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Empathy - feeling vs. expressing


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There’s a lot of stuff out there on learning to become more empathetic in thought and feeling. I don’t think that’s what I need. I feel empathy pretty dang deep. I DO NOT express it well. I try. I try really hard. But I’m painfully aware that it usually doesn’t hit the mark.

I tend to be solution-focused, but there often isn’t a solution, and then I feel useless. I’m working on the whole “I’m sorry that happened to you,” but I never know where to go from there when the conversation continues. I feel like I’m dressed as a clown at a somber event and I’m just wracking my brain trying to grasp for something that seems like a normal person would find appropriate.

I’ve got all the “stuff” on the inside. I want to be better at conveying it on the outside!

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I don’t think Americans are good at empathy at all. People say horrendous things to people who are grieving. 

Sometimes the only appropriate thing to say is, “This is awful. I’m so sorry.”

And more than that, letting people grieve for more than a few days is often a problem too. 

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It sounds like what would be helpful to work on is reflective listening.  

I hear you saying that you are in a lot of pain.  That sounds hard. How are you dealing with it right now?

Wow, it sounds like you really wanted that job.  That sounds disappointing. How are you processing this?

I think I hear a lot of sadness in your voice. Do you feel sad?

It sounds like you are really trying to have good boundaries with your ex,, but it is exhausting. (gives them an opportunity to expand on their feeling) 

I think it is generally a mistake to try to soothe with words.  What is more helpful is to sit with the person in their struggle and let them talk about it (if they want to) or give them space to be silent if that is what they want.

What you want to avoid (unless they ask, and even then, tread carefully) is to give advice.   As a Christian, the way I put it is to sit in the ashes with them and just grieve their loss with them. Don't try to fix it.  We Americans are so focused on solutions.  A person in pain doesn't want to be fixed. They want to be heard, because for many, being heard means feeling loved.

My personal experience with this is that people really struggle to just sit with you in your grief and loss.  They feel uncomfortable, and this leads them to throw out solutions.  Most of the time they are very well-meaning in doing this, but it does not help the person who is hurting to move toward healing.  In fact, it can cause them to hesitate to share with you because it feels like you are trying to fix them.

For example, I have been having some recent health issues and the short version of the story is that I am having to seek a second opinion.  Some people are grieving with me that I don't have an answer yet, asking me how I am processing it, asking how I feel that day. Others are saying, "You know, four years ago I had something similar and it ended up being stress."  They are well meaning, for sure, they just want me to be better, but they want it on their time frame.  They are uncomfortable to not have answers, so they throw out the answers they think they have, or they change the conversation to themselves because it is awkward to sit in pain with someone. 

I honestly believe that anyone (short of clinical narcissists) can cultivate this ability to reflectively listen and be present for someone. It takes practice. It will feel super awkward at first, and we hate feeling awkward. But I think you will find it will not only help your personal relationships but your work relationships as well.  It is worthwhile to cultivate!

 

Edited by cintinative
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52 minutes ago, Indigo Blue said:

Dunno if it’s a personality thing, or if this is the end result of having been raised a certain way. (Nature vs. nurture?

That’s an interesting question. My parents certainly weren’t outwardly empathic people, but there are also clear neurodivergent traits running through our family tree. Chicken and egg???
 

I suppose it’s also important to recognize that I don’t *accept empathy very well. Maybe that’s blocking me from understanding what feels kind to others.

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31 minutes ago, Katy said:

I don’t think Americans are good at empathy at all. People say horrendous things to people who are grieving. 

Sometimes the only appropriate thing to say is, “This is awful. I’m so sorry.”

And more than that, letting people grieve for more than a few days is often a problem too. 

Yes, there’s definitely an arbitrary timeline put on feelings.  I don’t believe there should be, but I’m absolutely guilty of forgetting to check in/follow up/etc.

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Often what is needed is to NOT say more than: "I  am so sorry you're going through this.  What can I do to help?" And then just witness and listen and make the other feel heard.

I am thoroughly sick of toxic positivity, affirmations, inspirational platitudes or folks blabbing about hope and gratitude and counting blessings. Just acknowledge that some things suck, and remember to check on that person later . A simple text " thinking of you,  how are you holding up?" can mean so much to a struggling or grieving person. 

Edited by regentrude
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Ha, I'm a trained therapist, and I still struggle with this. My personality is practical and solution focused, and I am also a deep feeler of other people's feelings. You might want to check out the info on Highly Sensitive People. Anyway, I have to check myself often because I might feel so bad when the other person feels bad that I try and fix it, perhaps for both our sakes. This has been particularly true with my now young adult kids. I was a big advice giver when they were growing up, and now we are working on what an adult to adult relationship looks like. It's hard, I know.

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Once I became a fully actualized (for lack of a better word) adult I've always been able to feel empathy. Often a tremendous amount. But it was only after I had significant experience being on the receiving end of it that I felt I got a little better at expressing it to others. Still not great, but better than I was. I do think people offering empathy often undervalue a truly heartfelt "I am so sorry." Four simple, common words can seem so inadequate to the person saying them, but sometimes they really are the exact right words, and the only words the receiver really needs to hear.

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YES!!!  I am really struggling because my Uncle is dying. He never lived close to me, but I love him. I sent some words of encouragement to his daughter and some strategies to help her with caregiving since I also had to care for my dad. However, he went from completely healthy to bedridden and expected to die this weekend in a month. She has encouraged us to send him messages.  I already cited a memory in a little video for his 75th birthday a few weeks ago.  But I have absolutely no clue what to say on a video.  He lives in Oregon and I am in Texas. I feel like I will be judged if I don't send something, but have no clue what in the world to say...

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You’re nailing it.... I keep seeing social media posts saying stop sharing personal stories. I personally think that can work sometimes, while other times it makes the story teller seem self involved (guilty). 

So, the advice I’m seeing pushed is to simply validate and listen. More or less. 

If someone keeps talking then maybe you can just say, “I hear you” or “ugh that sounds awful.” I think you’re doing great! 

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re picking out the "right words"

12 minutes ago, TexasProud said:

YES!!!  I am really struggling because my Uncle is dying. He never lived close to me, but I love him. I sent some words of encouragement to his daughter and some strategies to help her with caregiving since I also had to care for my dad. However, he went from completely healthy to bedridden and expected to die this weekend in a month. She has encouraged us to send him messages.  I already cited a memory in a little video for his 75th birthday a few weeks ago.  But I have absolutely no clue what to say on a video.  He lives in Oregon and I am in Texas. I feel like I will be judged if I don't send something, but have no clue what in the world to say...

(( hugs ))

What I learned when my father was dying was: it doesn't matter what words you say; it only matters that you connect. The content doesn't matter; the communication itself does.

Take a picture of a sunset or emergent flower or the ocean or desert or anything, and send it along with a voice message along the lines of, I am thinking of you constantly. I love you.

You cannot imagine how much the *fact that folks check in* matter. So many are afraid to.

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I’m a fix-it personality too- an engineer.  And my best friend had a medically fragile child.  So when she tells me stuff, I first go off to google for her and give her info. And then I step back and go 🤦‍♀️, and say I’m so sorry.  Fortunately she appreciates my practical side of research, but she also appreciates just knowing I’m keeping them in our thoughts and prayers, or lighting a candle for him. When one of mine is sick, she checks in regularly, first thing each morning.  So I’ve learned to check in regularly as well.  
 

After a death, the hardest thing is to see life going on as normal for so many around you, while yours is turned upside down.  The biggest thing for me is people who thought to call or share a story or talk about the dead person months and months later.  To not pretend that it never happened or be scared to bring it up. The actual words didn’t matter.

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When others deal with loss, I think the only thing you can say is "I'm sorry"  There isn't anything you can do to prevent their pain, they must walk that journey themselves.  The only other thing I do is offer help when uts someone close.  A friend is going through a divorce and while I haven't gone through it myself, the only thing I can offer is childcare, an ear, and maybe a meal or occasional text- and not asking about the divorce!  

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9 minutes ago, BusyMom5 said:

When others deal with loss, I think the only thing you can say is "I'm sorry"  There isn't anything you can do to prevent their pain, they must walk that journey themselves.  The only other thing I do is offer help when uts someone close.  A friend is going through a divorce and while I haven't gone through it myself, the only thing I can offer is childcare, an ear, and maybe a meal or occasional text- and not asking about the divorce!  

Depending on what you ask it may not be a big deal. Offering child care is great. 

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1 hour ago, BusyMom5 said:

When others deal with loss, I think the only thing you can say is "I'm sorry"  There isn't anything you can do to prevent their pain, they must walk that journey themselves.  The only other thing I do is offer help when uts someone close.  A friend is going through a divorce and while I haven't gone through it myself, the only thing I can offer is childcare, an ear, and maybe a meal or occasional text- and not asking about the divorce!  

Not asking is good but it’s also ok to put out a feeler by saying “I know you’re going through x, and I don’t want to intrude on that. But if you do want to talk about it that’s ok too. It’s up to you.” 
 

becsuse when i was dealing with a terrible situation it felt weird if people just pretended that it wasn’t there. But I didn’t know who was up for talking about it with me if they didn’t say anything about it.

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This can be a trait of people on the spectrum, something I realized with my son. I can vividly remember yelling (before he was diagnosed) "don't you know how to act _________" (grateful, empathetic,etc) and later realizing nope, no he didn't. 

He FEELS empathy, his actions just don't match up with what people think would go with that. 

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8 hours ago, Carrie12345 said:

I feel like I’m dressed as a clown at a somber event and I’m just wracking my brain trying to grasp for something that seems like a normal person would find appropriate.

I’ve got all the “stuff” on the inside. I want to be better at conveying it on the outside

IKWYM...and I appreciate many of the above suggestions on helpful words to say.  I feel deeply as well for others, but conveying it like others do doesn't sound like it comes across empathically, in my mind. 

Nature vs. nurture? I remember when my grandpa died when I was six. I can remember our family standing around his casket saying our goodbyes. My much older sister meant well, but she bent down and told me if I loved Grandpa, I needed to hold still.  I remember thinking that I was doing nothing at all, maybe looking around, but certainly not wiggling. (Coming from a Catholic family, 1 thing I knew not to do was to wiggle around at services, etc.!) Maybe that contributed to me being super sensitive about how I act/say things around others, especially in group settings?!   

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11 hours ago, cintinative said:

It sounds like what would be helpful to work on is reflective listening.  

This. I also notice that very neurotypical people will make emotion statements ("You must feel very proud!" etc) that reflect they identify with the  unstated emotions I'm feeling. For me to do that requires interoception. Empathy is feeling with, and I FEEL, haha. But then to put WORDS to that feeling and name it, that's interoception. 

https://www.kelly-mahler.com/what-is-interoception/

10 hours ago, regentrude said:

"I  am so sorry you're going through this.  What can I do to help?"

Bingo. When I was in college we had this practical kind of class where they would hit a variety of life topics and they spent a session on grief and how to respond to things. They brought in someone who had been widowed young and she talked about how people would try to say too much, that basically you just needed to say you're sorry for their loss and leave it. Nothing trite, nothing upbeat or consoling or spiritual or hopeful or encouraging or anything else. 

It kind of made a big impression on me and unfortunately it's a tool I've needed a lot the last 20 some years, sigh. 

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