A Guide to Empathy
By Thao Nguyen
Empathy is a complicated thing. Sometimes empathy is built on positivity, for example feeling happy when your best friend wins the championship soccer game he’s been tirelessly training and preparing for. Other times, it’s built on negativity, like bonding with a classmate over a mutual hatred and disdain for the TA who clearly has a vendetta against everyone. But no matter how you slice it, empathy is an emotion that can bring people together deeper and more meaningfully than any other feeling.
Lately though, I feel like people are getting worse at expressing and emoting this complex emotion. Most of us have been taught from a young age to be caring, but not too caring. To be sensitive, but not too sensitive. In fact, for some time, the trend was that in order to be successful, we had to be careless and callous in most of our interactions. And I think that’s really come back around to bite us.
On top of that, social media and the internet have made it much easier to share our emotions through a screen, but not in person. Add that to the “me” mentality that is often a result of social media and you’ve got a medley of influences making it very difficult to empathize.
I’m not saying any of this from a judgmental place. I highly doubt that many of us go out of our ways to make it seem like we don’t care about our loved ones’ situations and feelings. In fact, I like to believe that we are a lot better at putting ourselves in each other’s shoes than a lot of other people. Where we do struggle though, is in expressing our empathy. I’ve often been told that I’m overly empathetic, that I absorb the feelings of those around me so much so that I endanger my own emotional wellbeing.
Personally, I haven’t seen that as much of an issue, and I’m happy when friends and family come to me to vent or share their feelings. Will all of that being said, I can offer some advice on how to best show empathy the next time someone comes to you for comfort.
Our world is a fast moving place, so we’re used to doing things quickly, subconsciously making our next move before the current one is even done. When someone comes to you to share their worries or their joys, listen attentively. Be fully present as you hear what they say, don’t formulate an answer in the back of your head as they’re still speaking. Yes, it’s important to give a real and authentic reaction to what it is they are sharing with you, but it’s also pertinent that you give them your full attention. Doing this will also give you a chance to mull over your thoughts and give a more meaningful answer to any questions they may ask you.
It can be tempting to say something like “Oh my gosh, yes! I went through the exact same thing you’re going through; let me tell you about it.” The danger there is that this easily turns into talking about yourself instead of about the person confiding in you. Your friend or loved one will absolutely appreciate that they aren’t alone in their struggles, but you need to show them that their problems aren’t meaningless compared to yours.
Sometimes our advice can be misguided. For example, a friend might come to you freaking out about her anxiety. The wrong response would be to go on a long winded speech about how to fix said anxiety. Even more wrong is to tell her to give up, or that she has no real reason to be anxious. Choose your words carefully, because they have power. If you’re struggling, ask your friend what it is they want to hear from you. They usually know what they need to hear and just haven’t had the opportunity to ask for it. Sometimes they don’t even need advice or words at all. Sometimes, empathy can be as simple as being a quiet and comforting listening ear.