One of the most basic human desires is to be understood. To be heard fully and deeply by another human being.
Yet, the fulfillment of this desire happens all too infrequently. And we are left feeling disconnected and alone.
If you have a mental illness, feelings of isolation and anguish can be your frequent companions—I know this from personal experience, as I had untreated OCD for several decades, and even though I’m much, much better, I will always have OCD and the on and off bouts of depression that can accompany it. When a friend sent me this video a few years ago, I had an Aha! Moment when I realized that the desolation caused by mental disorders is compounded when people don’t receive the empathy they need. Before reading further, please take 3 minutes to watch this entertaining yet sobering look at empathy as eloquently described by Dr. Brené Brown. It may very well be one of the most important things you can do for your relationships with those you care about:
Connection. Not Disconnection.
Let me start out by repeating what Brené said in the video: Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.
While there are many great aspects of our American culture, our use of sympathy is not among them. When someone is down due to a loss, an illness, or whatever, we say, “I’m sorry for your loss/that you are hurting/that this has happened to you.” We send sympathy cards or sympathy bouquets. We write “with deepest sympathy” when we are trying to express our care and concern. And what does all this sympathy do?
Well, we think it’s helping. That it is showing that we care. That it is demonstrating our love.
But in fact, it is driving a big, fat wedge between the giver and the receiver.
Because when we say, “I’m sorry for…” we are not apologizing. We are doing what the video illustrated. We are telling the person who is hurting that we are separate from them. That she is hurting and we, standing on high above the deep, dark hole where she is stuck, are not.
We are not helping. We are driving disconnection and making that person feel more alone.
Feeling with people
What does the person who is hurting need? Empathy. As Brené describes in the video, empathy is:
Taking the perspective of the other person, and that his perspective is his reality at that moment
Recognizing what the other person is feeling
Letting him know that you understand what he is feeling
To quote Brené: “Empathy is feeling with people.”
I am convinced that the therapy industry exists in large part because people don’t receive the empathy they need in their day-to-day lives. Therapists are taught how to empathize, so people can leave therapy sessions feeling validated that what they are feeling is OK. And that there’s another human being who is willing to be in that dark place with them, however scary it may be.
But we don’t want to wallow!
Isn’t empathy just going to make the receiver wallow in their feelings more? Get them stuck deeper in the dark hole? Makes things worse?
I think that’s a common misperception: that we will make things worse by empathizing.
But in truth, we make things worse by trying to make them better.
It’s uncomfortable to see someone else struggling. It’s painful because we are human, and we can feel another’s pain. So we want to take away that pain.To fix it. To make it better. Not just for them, but for us. Because we don’t want to hurt vicariously either.
But by trying to silver lining (Brené’s new verb) someone else’s pain completely invalidates her experience. It’s as if we are saying to the person, “Your pain is so trivial that mere words can change it.” We are, of course, not trying to say that when we are sympathizing. But we are nonetheless.
Comparison is the thief of happiness: another wonderful quote I heard Brené say in her Gifts of Imperfection ecourse that I think someone else said first. But I digress.
Sometimes we also think it would be helpful to point out to someone who is struggling how good she has it. How in comparison to how things could be that her situation isn’t so bad. Because she must not realize her blessings/good fortune/advantages or she wouldn’t be in so much pain.
For instance, take a person with OCD who is going through the sometimes agonizing process of facing his fears through ERP. While the person is sobbing during a particularly difficult exposure, a well-meaning family member says, “Well, at least you are finally getting the appropriate treatment.”
Comparing his current misery (of doing ERP) to his past misery (of having untreated OCD) does not help him feel less miserable. It just invalidates how he is currently feeling.
I also have clients come in sometimes and say things like, “I feel so guilty struggling with my OCD. My neighbor down the street has cancer, and my struggle is nothing compared with hers.” It’s a no win situation to compare our own struggles with those of another. Either we are doing better than they are, which engenders pity or sympathy for the other person, or we are doing worse, which creates self-pity, and empathy springs from neither. We just end up feeling more isolated, more minimized, and more disconnected from those around us.
Comparison not only steals happiness. It takes connection out the door right along with it.
But don’t we want people to change?
All of us who do cognitive behavioral therapy for a living want to help people make the changes they want to make. Change is good, right? So why even bother with empathy at all? Shouldn’t we just work on change immediately and that will fix the problem and empathy won’t be needed in the first place?
No again. Because in my opinion, change is impossible for someone unless her current feelings are validated.
I am so passionate about this topic because people with OCD are invalidated constantly. We invalidate our own feelings in the midst of an OCD episode because we know our obsessive fears are ridiculous, even though we cannot for the life of us figure out how to stop the ludicrous compulsions the obsessions compel us to do. Then people around us painfully voice the very judgments we hear in our minds, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense! You don’t have to wash your hands [insert incredibly large number here] times. They were clean after the first go around,” and we feel even more marginalized. Then we go into talk therapy where well-meaning therapists try to talk us out of our fears: “You know that this is irrational. So just tell yourself to stop washing your hands so much. Just use your willpower. You can do it.”
One of my most important tasks when I meet with clients is to validate that what they are feeling is real. Not that the obsessions are real. That what they are feeling is real. Because it is. It’s their reality.
I cannot begin to express the relief that I see wash over clients’ faces when they find someone who understands. Who hears them. Who validates that their experience matters. And is real.
Because only when Person A knows that the Person B truly understands her pain can Person A trust Person B enough for the change process to work. If Person A feels misunderstood, she will keep trying and trying and trying to make herself understood, losing trust in Person B with every failed attempt to make herself known.
Does that mean that you have to have OCD to treat OCD? Absolutely not. (You do have to know exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) to treat OCD, however, because it’s the evidence-based therapy for the disorder.) Most therapists don’t have the conditions they treat. But most therapists do have incredible empathy skills. And it’s that validation that kicks off any change process.
So is skipping empathy and moving right to change useful? No. Because the misunderstood person will ignore whatever the other is saying, disregarding any attempts at change, until she feels heard.
I am here with you
How can we be empathetic? Let’s take the example of the person going through OCD therapy above. An empathic response would be, “I can tell this is so hard for you and that you are in so much pain right now. I am here with you, and we will get through this together.”
We are now down in the hole with that person. “I know what it’s like down here, and you are not alone.” Or, if you really don’t know what it’s like in the hole, Brené suggests, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m so glad you told me…..and I’m here for you.”
When I meet with family members of my clients, I try to always talk about the importance of empathy. Families almost always want change, sometimes even more than the clients themselves. But clients will have a harder time changing or may even resist changing on an unconscious level if they feel misunderstood by the people who love them most.
You can give empathy to yourself
Our world is unfortunately not filled with empathy, and it’s almost impossible to change another person or how they interact with you so that you receive more empathy. So if you are hurting and not getting empathy, are you just stuck down in that hole until you find someone who will give it to you?
No, because you can give yourself empathy. It’s called self-compassion. Even in those darkest places, we are always available to give ourselves understanding. To use the example from above, here’s how:
“I am feeling so scared and alone right now, and that’s OK. I bet many people going though OCD therapy feel this way, because this is one of the hardest types of therapy around according to my therapist. So I’m going to be really kind to myself today, like I would treat my very best friend who is hurting.”
You may be reading this thinking, “Well, crap! I’ve totally messed up. I’ve been giving sympathy to people and that’s wrong!” There’s no right or wrong here, there’s just more helpful and less helpful. Giving empathy is more of an art than science, and it takes awhile to learn. No one does it well all the time. Even therapists who are trained in it end up not being empathetic some of the time (myself included).
What’s important is to try. And to know that it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to us, because it’s not built into the fabric of our culture, and it’s not often taught. Leaders such as Brene Brown, with her TED Talks on vulnerability and shame, and Monica Lewinsky, with her TED Talk on the need for empathy online, are working to change how we relate to each other. But it will take time for us individually and collectively to make empathy part of our day-to-day language.
If you’ve given more sympathy than empathy, it’s OK. You are not alone. I’ve been less than empathic at times, too, and sometimes even when I try, I miss the mark. Take this opportunity to give yourself some self-compassion—it’s the first step toward being empathic with others.
One of the most important skills you can learn
If you want to make a difference in the lives of those around you today, practice empathy. It is a skill like any other, and the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
As Brené said, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Empathy is one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones. It’s the gift of being understood. Of being heard. Of having a true and meaningful connection with those you love.
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Disclaimer: Aha! Moments are my own personal opinions and experiences and are not meant to be a replacement for therapy.