On why some people suck at being empathetic…

I almost punched someone in the armpit a few weeks ago. In my brain, I totally punched that person in the armpit, and then in the ankle.

A few weeks ago I was on the phone sharing something very personal with someone I know. I was talking how event X was really difficult on me because of Y. Like a lot of people, because I was talking about something difficult, I started to cry. There I was, chatting on the phone with this person, pouring out my heart and crying like a child.

I was the picture of vulnerability. In that moment, the only thing I wanted was to share my own personal experience with another human being. All I wanted in return, was for that person to hear my pain, and try to connect with me on a human level.

I think we all want that. I think that is why we make friends, get married, and have children. Deep down, we all want to be vulnerable and share deep connections with other people.

After pouring out my heart, the person said to me, ‘Well… at least you can be happy about…. X. And at least you can look forward to Z.’ That is when my brain started reaching through the digital airwaves and punching this person in the hamstring.

I’m not a negative person. In any given day I see that my life is full of amazing things. I have an AMAZING job, a great husband, and super duper friends. I have a car that works, a house, two cute cats, great parents, and – most importantly – a God that loves me. I understand that focusing on your blessings is a good mental exercise in making sure you don’t turn into a Mr. Sour-puss. I’m aware that being negative all the time sucks.

The thing is, in that moment – in the moment when I’m sharing my soul – that is NEVER the moment when you say ‘Well, at least…’

That is never the moment because it shows that instead of you (as the listener) trying to feel empathy, it shows that you are trying to alter the mental state of the person talking. And if you know even .01% of psychology, you should know that you can never force a person to change her mind by making one or two little ‘Well… at least’ comments. In fact, one or two little comments are more likely to drive a person (like me) to want to slap you in the kidney.

I’ve spent the last few weeks pondering why some people suck at empathy. I think my mother would say, ‘Well, some people just don’t know what to do or what to say.’ I think my mother is an empathetic person – perhaps the most empathetic person I know. I agree with my mother that some people aren’t sure what to say, but I think there is a reason for that. I think the causal factor is that the least empathetic people have never really experienced suffering. The reason some people don’t know what to do or say, is because they’ve never been in a position where they need another person to give them empathy. Until you reach the point of receiving empathy, I’m not sure if you can ever really give it out.

The person that sucked at being empathetic has never experienced true suffering. No big deaths, no illnesses, no big family issues, no real money issues, no marriage problems, no kid problems… no… NOTHING.

My mother…. My mother has overcome more than any person I have ever met. My mother overcome a very difficult childhood. She overcame a very difficult first marriage. I am so proud at my mother’s kindness and resilience. As a result, she knows exactly how to act, react, and empathize.

A few days ago a friend came to me to talk to me about his life. This friend has many things that are exceptionally difficult going on in his life. Half way through our conversation, when he was talking about how difficult life has been, he started crying.

The best thing to do when someone is crying – is to cry with them. So that is what we did. My friend and I sat there for a few minutes, and we just cried.

In a one hour conversation, I am not going to be able to fix another person’s problems. Heck, sometimes I feel like I can’t even fix my own problems. One thing I can do, is sit and listen.

At some point, that person that I wanted to punch in the armpit is going to need someone to cry with. Part of me hopes for that moment to come soon. When that moment comes, part of me wants to wait around the corner with a bunch of ‘Well…. At least X, Y and Z.’ Unfortunately, my dear sweet mother didn’t raise me that way. So when that person comes trotting back needing empathy – which is going to happen at some point – I plan on being there.

If you are my friend, and you need to cry – I will cry with you.

If you are my friend, and you need to talk – I can just shut up and listen.

If you are my friend, and you need me – I want to be here for you.

That is what empathy is. It is understanding. It is sharing. It is… just being there.

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