Sunday, May 16, 2010


Empathy: understanding of another's feelings: the ability to identify with and understand somebody else's feelings or difficulties

Many years ago, I remember someone telling me that I should try and find some type of commonality with people I meet. Find something within my life, experiences or knowledge that can draw a parallel to what the other person is experiencing. This would create a bond of sorts that can lead to a great friendship and a better understanding of the person.

That was good advice. It really does work. But if you aren’t careful, it can also be a real problem if one of the people feels the need to take almost every detail you’ve shared and relate it to their own life. In other words, sometimes it has a way of becoming all about them. Your experiences were really only a springboard for them to express theirs. It doesn’t matter that you were the one who needed to share or vent. It becomes all about them – again.

Just because I may be having a bad day, doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to hear how bad your day was. You can relate, but don’t override mine. It isn’t a contest.

Maybe I got a really good deal or had an interesting experience that I’d like to talk about. I don’t always need to hear that you had an even better experience or got a better deal. And I certainly don’t need to hear a woe is me of “How come that kind of thing never happens to me?”

Sometimes you just need your own moment of euphoria or woe is me. You need a friendly ear that will listen but not feel the need to interject their own experiences on top of yours or before you’ve even had the opportunity to fully express yourself.

There is a fine line between understanding how someone feels and taking over that persons need to go through whatever they are going through.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t care – I do – well usually I do - but sometimes I just need some me time and for you to listen.

It is a balancing act that takes practice. It is a line that is sometimes too easily crossed.

We want to be a good and supportive friend, but trying to relate to everything is impossible and sometimes you just need to let the other person have their moment to vent or express themselves.

In a healthy friendship, you are able to take turns in being the ventee and the empathetic one. The roles will often reverse, but it eventually balances out.

In a less healthy relationship, one of you has to be more supportive than the other and that can be exhausting. There is only so much you can take or empathy you can express before you want to get an unlisted number or run screaming from the room.

You feel like every amount of energy you are putting into the friendship is being leached to feed their needs and your needs aren’t even being heard – let alone met.

Maybe it is just me and the stage of life I am at, but some people are just really working my last nerve. I dread running into them or even talking on the phone to them as I don’t feel they are even hearing me. They are too consumed with their own drama to really get that there are other things going on outside of their self imposed cocoon.

Oh that sounds harsh doesn’t it? Sorry. Maybe they are going through some rough stuff of their own, but sometimes the balance stays tipped in one direction for way too long. Just when I think it is starting to balance out, it tips over - again.

Don’t get me wrong. I have some amazing friends who are there whenever I need them and they know that I will always be there for them. We’ve helped each other get through a lot over the years.

I guess I’m just a bit tired of being the supporter rather than the supportee for some things.

It’s not that I don’t want to hear about what is happening in the lives of the people I know and care about. I do want to know how life is treating them – I just don’t need to hear every minute detail. If you want me to be empathetic – fine - I can do that, but know that I will most likely expect it in return at some point without you overriding my experiences and needs.

We’ve all had experiences where a friend has had a run of bad luck and feels the need to relate every little detail – even if it takes an hour to tell a story that could have been done in 10 minutes or less for the Reader’s Digest version and still gotten the point across. Sometimes brevity goes a long way. If I want more info, I can ask. The problem is that some people just don’t know how to self edit. But, by the same token, don’t be so brief that I don’t see the issue or that I have to pull more information out of you. Knowing how much to share can go a long way in getting the right amount of support in return.

Be happy for someone who got a great deal or is having a good day. Whining about your lack of luck or relating your better deal or luck, isn’t going to do a lot to endear you in the heart or mind of the other person.

Empathy works both ways. If you don’t seem to be getting what you think is your fair share, then stop and take a long hard look at your life and how you express yourself around others. It really isn’t all about you.

Sincerity and being a good listener goes a long way in being empathetic.

Empathy is not a game of “I can top that” or one-upmanship. It is a balance of compassion, support and related understanding.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now. Was there something you wanted to say?


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