When Empathy Isn’t Helpful

Lately on Facebook, memes and quotes about empathy seem to be popping up like mushrooms after the rain. When we’re not reading about how empaths read your body language, not your words, we’re seeing memes of Empathy Cat walking in your shoes.

 empathy-cat

No, really.

Don’t get me wrong- empathy is an emotion I hold in high regard. If any one social skill is capable of swooping in with a cape and saving society from the bigotry, hate, and senseless fighting that seems to have overtaken us these days, empathy is it. No wrong can ever come of listening to another human and using your own experiences to relate to theirs.

As someone who is very sensitive to the emotions and needs of others, I’m glad to see empathy finally having its moment. We humans fall too easily into judging others. Feeling superior to our colleague who never manages to turn in his reports on time or the mother in the grocery store with six kids and food stamps can seem to validate our life choices. It feels good in the moment. We can pat ourselves on the back feeling like we’re ahead in life -like we’re smarter, stronger, better. The reality of the situation is that if our circumstances were different, we might be the one on the corner holding a cardboard sign.

Society’s recent push for empathy appeals to our better angels. When we choose to tap into the part of us that identifies and understands another’s situation, feelings, and motives, we connect to others in a way that actually does make us stronger, wiser, better humans.

At no point will I ever do anything but whole-heartedly applaud society’s recent embrace of empathy.

But…

Since getting sick, there have been times in my life when empathy has not been the appropriate response to what I’m going through.

I first began to notice empathy’s failure in addressing my experience living with a chronic illness during my first year of grad school. My classmates were practicing, studying, and partying. I spent my time juggling doctor’s appointments, wondering why my hair was falling out, and vomiting. When I tried to confide in my friends about the constant exhaustion, I often received this sort of response:

“Yeah, I’m really tired too.”

“I know. Grad school is tough.”

“I wish I could stay in bed all day too.”

In normal situations, empathy is a bridge that connects two people. By digging through our emotional memory and recalling how it felt to be feeling how your friend is now, we can relate to others. We’ve all felt sadness, frustration, annoyance, or anger. We’ve all been tired.

But what happens when your experiences and feelings fall outside the realm of what is considered to be normal? What if you don’t even know anyone who has felt the way you do now?

Unless you’ve been sick yourself, you can’t really nod in agreement when I talk about how physically painful it is to drag myself out of bed every day. You may have once collapsed in exhaustion on your doorstep when you were sick with the flu or a virus, but collapsing every single day for months on end (and knowing that tomorrow isn’t going to be any better) is a different experience entirely.

Most people simply haven’t had this experience. They can’t relate, and when they try to, it has the opposite effect of what they intended.

It’s isolating.

Especially when you are new to living with a chronic illness and are experiencing skepticism by doctors and acquaintances for the first time, failed attempts at connection remind you how alone you are in the Kingdom of the Sick.

So what’s a well person to do when your friend or family member talks about their life with illness?

Don’t nod your head. Don’t pretend you know what they’re talking about. Don’t gloss over the discomfort with “tomorrow’s another day” and “we all have issues.” Ask questions. Listen. Try to understand, even if it’s scary or weird or outside your comfort zone.

Sick people don’t talk about their illnesses to make regular people uncomfortable. We don’t talk about being sick to elicit sympathy or because it’s fun (it’s not). We talk because connecting and explaining our experiences to others eases our burden and reminds us that we’re still human.

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