You hear from your loved one about their struggle and you’ve tried to be there for them the best way you know how. Your loved one may not live so close to you. Distance makes the barrier higher for you to traverse. You don’t feel like you’re making headway. You wonder if only it weren’t for the distance that things would be better. But you just don’t know how to go about making that happen where you are.
You tell them all the things that you thought you were supposed to tell them to show that you cared.
“Everything is going to be ok.”
“You’re strong. You’ll get this through this fine.”
Empathy has become a hot buzz word nowadays. But not many people look into what empathy means and how to show empathy to one another. Empathy is more than just sympathizing with someone else’s situation, it is trying to stand in their shoes to see how someone may be feeling at that moment.
Empathy and vulnerability are terms that go hand and hand. As the listener, you try to give an empathetic response and as the communicator, you try to open up and show vulnerability. Both sides are acts of courage. It is hard to allow yourself to not only have your feelings openly but allow yourself to feel what the other is feeling at the same time.
Below are some topics to think about in learning to be present in a fuller more caring way with those you love.
To Stand in Someone Else’s Shoes
Showing empathy to someone or being empathetic is trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That means not just stating that they are strong and will get through it. It means trying to understand how they feel at that moment. The person you care about may not feel strong. They may feel very weak and are reaching out to you for support.
It’s not that you want to tell your loved one that they are powerless. It’s that you want to be understanding of where they are at. You want to be in the “in the here and now,” with them. Additionally, you don’t want to make them feel like you are brushing them off.
To be empathic is to be vulnerable. It means you help to create a safe space for you and the person you care about to open up. Sometimes, it can be very hard for some people to talk about how they feel and what has been going on personally in their lives. If they trust you over others, this is a compliment to you because you know how to begin to create this safe space.
Warning: No Judgement Zone
It’s really easy to have judgments about what other people are going through. To be there for someone in an empathic way means that you put your judgment to the side. The situation that your friend or family member may be going through may seem like it has an easy solution to you. But for them, it may have been something that they weren’t expecting or an issue that the solution has not been so easily obtained or settled upon. It also may be a situation that they may feel ashamed or embarrassed of.
An easy way to try to create a comfortable place without judgment is simply to ask open-ended questions. An open-ended question means that the answer is not one word such as yes or no. They are questions that invite for more conversation. The more your loved one is allowed to talk the better. It may not seem like much and there may be no solution at the end of the conversation but they were able to get their concern off of their chest. This was something they were not able to do before.
Verbalizing What the Other is Feeling
When you are in the midst of conversation, reframe or verbalize back to your loved one what they are feeling. This is an act of validation for that person and validation is powerful. Validation means that what you are feeling is credible and valued. When you show validation, it shows an act of caring for the other person in the conversation.
By validating someone else’s experience, you are drawing them closer to you. You are creating a true connection. This person may have felt ashamed to say what they were experiencing before and often times being shamed by others around them has been a common experience.
The goal is to create a safe space for communication. This is a strength that you cannot only use with those you care about but in other settings as well. We are in a world where sometimes we are afraid to talk about how we feel because of fear of being seen as weak or having those conversations used against us at a later time. In the US, we are in a current socio-political context where we have lost touch with these aspects of empathy and vulnerability.
If the goal is to create a better world or a stronger family the first person that needs to model these actions is yourself. We can’t control other people and we cannot predict what is going to happen next, but we can develop ourselves and advance the ways in which we communicate with others.
Your family and friends wherever they are, are going to go through their trials and tribulations as well as their blessings. While you won’t have the power to protect them from hardship, you are able to be present with them in the way that you can. While it may seem insignificant now, it’s those small acts that seem like nothing to you that can mean everything to someone else.
I am a big fan of Brené Brown and while doing research on how to talk about empathy concisely (which was a lot harder than I thought), I came back to this video below that I watched a few years ago that gives more examples on how to show empathy to those you love.
And By the Way!
My name is Tara. I am a therapist who provides online counseling services in the state of Illinois. This blog post is not therapy and it should not be used as a substitute for therapy. If you would like to talk more, you can schedule a free 15-minute consultation, click here!