Who Is More Wounded? Compassion and Empathy 101

How do you respond when someone says: “My Mother passed away yesterday,” or “I just got laid off of my job?” How about when you hear: “My breast cancer has come back,” or “My husband dumped me for a younger woman?” What do you say when someone shares information that leaves many of us tongue tied?

A surprisingly large number of people respond by matching or topping the lament: “Yeah, I know what you mean. My mother died also. But my dad became so distraught that he had a heart attack at her funeral, so now we have to bury him also.” Or: “You think that’s so bad? My husband ran off with a cover girl model and keeps posting on Facebook that he’s never been so much in love or in lust before. I am just devastated.”

I’ve often wondered what we’re doing when we match someone’s hard luck story with our own. Are we trying to communicate empathy by saying: “I know how you feel” or “I feel your pain?” Are we paralyzed because we don’t know what to say, and therefore shift the focus to our own story, which we find easier to talk about? Or are we narcissists who are so self-absorbed that we simply can’t tolerate it when someone else commands attention?

Of course, there are other ways people may respond to you if you recount a painful tale of woe to them. They may tell you to look on the bright side, that God has a plan for you, that everything happens for a reason, that you should count your blessings—and other such worthless platitudes that do not feel good to hear and are not helpful. Such “advice” is way too smug and arrogant, because it ignores someone else’s pain entirely, and suggests that we should just put on a happy face and ignore our feelings of loss, disappointment, hurt or outrage.

When my house burned to the ground four years ago in the Fourmile Canyon wildfire outside Boulder, Colorado, the most common thing people said to me was: “Oh well, it was just stuff. You can replace all your stuff. Be grateful you didn’t lose your life, your wife or your dogs.” Although I know that advice was well meant and given in good spirit—and was even accurate—it was still remarkably empty to hear. Such words are not comforting, and they can easily make someone feel worse because of the implication that you should not feel badly simply because you lost everything you owned.

What was comforting was hearing clear expressions of compassion and empathy. “Tell me what happened.” “That must feel awful.” “My heart goes out to you.” “What incredibly bad luck. How are you coping?” “What a remarkably resilient person you must be to weather such a storm. What gives you the strength to do it?” and so on.

My point is that we may think we’re offering an appropriate response when we tell our own story in response to another person’s hard luck story, but all too often we are actually invalidating someone else’s pain in order to tell of our own. That is not compassion—and it’s not empathetic. When we respond to someone in that way, we are redirecting the narrative to talk about our own feelings, and we are ignoring or dismissing the other person’s trauma. It’s as if we are engaged in a debate over who is suffering more, or who has the worst luck, or who has the bigger trauma.

Empathy is joining someone with your presence, your response and your heartfelt participation. It’s communicating: “I’m so sorry to hear that.” “I would feel just awful if that happened to me.” “What would ease your pain or give you hope?” and so on.

Pay closer attention to how you handle it when someone recounts their traumatic story to you. Do you meet another person’s story with your own, or are you able to offer your presence and your heart in order to try to ease their pain or make things a little more comforting for them?

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