I got a lot of sympathy while growing up.
I was the sick kid lying in a hospital bed with bags under my eyes. I’m sure they betrayed me with a look of defeat.
After a couple years of dealing with my blood disorder I felt like the rest of my life was set in stone. Blood work, hospital, “you can’t do this, you can’t do that”, get a transfusion, repeat.
I could see that the people around me had good intentions and they wanted to make me feel better. But it almost never worked.
The other kids would say things like, “at least you get time off school!” and adults would try to give me a silver lining, “well, it could be worse.”
But none of that made me feel better. It just made me feel like no one understood what I was going through. During those dark times I felt lonely and completely disconnected from other people.
But one day something happened that would impact the rest of my life.
A little boy and his mom approached my bed.
The boy was younger than me, maybe five or six. His mom said something like "My son saw that you are sad, and he wanted to give you this."
He handed me a teddy bear.
I don't remember what the boy or his mom looked like. I don't remember their voices, the expressions on their face, or much at all really. But I remember a feeling of understanding and connection that I will never forget.
That was empathy, and we need it now more than ever.
Empathy and Connection.
Empathy is a powerful force for connecting to other people. It doesn’t focus on making people feel better, as much as just letting them know that you are there.
In order to connect with someone on this level you have to be able to see things from their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and try to feel what they are feeling.
Connect with a part of yourself that has felt the way they are feeling. Let them know that you know it sucks and even though you can’t make them feel better, you are there for them.
To be empathetic you have to let go of judgement. You have to recognize that even if the other person’s emotions don’t make sense to you, it is still how they truthfully feel.
Acknowledge their emotions, and communicate your support.
Rarely does an empathetic response start with “at least.”
“I work too many hours and I have no time for my family.”
“At least you are making money.”
“People only like me for my looks, I can never find someone who likes me for who I am.”
“At least you have people that want your attention.”
It’s very rare that someone reaches out in the hopes that you will say something to fix their situation.
When we are down in the dumps, we just need someone to say “I’ve felt some of those things too, and it sucks. I don’t even know what to say, but I’m glad you told me. I’m here for you.”
What we need is empathy, and a feeling of connection.
When that little boy gave me his teddy bear, I didn’t feel like he pitied me. I felt like he empathized with me, and that is what I needed. Not silver linings, not pity or consolation, but understanding and connection.
That is what empathy is all about, and we need it now more than ever.