What is empathy? Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, but empathy is really much more.
My dictionary defines it as “the quality or process of entering fully, through imagination, into another’s feelings or motives.” In the fullest sense, it implies putting yourself into the other person’s shoes, or even getting into his or her skin, so that you really understand and feel his pain, fear – or more positively – his joys.
The opposite of empathy – in communication terms – is invalidation. This is what happens when you express a feeling or idea and the person you are speaking to contradicts or rejects it. And when the emotion happens to be anxiety, sorrow, fear or the like, the rejection can be very painful.
Interestingly, the pain of rejection can be even more profound when the other party bears no ill will towards you. Indeed, the person you have confided in may sincerely believe she is offering you encouragement. But she fails miserably, because there is no empathy.
We have seen in previous articles how devastated children feel when they are on the receiving end of such treatment. But, of course, it’s not only children who feel this kind of trauma.
One writer on the subject, Miriam Adahan, in her book It’s All a Gift, relates how a friend’s eight-month old baby was undergoing treatment for cancer. Mrs. Adahan sat with her for hours, hearing one visitor after another say, “Don’t worry. He’s going to be just fine.”
When they were finally alone, her friend looked at her through tearful eyes and said:
Almost like suffocation…
“Don’t they know how much their optimism hurts me? Don’t they realize that they aren’t letting me talk about what’s most on my mind – that he may not get better? It’s like someone putting a hand over my mouth and suffocating me. I have to lie and smile and say over and over, ‘Of course, everything’s going to be fine,’ which only makes me feel worse. Why can’t these people stop with their optimistic drivel and just listen a little?”
Among other examples of this kind of phenomenon that this author tells over, is the story of a young mother who confided to an older woman how she felt trapped in her house all day long.
“I’m so depressed!” she confessed. “I resent my children and snap at them when they make demands. I think about death all the time.”
Nonsense,” retorted the older woman, “these are the best years of your life!” What’s wrong with you? Don’t you appreciate how wonderful it is to have healthy children? You’re ungrateful, selfish and spoiled.”
The young woman fled the home in tears.
Although there are some folk who take pleasure in being deliberately abusive, most people don’t mean to be cruel when they give pat answers. What they lack is communication skills. They don’t realize that by minimizing people’s pain, they maximize it.
When you respond to your friend’s outburst of anxiety or sorrow with: “You’ll feel better tomorrow,” or: “Don’t worry, time heals!” you may be giving him the message: “There’s something very wrong with you for complaining when there’s nothing to complain about.”
The well-meaning advice: “Just take a hot bath and you’ll perk up!” could be interpreted to mean: “You should have been able to figure out the solution for yourself,” or: “Other people seem to manage in these situations.”
Now, I’ll tell you a fascinating true story – that, on first glance, seems to contradict just about everything I’ve implied up to now.
A certain rabbi, a prominent judge of a Jewish religious court, once suffered a sudden heart attack in the middle of a litigation.
When he arrived at the emergency ward, a doctor, who knew and respected the new patient, examined him. The anxious judge asked the doctor about his condition.
“Nothing to worry about at all” answered the doctor. “You are just overworked. You have to rest up.”
At the end of the somewhat protracted examination, the staff brought in a stretcher along with some very ominous looking medical apparatus. The judge was hooked up to equipment to which all sorts of tubes were attached. The attendants pushed him briskly down a long corridor and straight through a doorway above which hung a bold sign: “Strictly No Entry – Intensive Care Ward.”
This rabbinical judge, of course, was nobody’s fool. His vocation involved critically analyzing situations every day and ferreting out the truth. When the doctor came over to him again, his learned patient asked him pointblank: “Why did you deceive me?”
“You really aren’t very sick,” answered the doctor, surprisingly. “But I am confronted with hundreds of ethical questions every day, and I have no one to ask. I thought it would be nice to have you near me for a while, so you can answer my questions!
“And why are all these fancy machines attached to me?” asked the rabbi very skeptically.
“Do you need to have a nurse run over to you every minute? This way, she can see everything from her desk. And anyway, what difference does it make to you?”
The judge was in hospital for three weeks, but he responded well to treatment. After his discharge, he recounted his experiences to his friends and colleagues:
“The doctor continuously and consistently lied to me,” he told them. “But his lies cured me more than all the medicine they gave me.”
Why is this episode so different from the ones described above, where evasion of the truth made the sufferers feel worse?
Have we really grasped what empathy really means?
I will not comment further.
What do YOU think?
Azriel Winnett is the creator of Hodu.com – Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular free website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene.