When someone tells you something they are going through that is difficult, and you feel empathy for them, you may furrow your brow, squint your eyes a bit, sincerely feel something in your heart and say, “I’m so sorry to hear that, let me know if there is anything I can do.” Then you my spend the next few hours or days reflecting about their circumstances. You may share their story with a close friend or family member. This will probably help you feel a bit better about it, having shared your concern. I invite you to try doing one active thing-something that may positively affect their circumstance.
When we go through something challenging we tend to be less objective and more likely to ignore the simple solutions. I know when I get a cold I often completely forget about drinking lots of fluids (which is really helpful) but if someone tells me they are sick I immediately remind them of drinking tea and lots of fluids. So, instead of saying “let me know if there is something I can do” try suggesting one or two specific things you can do. Your friend may not be objective in there situation and it really helps to hear even the simplest of suggestions out loud. Be aware not to lecture them that isn’t what I mean at all-just the basic loving things we all need to hear.
We are not clinicians and we should not diagnose, and the issue is not our issue, but we are connected. Our goal is in being effectively empathetic without becoming enmeshed or overly involved.
Effective Empathy is useful and helps to transcend our issues so we can move into more positive action. Inactive sympathy is inactive and can add to the stagnation of an issue. It also does not empower the recipient.
When my baby was born my husband needed to return to work after about two weeks. I was recovering as well as acclimating to parenthood. It was an intense time. My friend, Amy came over one day and helped me more than I could have imagined. Watching her sprightly bounce around my apartment in good health doing my dishes and my laundry gave me such hope that soon I too will have my life and energy back. She had been through an intense birth as well about a year before, and really understood what I was going through. She turned her empathy into effectiveness and I will always be grateful to her for that.
In Moroccan culture it is said that when you go to see a sick person-your presence itself helps them to heal quicker. It’s true! By being a healing presence to an ill person you are giving them the greatest gift of all-you! So next time you think you’d like to help in some way…gracefully insist on coming over to be with them. Remember many people are very stoic-myself included-when they are sick, so try to get past that. Respect their boundaries of course but don’t underestimate the power of being there for someone in need.
If they are far away, pray or send them healing energy. It seems obvious but how many times do we say, “you’re in my thoughts”…and then move onto something else. It takes time to really send your love and positivity. Pause and do it-it is active. At the end of the day you too will feel good having been effective with your empathy and there’s nothing wrong with that! Feeling effective is one of the best feelings in the world especially if it is in helping another.