On empathy

holding hands

Image credit: Pinterest http://www.pinterest.com/pin/526428643915157751/

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?

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12 Responses to “On empathy”
  1. Savannah says:

    Keep on keeping on sister! I love this…

  2. Andrea Ramsay says:

    My name is Andrea Ramsay from USA My boyfriend and I were happy as far

    as I could tell and I never thought that we would break up. When his

    cousin died in a tragic car accident he went back to Philippine for a

    week to be with his family. I could not go because I was in the middle

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    upset that I could not go so I let him be. The next thing that I know,

    he reconnected with an old friend from high school that he had a crush

    on years ago and they started to have an affair! I had no clue what was

    going on until a month after he came back from Philippine.He proceeded

    to see both her and I until I caught him testing her one night. I

    confronted him and he told me the truth about what happened. We broke

    up and went our separate ways. Neither of us fought for our

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  3. Sarah says:

    Thank you, Ruthie. That was… wow- I’m not sure I have the proper words. You have just given me a very large measure of peace. With the situation I’m in right now, that means a lot. My husband is battling pancreatic cancer, and so many times, when I try to explain the way things are, and the way I’m feeling, I get platitudes, or just shock and confusion. Sometimes, people say “What can I do?” and then when I tell them what I really need- they either want to “throw money at the problem”, or they just sit there in what I can only guess is stunned silence, and I leave the conversation with empty hands once again. It is a rare and wonderful occasion, when I encounter someone who has “walked the same path,” puts their arms around me, and says- “let me help you.” Followed by a
    “Let’s …” or, “I will…” or just a simple “I’m here, any time.” And then backs it up
    with action. Empathy is a virtue sorely lacking, and seldom applied, in today’s world.
    Thank you again, ma’am.

  4. Logan Green says:

    “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.” , According to this comment, God is incapable of Compassion, because we are not Equal to God and God doesn’t have any darkness with in himself.

    • Cayly says:

      “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men…” Philippians 2:6

      I agree and disagree with your comment, God has no darkness in Him and we are not equal to Him – true. But He showed His compassion through Jesus…He made Himself equal to us, and chose to step into our darkness just so that He could show us His compassion.

  5. k says:

    Ruthie- this is wonderful. These things are so hard to learn how to be- there are very few examples for us — thanks for writing it out clearly. I am in a recovery type group and we are having such a hard time being empathetic as you are describing. however thankfully most of us understand we are learning!

  6. Sandi A says:

    Thank you Ruthie for sharing this. Lord help me to practise empathy and compassion.

  7. Maureen says:

    Hey Logan,

    I can understand what you’re saying, then I remembered one thing: Jesus at the cross. I used to think the worst thing Jesus went through at the cross was the physical pain of nails through skin, the whipping and the agony of ridicule from people He came down to save. But that wasn’t it-when it says He took on Himself, He who knew no sin became sin-it means He literally went through everything we would ever go through. It’s not just the sins we committed, but the sins committed against us. Jesus is literally the only One who can say I know what you went through not because He’s God, but because He actually went through it at the cross. He took on the illness: His body had the cancer, the depression, suicidal ideation, the despair, the rape and every bad thing you can think of that’s ever been done. He went through it too, just as we did. The only time God was separated from Himself (Father/Son/Holy Spirit) was when Jesus was on that cross.

    So He became man (stripped of His deity) to be just like us, and to take on the darkness that had ever and would ever plague mankind. That’s why we have hope, and we are who we are as Christians-because He did such an amazing thing for each and every one of us at the cross. He did not just go through our hells, but actually gave us all He was entitled to as the Son of God. That’s the beauty of the gospel :)

  8. Maureen says:

    Forgot to add-and that’s why we have hope. Because we know what we go through He’s been through, and was victorious. So no matter what it seems like-I know that I know that I am victorious in Christ.

  9. Steven says:

    Thank you for the post, Ruthie! We’ve certainly missed your thoughts!

    This post came at a very coincidental time. I read this post yesterday and then last night at a weekly Bible study vulnerability was brought up by an individual who said that they struggled with opening up to people. Your post immediately came to mind and I was able to verbally share your thoughts on empathy and vulnerability, although I don’t think I paraphrased it quite as well as you explained it. I did use the dark hole analogy though :-) Sometimes its the small parts of conversation that are the biggest blessing.

  10. Cayly says:

    This is beautiful.

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