How to be an Empathetic Ally or Friend

Posted on September 6, 2014


What "empathy" means

What “empathy” means

Ever tried to help a friend or family member and gotten told that you’re stressing them out further? Ever felt that your friends or family members ask you for help, but get upset at your suggestions or don’t act on them? It is possible that you have the most genuine intentions, but are lacking a sense of empathy. Let me reassure you, developing empathy is relatively easy once you get the gist of it.

“Empathy” is loosely defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others (Oxford Dictionary, n.a.). People often say that being empathetic involves walking in another person’s shoes. Yet, we forget that we may be wearing their shoes, but we’re thinking and experiencing from our perspective. Being empathetic means we as if become that person and experience their situation through the lens of their previous experiences and their current frustration level. Empathy helps in sharing the burden of a gruelling problem.

Being empathetic DOES NOT involve…

  1. problem-solving for others.
  2. providing our perspective on what the other person needs to do.
  3. getting exasperated when our loved ones do not take our suggestions/advice.
  4. gloating or saying, “I told you so”. Failures are hard for everyone. Everyone makes mistakes. No one deserves to be pushed down further.
  5. feeling sorry for our loved ones. This just further pushes them down.
  6. being pushy, didactic, top-down or forceful. We want the best for our loved ones, but we can’t take over their lives. It’s not sustainable.
  7. providing tips or suggestions. These can make people who’re frustrated feel like it’s their fault when things don’t go well*. (Read end note.)
  8. sharing our experiences or those of others we know.
  9. insisting that our loved ones “forget everything” and move on.
  10. blaming our loved ones or pointing out to them all the things they could have done better.

Being empathetic DOES involve…

  1. validating the other person’s feelings. “Validating” means acknowledging that a situation is hard. Their feelings are justified. E.g. “Of course you’re feeling sad/upset/angry/depressed/insecure!” “This situation IS hard. Anyone would feel stressed.”
  2. validating the person’s efforts. Instead of focussing on the things they’re not doing or ought to be doing, focus on the helpful things that they ARE doing. This helps a person feel like they are capable of making good decisions and just need to be patient. Focussing on the “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” only makes one feel regretful and may be even helpless and depressed. E.g. “Wow, I know you’ve tried really hard; you’ve tried x, y, z.” “This has got to be so tiring!” “I can see that you’re really trying to overcome/deal with this challenge.”
  3. respecting the pace of the other person. Sometimes our loved ones may need to take it easy before continuing on with their battle, especially when related to exiting relationships or making tough choices. Stress and fatigue are directly related. Pushing someone just stresses them out further and fatigues them. Sometimes efforts take a while to bear fruit, especially when related to grief, loss or a long-term challenging situations like death, break-ups, being a caregiver, losing weight, being an entrepreneur, etc.. “You’re truly doing everything you can. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” “You’re taking the necessary steps. It may take a while, but it will get better.” “Each day that you do the required things, you’re healing yourself / getting closer to your goal.”
  4. allowing a person to be sad, cry, grieve, vent, rave and rant. Blowing off steam is a great way to relieve internal pressure. Bottling up feelings or repetitive negative thoughts can lead to a breakdown. Spending energy on not having negative thoughts or feelings takes away from energy that can be spent on being productive. Once the release happens, it frees mental space to relax and even begin to plan the next move, or simply carry on.
  5. being present, offering help and brainstorming with our loved ones. Being present refers to being available to listen, brainstorm, act. Asking “what can I do” or “what do you need right now” and doing it. When we ask these questions, we get a specific response and are not left feeling like we need to solve all their problems! Sometimes our loved ones just need us to listen.

*Providing tips and suggestions is part of being a good friend. However, when it comes in a package embellished with impatience, condescension, and judgement, it defeats the purpose. We will either push our loved ones further down the depths of depression or push them away, period. Provide tips and suggestions. Provide hugs, a bottle of wine, our attention and a whole lotta validation as well. Most importantly, let’s not take it personally when we do everything we can and our loved ones still don’t feel completely okay. Some things take time. But our loved ones will appreciate our support and we may relieve their agony, even if it is temporary. The fact that you’re reading this tells me you’re a good friend!

See what I did there? Add your own tips and suggestions here, and I will update my post and give you credit.


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