Nearly every week, I have a conversation with someone who tries to comfort me by showing empathy but accomplishes the opposite.
Here’s how it happens. Someone asks me how I’m doing. Instead of taking the easy way out and saying “fine” or “I’m getting by”, I decide to risk disclosure.
Me: I screw up simple tasks much more often than I used to. For instance, yesterday I showed up at the doctor’s office for my monthly shot, but it isn’t scheduled until tomorrow. I’d put it in my calendar wrong. Also yesterday I was making airline reservations online. After I finished, I noticed the reservation dates were off by a week. So I had to cancel and remake them.
Friend: Oh I know! I do things like that all the time!
What can I say? I know they mean well, so I’d rather not be sarcastic. What these misguided empathizers don’t realize is that they are invalidating my suffering. By equating my cancer-treatment-induced struggle with their normal daily experience, they are saying I haven’t offered a valid reason to not be “fine.”
Maybe they’ve never been very good with the details of dates and times. But I used to be. I’m not anymore. So I’ve experienced a loss they have inadvertently canceled out. It doesn’t feel good.
True empathy says something like this: “It sounds like that’s a big change for you. How does that feel? What do you think is causing it? Have you found anything that helps you cope better with it?”. Real empathy would first try understanding my experience from my point of view. Trained counselors have learned to talk this way, to ask open-ended, validating questions rather than immediately trying to make me feel better by telling me things. I’ve found that most people aren’t interested in understanding. They are interested in identifying, categorizing, and fixing. Or talking about themselves.
When I get hit with “That happens to me all the time!” or “I do that all the time!”, I feel like saying, “Oh, you mean you have cancer too? I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
So far I’ve only thought that, rather than saying it aloud, but I’m not dead yet.
I live in hope that one day someone besides a trained counselor will respond to my griping by trying to understand what it’s like for me. It’s not difficult. Ask open-ended questions instead of making statements. Don’t assume you know how I feel or why. Don’t try to fix it for me with advice unless I’m seeking advice. Don’t compare my experience to your own or your uncle’s. Or do so with the utmost caution, seeing if the story you’re telling me resonates with my experience or is different.
I could escape the problem by avoiding disclosure. When people ask me how I’m doing, I could say “fine” and then change the subject. But I’ve never been that kind of person. And when I ask people how they are doing, I want to know.
(This post adapted from my book.)