Empathy: That sucks! What do you need? I am here with you!
Updated: Aug 24, 2019
For the past couple of weeks I have been on a journey with my mam because she has something going on in her body that makes her sick and we are still finding out what it is and how it can be treated. I am not going to share more details because I want to honor the confidentiality of her story. It is not mine to tell.
The story that is mine to tell is that it has had a big impact on me. I am normally pretty good in dealing with uncertainty and holding space for vulnerability and it is a whole different story when you are doing that for someone you love and are related to. Long story short: the past couple of days (ok, the whole week actually) I have been in need of empathy and support. I have been on an emotional roller coaster for more than 3 weeks now and I needed someone to be there for me like I have been there for my mam. A rock in a roller coaster world.
So the search for empathy began and although I already knew from my Daring Way TM learning journey that empathy is hard and we often get it wrong, I did not realize how hard it really is to find. I actually think it is even harder if you know what you need. What I needed this week were 3 things that form the core of empathy for me:
1. Someone saying out loud what I have been feeling for the last 3 weeks and by doing so acknowledging that I have the right to feel this way. The magic sentences for where I am right now being: 'that sucks!' or 'that's hard!' The experience of the last days shows hardly anyone says that. What they do say is: 'don't worry, it is going to be okay' or 'someone I know or in my family had a similar thing and it was no big deal' or 'you are awesome, you are going to be able to deal with this!'. All extremely well meant and they might work for some people but not for me. I am the biggest panglossian ever so you can be absolutely sure I have told myself already a trillion times that everything is going to be okay and that there are a million people who had this and are living healthy and happy lives right now. Yes, on some days I might think I am awesome (rarely but it does happen once in a while) but when I reach out to share this story with you, you can be absolutely sure this is a day were awesome and I have nothing in common. So can we please be real for a second and just say what it is? Hard, difficult, uncertain, vulnerable or to sum it up 'that it sucks'? Just to be clear about it and for me to have permission to not having to be strong, panglossian or awesome because none of those are possible anymore?
2. What do you need? I know it is hard to know what I need because we all need different things when looking for empathy. So it is totally okay to not know what I need! That is why the magic question 'what do you need?' was invented!
So if someone is reaching out to you for empathy and you have no clue how to handle it, ask this question! People know what they need if they just stop for a minute and feel where they are right now. It might be going through the best or worst case scenario, a good cry, a good laugh, 6 hours of netflix or the acknowledgement that it is okay to be lost and not wanting to be found for a day or 2. The impact of asking the question is massive because by doing so you are telling me that you are willing to truly listen to where I am and what I need! That is the biggest gift you can give to someone looking for empathy!
3. Hold space for whatever is there. Once you ask the magic question 'what do you need?' you also have to be ready to offer it. So the good news is that asking the question opens the door to real empathy, the bad news is that you have to be willing to enter the room with me. If entering that room scares you or you have so much on your plate already that more is just not an option, then say so. For me it is better that people say 'I cannot go with you right now.' than that they pretend they do and then follow their own agenda and needs instead of mine. Because the thing that really gets in the way of empathy is being in your own story and struggle instead of being with me. There is a big chance that being with me is uncomfortable so real empathy also means you are willing to be uncomfortable yourself and that is a lot to ask. I know because this is one part of empathy I have been struggling with myself. I am totally fine with being uncomfortable by myself but being uncomfortable for the sake of someone else feeling what they need to feel, that requires a lot of practice. Especially because our natural (really?not sure about it) tendency is to fix things if we think someone is experiencing hard emotions. There is a lot more to say about this fixing thing in other posts, for now it is enough to know that this is something I do not need or want because I hate being fixed. If it was fixable I would have done it already so when it is time for empathy fixing is not on the table anymore. Being with me where I am, is the only way to go and thank you so much if you are the brave person who is willing to do that with me!
Conclusion: real empathy is hard to find when you need it and when being so clear on what it requires! Brené Brown said in an interview that if you have 2 or 3 people in your life who have earned the right to hear your most vulnerable story you are a lucky person. Translating that into empathy I think I am a lucky person because I do have people in my life who are able to fulfill several or even all of my empathy needs and I am grateful for that. And I also realised I have a lot of people around me who have absolutely no clue how to do empathy for me. Not sure yet how to handle that, for now I am just going to focus on handling the thing that sucks! That is more than enough for now...
Thanks for sticking with me till the end! In case you don't know me, writing is a way for me to both lock in learning and deal with life challenges and this was me doing both at the same time! If you have comments or questions, feel free!