What is the best way to ease someone's pain and suffering?
December 12, 2013 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Why is empathy different from sympathy? Because the truth is, rarely, can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.

"In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities."
posted by jammy (13 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
So good! Explains everything about why I felt totally comforted by some friends' responses to a recent hardship, and totally dismissed by others'.
posted by ribbit ribbit at 5:06 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is the full 21 minute talk that this excerpt comes from.
posted by Apoch at 5:06 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

From the full 21-minute video,

To respond emphatically, I would need to try to understand his perspective, stay out of judgement, recognize what he's feeling, and kind of communicate it back.

Reminds me of a Billy Cosby joke, which goes that women don't want to hear what you think, they want to hear what they think but in a deeper voice. In Bill Cosby's humor there's a lot of stuff about men vs. women, so it's not surprising he put it that way, but really that's just an observation about everyone. Not such a flattering picture, but probably accurate.
posted by officer_fred at 5:46 PM on December 12, 2013

It's amazing how many people don't have these skills ... at all.

Also, this seems a lot like Buddhism. (Every time I have that thought, I never know the right way to express it without coming off as cliche or uninformed or something. But.. I'm not.)
posted by bleep at 7:39 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am one of those that doesn't have these skills at all and I agree, but it's still speaking a language I don't quite grok.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:45 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

When a traumatic event happens to you, one of the worst parts is that you are yanked out of your normal, everyday life as Regular Person and put into the role of Tragic Victim. It's very isolating. Everyone is either avoiding you or staring at you in astonishment like a train wreck, or acting awkwardly and being uncomfortable, because of you. People are almost scared of you. They don't know what to say or do. And you can't really communicate how you feel well, or act normally, because you are preoccupied with what happened/is happening. They don't know what to expect from you anymore, and that makes interaction confusing for them. And for you.

So, someone who can just be with you, connect with you, eases that. You don't need them to do superheroic things, just treat you like you are still part of the regular human world, complete with all the horrible stuff that's happening to you. To not be scared of you when you are suffering.

This isn't easy to do because horrible stuff is disruptive and they don't know how to deal with it any more than you do, unless they've gone through it too. Or have gone through enough stuff, period, to understand where you are. And on top of that, they also have to be willing to take the time to just sit with you, listen, drink bad coffee at 3am, take your phone calls at odd moments, step out of their own busy lives to be with you.
posted by emjaybee at 8:18 PM on December 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

The process of sitting Shiva is a good way to separate those who can practice empathy from those who do sympathy. Sympathy tends to come from self-imposed pressure to feel like you have to fix the problem, but you can't. Empathy comes from understanding you can't possibly fix the problem, so just being there is the next best thing. A Shiva is all about just being there.

A Shiva gives people constructive ways to be helpful: Can you bring a meal this week? Sign up on the sheet on the fridge. Can you come and be part of the minion so the mourners can say the Kaddish since they can't leave the house? Talk to the family's Rabbi? Even if you can't be in a place of empathy, you can be actively supportive in a way that resonates with the people in pain.

And if any of those things aren't your bag, you can just sit with the bereaved. There's really nothing else to do. At least, not until your not-really-jewish-uncle asks if there are cocktails.
posted by dry white toast at 8:51 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

One thing I've found myself coming face-to-face with re: being empathic with others is how much it calls for me to really feel my feelings - and that includes feeling scared and stressed when my life feels like it's spinning out of control, and being non-judgmental about the times I can't easily being empathetic (and sometimes can't be empathetic) and owning that. It's been really hard because, in my heart of hearts, I'd like to be able to set myself aside every time I needed too, but I've discovered that simply isn't healthy. Somewhat surprisingly, what I've found is that by being honest about the times I was struggling, when I felt stressed and out of sorts, it's inspired the people I help to be empathetic with me - my own weakness becomes a time for them to show strength. Kinda humbling.
posted by Deoridhe at 12:34 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think the other hard part with empathy is being able to say, "I know, I understand, I've been there too," and then leave it at that. Because it is not really about you. You want to let the other person that you actually do know where they're coming from, but not go on and on about your own experience and how you've actually grown so much as a person and really things turned out much better in the end or in some way try to find a positive thing to say because that is yet another way of silver-lining it.

It is amazing how many people cannot sit with pain, cannot sit with the uncomfortable feelings. It includes our own pain as well as others'. Even if you know how much you really wanted someone to just sit with you without offering a solution or a silver lining or an upside the last time you went through something difficult, it is still SO HARD not to do it yourself to someone else.

Or maybe that's just me. I'm sorry, did you want me to shut up and just listen now?
posted by Athanassiel at 2:00 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

One of the things I do on a regular basis when working with clients is to, every month or so, check in with them and ask "Are you continuing to find this useful?". It's not always obvious if that's the case, some clients make significant changes/gains in their lives, and some, no matter how therapy is structured or what modality is used, don't seem to be at that place, movement isn't evident.

Over time it has surprised me how many of those clients, the ones that aren't seeming to make significant changes, reply with a resounding "yes" when asked that question. I will frequently follow up with "What are you finding useful/helpful?", and the vast majority of the time the answer is something like "It's good to have someone who listens and understands, I leave our sessions feeling better, more hopeful."

In those cases, I sometimes feel like I'm being paid to do what everyone should do every day- care, listen, and be willing to reflect on some of our own life experiences for the benefit of others.

Thanks for the post.
posted by HuronBob at 3:17 AM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is a great post; I spent a week at an alternative mental health recovery conference, and this concept was the core of much of the discussion that went on. In my experience it is far more likely to be able to actually help someone this way rather that to impose a framework from my own idea of how I think how things ought to be and how the other person's life is falling short of. So much of the trouble I find in the world seems to come from a lack of connection to others. The best way I know of to help is to go and be with them where they are and listen.

Thanks for this great post!
posted by cybrcamper at 3:57 AM on December 13, 2013

I feel empathy. Expressing it is harder.

I'll watch the longer version of the video later today.
posted by surplus at 6:44 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey, uh, that's not actually the full talk. That 21 minute video was the edited HD version. Sorry about that. If you want to watch the whole unedited hour and change of the talk, that'd be right here. Sorry for the confusion.
posted by Apoch at 12:35 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

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