Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Compassion and Empathy: What do they look like?

Someone we care about is hurting.
What should we do?
What are we able to do?
What can we do?

We can empathize or sympathize with our loved one. We can even ignore them.

Empathizing is a great kindness. Empathy is connecting with someone and showing compassion. It's just being there for your friend or neighbors as they are, at that particular moment, as the situation is. It is about being with them as they feel what they feel. We can relate to the suckiness with them. We can ask them if there is something useful we can do for them. We can suggest something that could be useful; for example, if they're too overwhelmed to even figure out what to eat, you can offer them a sandwich. Maybe they need grocery shopping done or need a babysitter. Maybe they need a ride to the doctor, hospital, funeral home or the local pub. Maybe they just need their hand to be held.

This moment is about them. 
Keeping it about them is not easy.

Witnessing our friends in pain is difficult; it hurts us. If they suffer, we suffer too. It's uncomfortable. Some of us might want to fix the hurtful situation for them, be the hero. Making it better will make them feel better, which will make us feel better. If we can make the problem go away, not only will we all stop hurting, but we can feel that we've got things under control. We're a good friend. We helped. We're capable and powerful. 

Sympathy is seeing, and maybe feeling, the hurt with our loved one, but rather than continuing to be with them during the sad moments, we might try talking them out of feeling bad. We might try changing their perspective by helping them see the bright side of things or actions they can take. They're in a dark place and we might believe we're in the light, so we have the answers. It becomes our agenda, not theirs. It can become about us thinking for them, rather than us being with them while they experience what they are feeling.

When in doubt about what to do for a loved one, ask questions about how they are, what they need and how to be of service. Respond to what they are saying and where they are at.  Be careful about advice or suggestions. Too much input from us risks making it about us or our pain. Quizzing a loved one on the details is not always useful to them.

Judging their feelings and arguing with them is another way to react. We can tell them they are upset over nothing.  We can tell them their concern is misplaced. We can tell them they're wrong to feel what they feel. If you were in pain, do you think this reaction would be useful to you?  What about being ignored? Do you think a loved one not recognizing your pain and what you are experiencing would be useful?

Enjoy this video voiced by Dr. Brene Brown: The Power of Empathy.

Sympathy, empathy and compassion can be thought of in other ways. When it comes down to it, we just have to ask ourselves whether we are really listening and our reaction is about them or ourselves.

Tara Brach has some worthwhile things to say about listening and being present for others and ourselves.

Cartoon credit: Hugs, R. (May 20, 2013) Nest. Robot Hugs. Retrieved from