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
- Not judging
- 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?
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