. I’ve realized that people-pleasing is not synonymous with empathy. There’s a lot of things that empathy isn’t.
Empathy does’t ask you to be someone’s constant source of emotional support. Empathy doesn’t obligate you to be a confidante when you’re uncomfortable with the circumstances. Empathy doesn’t mean you can’t tell someone “no.”
Boundaries are important but I’m still learning about them, so I’ll continue this topic another day.