The Right Way to Express Empathy

When I was in college, I was in an abusive relationship (more on that later…).  My parents sent me for counseling, which of course I fought, but did for them.  After a few useless sessions, I asked the psychologist, “Have you ever been in an abusive relationship?” She said, “No.”  Then I asked, “Then what do you know about how I feel if you’ve never gone through it?” She looked at me blankly.  I think she was trying to bridge to all of the “research” she’d done, but I walked out.  I was 22 years old, and I think she was 40 something.  No disrespect to research or anything, but until you’ve gone through something awful, devastating, and truly life changing (like it changes your life… every single day), you really don’t understand how someone feels about a certain situation.  And now that I’m the one who is 40 something, I would not fight counseling for anything.  If you get the right therapist, it can make a world of difference.  I just didn’t have the right one.

Last night, I was speaking with a mom friend whose husband suffered a stroke resulting in a traumatic brain injury about a year ago.  Ironically, his event happened the same time as my diagnosis within a few days.  As a matter of fact, we both coached our kids’ volleyball teams and were talking about how much we were looking forward to the school year ahead, and how it was going to be filled with promise and opportunity.  Both of our lives were shattered – our school year ahead was awful, tragic, and devastating; no promise; no opportunity – a lot of sadness and readjustment to our new lives.  Through all I’ve gone through with Emmett and his unmyelinated brain, I could completely relate to all she was talking about.  Her husband is non-verbal and he uses assistive technology to communicate – as does Emmett.  She relayed to me how cumbersome it is, and how frustrating it can be to figure out wants and needs, among many other things.  She was emotional, and I could tell that she doesn’t have a lot of people who have walked in her shoes.  I listened intently and offered comfort and ideas where I thought appropriate.  But I mostly listened with a sincere heart for all she is going through.The Right Way to Express Empathy

There is a fine line between “empathy” and “grandstanding.”  My friend clearly wanted to vent and talk about her experience.  It wasn’t my time to talk about my story with Emmett.  In other words, when someone is pouring out their heart to you about their challenges, don’t start talking about yourself, even though you’ve been through the same thing.  Just nod and listen- if they know your situation, they KNOW all you’ve been through.  They don’t want to hear about it NOW.  Just shut up and listen with a kind ear!  You’ll get your chance at a different time!!  When I was telling someone about how awful I felt after my surgery, they were like, “Oh yes, I had surgery, and I had this and that, and this is what I did, blah blah blah” SHUT THE HELL UP!!  Can I just tell you how awful I feel?  Can you just say, “That totally sucks, and I am so sorry.  How can I help you?”  Is that so tough?  Sheesh!!

 

I was fortunate enough to have a booth at the UPMC Integrative Oncology Wellness Fair last Thursday.  It was the best thing ever!  I was “The Patient is IN.  Meet Stacy.”  My story was displayed for others to read, and then they just wanted to tell their story to someone who could empathize – someone who walks in their shoes – someone who “gets it.”  If they talked, I listened.  If they asked a question, I answered the best and most honestly I could.  If they wanted a positive smile and word, I gave it to them.  But I mostly listened.

As a take off of a quote from my mother-in-law, “Use your ears a little more, and your mouth a little less.”  Yes, I can talk with the best of them… but I like listening 10 times more (little known fact…).  So, today, mostly listen.

Peace in your world today,

Stacy

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