What Empathy Is and What It Is Not

photo-1418225043143-90858d2301b4 I went hiking with a friend a few weeks ago and learned a lot about empathy. I learned a lot about it from myself, who was not being very empathetic. My friend was sharing a really hard thing with me and I kept chiming in with examples from my own life. Something deep down inside of me was saying, “Stop doing that. You’re not helping.” But I couldn’t. I just kept sharing my own stories, diminishing and quieting hers.

I really was trying to be a good friend. I was trying to be an empathetic friend, but what my friend really needed from me that day was to shut up and listen.

Empathy is a tricky thing. I used to think I was really good at it, but over the years I’ve realized I’m lacking in this area quite a bit. I’ve come across some incredibly empathetic people in the last few years who have taught me a lot about what empathy is and what it is not:

Empathy is not… Sharing you own experiences. I am notoriously terrible about this, like that time on the hike I mentioned. When a friend is sharing something with you and you interrupt with a “yeah, that happened to me too and here’s what I did” type of statement, it can seem empathetic, but really, its kind of interruptive. It’s almost like saying, “Your struggle is not unique. It happens to all of us.” We think we are making our friend feel better and less alone, when really, we are diminishing her experience.

Empathy is… Listening. Lots and lots of listening. When someone listens to me, like really listens and isn’t just waiting for her turn to talk, I feel cared for. I feel like my words are landing on a soft pillow and will be held with care, rather than landing in an unsafe place.

Empathy is not… Fixing someone’s problem. I also like to do this but am trying to make myself be comfortable with listening and hearing rather than rattling off a list of things they can do to improve their situation. I used to think I was a really good friend for doing this. Now I realize I’m being a better friend when I say things like, “That’s hard.” And then remain completely silent. It’s uncomfortable, but when someone does this for me, I can feel them feel my pain and that is better for my pain in that moment than fixing it is. Pain can’t really be “fixed” anyways.

Empathy is… Relating to others no matter how different their struggles are from your own. My friend who worked with a prison ministry for several years said he worried about empathizing with the men there because his life was so different from theirs. After spending time with them though, he realized they were much more similar than he thought, because we are all human, we are all broken and we all need help.

Empathy is not… “Silverlining” it, as Brene Brown says. “At least” is the worst thing you can say to someone when she shares something difficult with you. If I am grieving something or someone in my life, and I share that with a friend who then tries to point out all of the positive things I still have, my grieving is put on pause. It transports me out of that place. It’s jarring, in a way, and forces me to agree and put on a smile I’m not ready to put on yet. I think learning the art of empathy is one of those lifelong journey things, but I’m so grateful to those who are showing it to me so that I can learn better how to show it back.