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by Alana Gregg, MS

If you look hard enough, there is pain all around us. Whenever we are confronted with pain in someone else, we have to choose how to respond. One choice we have is whether to choose sympathy or empathy. In my facebook live video, I discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is acknowledging someone’s pain without allowing yourself to really feel it. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and actually imagining what it’s like to be them. Empathy makes you feel more heard and understood. It also brings healing through connection because you know you are not alone. So how do you empathize with someone?

What not to say and do

“At least…” As Brene Brown says, you never want to start a sentence with ”at least.” For example, if someone were to say, “I just lost my dad,” you shouldn’t respond with “at least you still have your mom.” Or if someone said, “I just had a miscarriage,” you shouldn’t say, “At least you still have your other children.” It sounds silly, but we do this more often than we think. We try to create some sort of silver lining that will make them feel better, but it actually just minimizes their pain.

“I know how you feel.” People always mean well when they say this. You may have gone through a similar situation and are trying to make them feel better. But it isn’t possible to know exactly how they feel because they are a different person and have circumstances that are unique to them. Make sure the conversation stays focused on them and not yourself.

Make jokes. When someone is hurting, our first instinct is to make someone feel better, right? We just want to take away their pain. Sometimes this is for their benefit, but more often than not, it’s for ours. We are uncomfortable, so we try to lighten the mood. This tells that person that they shouldn’t be sad or hurt or that they should pretend to be ok when they aren’t.

Give advice. Again, we are so quick to want to rescue people from their pain, we start to rattle off any advice we can think of. We want to fix it and make it better, but that might not be what they need. If your first comment starts with “Have you tried…” or “What about doing…,” then you may need to work on your empathy.

What to say and do

“I am here for you.” Using a statement to convey that the person is not alone is one of the greatest ways to display empathy. When we are hurting, we tend to isolate ourselves or believe that no one else cares. Be someone that they can come to whenever they are sad or someone that won’t run away when things get messy.

“That really sucks. I’m so sorry.” When we acknowledge someone’s pain, we are acknowledging that life is really hard sometimes. We should grieve those losses or broken relationships or disappointments. You are telling them that they are normal to feel that way, and that is a gift when their pain may be making them feel crazy.

Don’t say anything and sit with them. Many times when people are hurting, words seem to fall short. Find a way to create a connection by joining with them. This means creating a safe space that allows them to feel whatever it is they need to feel. This could look like giving someone a hug, putting your hand on their shoulder, or crying with them.

Ask clarifying questions. This is the opposite of giving advice. Asking questions and then restating what they’ve said in your own words helps the person feel heard and understood. For instance, “It seems like you felt like you weren’t important. Is that right?” or “I can see how hard this must be for you. What is the hardest thing about that?” You are giving the other person permission to take you deeper into their heart.

See the situation through their eyes. We all have a lens that we see the world through. But we don’t very often take the time to put someone else’s lens on and experience what it’s like to be them. Sit for a minute and think, if I were them, what would I be feeling? It’s only when we take the time to walk in someone else’s shoes that we can really feel their pain and respond with empathy.

Start Therapy in Pennsylvania

Maybe you struggle with empathy because you were never taught how to do it. Or maybe you feel disconnected in your relationships, but you don’t know why. At Lime Tree Counseling in Ambler, PA, our trained counselors would love to teach you new skills that will help you relate to others better. If you are hurting right now, please don’t walk through your pain alone. Our counselors would love to come alongside you and help you experience connection and healing. They specialize in trauma and PTSD treatment, grief, and anxiety counseling. Don’t give in to the lies that say your situation is hopeless or that no one cares. We are waiting for you to reach out and schedule an appointment or a free 15 minute phone consultation.