I was harboring a secret, until I couldn’t anymore. I told a friend my story in the bathroom of a pub of sorts. It was 2008 and we’d just watched Obama win the election.
I didn’t know how she’d react. My mouth stuck together as I rambled on; I needed Chapstick. I wanted to be understood, to be heard. Mostly, I wanted to be believed.
If you want to describe vulnerability, capture the moment after you’ve bared your soul right before the listener responds.
She said she understood. She said she was sorry and that she couldn’t believe that happened to me. She looked sincerely upset with me. My breathing slowed, my shoulders dropped. She got it. She was with me. My friend told me about a similar situation that she was in and reiterated that I was not alone.
She was a picture of empathy.
Looking back, there were a lot of ways she could have responded that would have been hard for me–throwing me back behind the wall of secrets. We all have stories about us that we wish didn’t happen and moments in our lives we live to forget.
Dr. Brene Brown says there is a huge difference between sympathy and empathy. When someone is in a dark hole and they shout, “It’s dark. I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed,” sympathy leans over the edge of the hole and feels sorry for you or tries to find a silver living. Or maybe throws down a book or a self-help cliche. Yet, empathy climbs down into the dark hole alongside the sufferer and says, “I know what it’s like down here. And you are not alone.”
Just beautiful. But how do we live out this empathy?
Listen to this description of compassion:
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness can we be present in the darkness of others.”
The key to empathy is remembering our own secret darkness when someone is baring their soul and the power to heal or harm lies in our hands.
Hurting people don’t want us to fix them, they want us to be with them. They don’t want us to minimize their problems, spout off curt Jesus-sayings, throw a self-help book at them, or try to make it better–hurting people need us to recognize our own darkness and climb down into the darkness next to them and embrace them.
As I’m writing this, I recall anguishing alongside a close friend for over a year of her suffering through trauma. I also too readily remember responding to a coworker’s sad story with something that started with “at least…”. In essence, I crossed my arms on the side of the dark hole she was in and made her feel worse.
I don’t think there are empathic and non-empathetic people; I believe it’s a learned skill that we have to continually practice.
Learning empathy is uncomfortable because true empathy requires us to be connected to our own imperfections and hardships that we can be present in the darkness of others. It’s much easier to forget about those times when we were falling apart, when nothing was right with the world, when we numbed our feelings for years perhaps with something poisonous (food, alcohol, sex, perfectionism).
One of the reasons I haven’t written in so long, is I have been digging into some of my own darkness in order to be a better wife, sister, friend, and writer. This blog is a place for you take off your mask and be honest about your shadows. If you promise to keep coming back, I promise to keep climbing down into those dark holes and reminding you that you not alone.
What is your experience of empathy? Have you had a friend that was a picture of empathy? What about sympathy?
If you liked this post, you may also like:
- You’re Invited | Real Men Don’t Text Launch Party
- Will He come? | A Story of Forgotten Past
- Overwhelmed and Under-Qualified
- Emilie Parker