Empathy is the hard part. The rest is mechanics. We’re not wired to walk in someone else’s shoes, it’s not our first instinct. Showing up with empathy is difficult, hard to outsource, and will wear you out. But it’s precisely what we need from you.
It’s one of the great risks we run when we allow ourselves to care about another person:
We become invested in their emotional wellness.
Your best friend is hurting. Your partner is in pain. Your coworker is showing signs that something isn’t quite right.
And you feel helpless. Perhaps even panicked.
You care deeply, and you want to help. But you’re not sure how to help.
Fortunately, the caring you feel is a signal you have one of the most powerful helping tools at your disposal:
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Kicking off our series on How to Help, we highlight the role of empathy in helping a loved one who is hurting. Read on for some common impulses you might experience, and practical steps you can take instead.
When you’re concerned for a loved one’s well-being, and you’re unsure how to help, a common impulse is to rush in with opinions, advice, and action plans.
While this stems from the best intentions, to your loved one the sudden onslaught of attention can feel overwhelming, invalidating, even judgmental.
Feeling the impulse to race ahead to help as quickly as you can? That’s natural.
But, pausing to educate yourself first? That’s better.
(If a situation is potentially life-threatening, seek help immediately by calling 911.)
What you can do:
- Make a list of the changes you’ve noticed. Trust your intuition, but resist the urge to rely too heavily on “reading between the lines” of your loved one’s behavior. Focus on observable changes in your loved one’s mood, personality, and behavior, and list them as clearly as you can.
- Do (a reasonable amount of) research. Just as some may be tempted to rush past this step, others will feel pulled to do hours of searching, reading, and cross-referencing. Keep it simple: With your list of observations at hand, set aside a finite block of time (e.g., 20 minutes) to read up on what you’ve noticed in your loved one. Your goal is just to have a frame of reference for what you’re noticing; not to diagnose or fully understand what may be going on.
- Learn the difference between sympathy and empathy. Before you move on to communicating with your loved one about your concerns, it can be helpful to refresh your understanding of empathy. A clear awareness of what empathy truly means will enable you to connect with your loved one more openly and meaningfully.
- Check out this brief animated video for a quick primer on the distinction between sympathy and empathy.
In addition to the impulse to rush past the step of self-education, it’s also common to feel rushed in your expectations of your loved one.
You might find yourself thinking:
How could this have happened?
How can we fix this?
Why won’t they listen?
Why don’t they care?
Why won’t they just…?
If you’re feeling an impulse to rush, know that this is a natural reaction to feeling concerned and unsure how to help.
Practicing patience, however, is an important component of conveying empathy.
What you can do:
- Be patient with yourself. Remember that you’re human, likely overwhelmed or frightened, and doing the best you can.
- Talk with trusted friends and family. It can be helpful to check in with others you trust, to share what you’ve noticed and give them a chance to offer their own observations. Resist the urge to lapse into gossip or lengthy discussions about your loved one; the goal here is to help yourself be patient as you gather your thoughts.
- Adjust your expectations. Regardless of what your loved one may be dealing with, it didn’t happen all at once. Remind yourself that any future change in your loved one’s life may take time.
- Be kinder than necessary. When we’re worried about a loved one’s well-being, we sometimes speak more harshly than we intend. In all your interactions with your loved one, strive for warmth and kindness.
Lead with authenticity.
When you’re ready to approach your loved one with your concerns, it’s natural to feel the need to over-prepare. To rehearse.
If you’re in this position, know that you can make a meaningful, positive impact during a challenging time. Just by showing up as yourself.
Many of us worry that we won’t say the “right” thing. Or that we’ll somehow make things worse. But here’s the truth: Even the simplest words spoken from the heart carry immense healing power.
What you can do:
- Turn inward. Reflect on a time in your own life when you experienced pain or struggle. How did you feel? What did you need most from others?
- Focus on listening. Even if you have advice or stories of your own, resist the urge to share them. Keep the focus on your loved one.
- Speak simply and genuinely. Not sure what to say? Start by reminding your loved one that you care. Next, share your concern about what you’ve noticed. Lastly, reiterate your caring and gratitude for anything they share with you. At a complete loss for words? Be honest about that (e.g., “I don’t even know what to say, I’m just so sorry you’re going through this.”); you might be surprised how much it can help.
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Ready to connect with a therapist for support and guidance on how to help?