Empathy Re-Visited: 5 Things That Empathy Is NOT

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Empathy seems like a very basic concept which comes naturally to many people, but the way we express it towards others is often flawed. It’s a skill which needs to be taught and fostered, even if some degree of it is already within us.

Here are 5 common mistakes that people make when trying to empathize:

1. Making Assumptions

It’s never a good idea to say something like, “What’s the big deal?” or “It’s not so bad.” You don’t know the other person’s entire life story or situation. Don’t assume that they shouldn’t be feeling a certain way based on limited knowledge. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is a vital empathy skill, and you don’t have to know everything about someone’s issue to do put yourself in their shoes. Empathy just requires identifying with their feelings. When someone is in need of empathy, it doesn’t matter what their circumstances are – they are hurting, and a dismissal of their feelings is the last thing they should be experiencing.

2. Giving Advice

This usually comes in the form of, “Trying doing ‘x’. It really helped me/my friend” or “Did you try ___?” Empathy and advice-giving are two different practices. Empathy involves relating to the feelings of someone else, not trying to fix their problem. I know, it’s really tempting to give advice in those moments. And oftentimes, it’s our way of showing that we care about the other person in an attempt to take them out of their misery. But advice should only be given if the person’s feelings have already been acknowledged and they have made it clear that they are open to hearing your opinions and suggestions.

3. “I Know How You Feel”

Even if you have been through a similar situation, you don’t know exactly how the other person feels. We’ve all been on the receiving end of this statement at some point, and a common response or thought after hearing it is, “No, you don’t.” Truly, every person’s emotional experience is unique. Rather than saying “I know how you feel,” try, “This must be difficult/painful/devastating/etc.” or any number of more effective empathetic statements.

4. Trying to guilt them out of their feelings

Obviously, someone somewhere is going through a worse situation, but there is no need to say it when the other person is in pain. Yes, reminders that invoke feelings of gratitude are great, as gratitude often leads to improved mood and life satisfaction. But expecting a person to disregard their feelings is the opposite of empathy, even if you think they should be grateful that their situation is not worse. Empathy should come first, and then, when the time is right and the relationship feels solid, a gentle reminder of gratitude may be warranted.

A similar type of guilt is pushed on a person when they are told to forgive the one who hurt them. This is an extremely personal and sensitive subject, and should be treated as such. Reminders about forgiveness are best delivered from a trusted loved one (again, after empathy is already there, and it is definitely dependent on the severity of the situation).

5. Using Religion to invalidate their feelings

This can be a tricky one to navigate, because some people really do emotionally benefit from religious reminders. It might help them to know that their loved one is in a better place, or that God will not test them beyond what they can handle. Maybe a reminder to pray or cry to God is just what they need. But again, this is not empathy. Empathy should always come first, and if the relationship is solid and the setting seems correct, a relevant religious reminder or statement might be the cherry on top. However, when religion is unduly forced on a grieving or hurting person at a time when they are just craving validation, understanding, and human connection, it can actually be damaging – even if they are generally a religious person.

These are just a few basic “don’ts” of empathy, and there may be even more. The main thing to remember when trying to empathize with someone is to listen, acknowledge and validate their feelings, and be supportive.

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  • Karin Isbell

    A good place to learn about genuine empathy and what it is NOT is by reading the biblical story of JOB.