Just like many others, I was shocked and devastated when I heard about the suicides of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. These weren’t two individuals that I followed closely, but were two individuals who I knew to be extremely talented in their professions. I wanted to write a post about suicide and suicide prevention, but I thought that a better first step was to cover a related and very relevant topic: empathy. In this post, I’ll go through the basics in showing understanding to those whose feelings you don’t completely understand. These are from my own experiences encountering pain, and from my experiences trying to help friends and family who are in emotional pain as well.
A quick google search of empathy will show that it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. How can we do this when we don’t understand the feelings that others face? This is a logical and completely reasonable question, and a dilemma that many of us face. Humans are biologically conditioned to recognize their own pains, and because of this, they can also recognize those of others. This is also why we have the tendency to want to take care of others, which usually starts with the process of telling others that we “understand what they are going through”, when a more accurate statement would be that we “want to understand what they are going through”, so that we can make them feel better.
Understanding that you can’t understand
Show understanding to those whose pain you cannot relate to is accepting the fact that you cannot exactly understand their pain, and setting up communication from there. For example, if you know someone who is in enough pain and misery to want to end their own lives, you can start communication by saying “I’m sorry that you feel this way, and I know I don’t understand what you are feeling, but I want to help”. By saying this, you are still communicating what it is like to go through something that is tremendously hurtful. You are acknowledging that this person may feel misunderstood while still communicating that you are on their side.
Having a conversation
Invite your friend or loved one to open up to you as much as they can. In many cases, people who are hurting don’t like talking about their issues because they feel the need to justify their hurt or anger, which they might be tired of doing. Another reason could be that they don’t want to burden others with their problems. Often times, though, it is both helpful to you to hear their perspective on what is happening and it is helpful to them to analyze their own thoughts by explaining them to another. There may be limits on how much this person is willing to speak about their experiences, and you should recognize that. But hearing more about their experiences will help you to have a better understanding of their pain.
Contribute support, not alternate perspectives
It can be extremely helpful to try and understand the perspective, thoughts and feelings of the person you are speaking to, even if you cannot understand them or rationalize them in your own mind. You might not be able to understand their thoughts and feelings, but you can understand the basics: pain, sadness, hurt, anger, because you yourself have felt all these things at one point in your life, and you don’t need to rationalize another person’s thoughts or actions to be able to understand these feelings.
With that in mind, don’t try to rationalize another person’s thoughts and feelings. In fact, strictly stay away from rationalizing, offering alternate perspectives or arguing with what the other person is saying. You might be trying to be helpful, but this may actually make them feel like you are not really trying to understand what they are going through. What you are doing is understanding what you would be going through if you were in their place, and the conversation is not about you right now.
Let them know that they have time
One of the biggest mistakes that people make after being hurt or angry is trying to move on and “get better”. In most cases, this can mean that they don’t take the time that they need to process the event before moving forward. You, as an outsider, can understand this, and so make sure you let your friend know that they have time, and they should use it to fully process instead of quickly trying to brush it aside and move on. This also requires you to be patient with them: being in pain means that they feel it constantly and may also try to bring it up constantly. Talk them through it, and be patient because in the long run you might need someone to do this for you too.
In summary, showing understanding to others who you cannot fully understand can be difficult, but it is a worthwhile process. Just as you depend on others, make sure others can depend on you in return to take care of them in difficult situations. We owe it to each other to show understanding even in situations that might seem impossible, because in the end, we are all human.
Also published on Medium.