We’ve all seen them…that awkward couple who argues in public.
The lady jumps up and throws a drink in her companion’s face, snatches her purse and storms out of the five-star restaurant in tears.
The angry, loud couple at Wal-mart who get into a heated shouting match that escalates to the point that they start throwing shoes at each other.
OR the poor sap angrily pacing on the street corner waving his arms wildly as he shouts obscenities into the phone.
As bystanders, we may chuckle and shake our heads as we witness these scenes. Vowing, deep down inside never to be that couple.
And then one day, YOU are the one being escorted out of Wal-Mart by security and threatened with legal action if you and your mate ever return.
Congratulations. You have become that couple.
Arguments in romantic relationships are normal and actually healthy. In fact, research shows that a couple that doesn’t argue is in more trouble than the ones who make public spectacles of themselves. According to author and relationship expert Diane Sawaya Cloutier, healthy couples don’t shy away from conflict and are not afraid to broach difficult topics. She believes that
“when taboo or uncomfortable topics remain unaddressed, they can turn any benign event into a big drama that could have been avoided in the first place…”
Relationship experts all agree that healthy relationships are riddled with arguments. And it makes sense. You have two passionate and intelligent individuals with entirely different backgrounds and histories sharing the same space and having to navigate life together. Under those circumstances, arguing is inevitable.
The concept of conflict or arguing conjures up negative thoughts and emotions in most people. If your mate doesn’t agree with you, you may feel a sense of betrayal and lash out at him or her because you are hurt. You may
The normal human inclination is to lash out or retaliate when you are hurt or threatened. The problem with retaliation is that it only compounds the issue–not resolve it.
The truth is love is a scary thing. When you are truly in love, you open yourself up and become vulnerable. You are exposed and subject to being hurt.
The key to healthily handling conflicts that arise in your relationship is to respond constructively–with love and logic. And work to avoid knee-jerk fear-based reactions.
Conflict is inevitable. Instead of waiting for it to arise and dealing with it on the fly, it is far more productive to take a proactive, intentional approach to dealing with conflict. And while you can’t anticipate the nature of the argument, you can plan a tactical response.
Below are a few strategies to help you and your partner constructively deal with conflict:
In lieu of flying off the handle and laying into your partner, take a moment to check your emotions and gather your thoughts. You have to move from your initial visceral and primitive feelings to a place of practicality and analysis. The quicker you do this the better.
When you feel anger and other negative emotions begin to bubble toward the surface, take a break and calm yourself down. You are allowed to feel how you feel. Your feelings are valid and legitimate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be expressed at that moment. Your feelings will change and fluctuate, it’s important to understand how you truly feel (at least to some extent) and why before you discuss.
Once you’ve had a chance to process and sort through your emotions, then you are ready to share your feelings with your partner. When discussing the issue:
Avoiding or refusing to deal with conflict doesn’t make it go away. Avoiding issues will turn molehills into mountains. And everything becomes a huge fight.
The primary goal in any conflict is to resolve it. But there are other underlying benefits to addressing conflicts even when a resolution is not possible. You make your partner feel heard. You make him or her feel valuable, special and loved. These are far more important than any temporary dispute. Stay and fight fair.
More often than not, there may not be a clear right or wrong answer. Although your viewpoints may be on the opposite ends of the spectrum, they both are valid and worth considering. In some cases, after you’ve hashed out how both of you feel in a calm and rational manner, you may have to agree to disagree.
Reaching an impasse can feel like a complete waste of time initially, but going through the process of trying to correctly resolve the conflict will strengthen the relationship long-term. Although a resolution wasn’t reached, both parties leave the discussion feeling heard, validated and valued. Everybody wins!
In the case when action must be taken, give it some time. Allow yourself time to process all that your partner has said and work to find a solution that takes into account how they feel and also produces a solution you can both live with. This process takes time and may take multiple discussions. But the more you do it the easier and more natural the process becomes.
Discussing the issue with someone else is a great way to gain a different perspective on the issue. The danger with talking to a third party is they could offer advice that could exacerbate the situation. When choosing a relationship confidant here are a few things you should look for:
Once you’ve gotten good solid advice and have had a chance to reevaluate your position, go back and readdress the issue with your partner.
It’s normal for a couple to quarrel from time to time—it comes with the territory. But it shouldn’t be the background music of your relationship. Conflicts and arguments don’t jeopardize a relationship. How you chose to respond does.
Successful couples have the ability to solve problems and let them go. They focus on taking care of the issue rather than attacking each other. Even when angry, they find ways to be upset and stay close at the same time.
Conflict gives you and your partner the opportunity to identify issues, address them, improve yourselves and the relationship and move on. All couples fight. Successful couples fight right.
The attraction was instant. Those lips, hips and fingertips–head to toe perfection.
The smile melted your heart and those eyes stole your soul.
It was like finding the perfect piece of fruit at the Farmer’s Market. An unblemished apple. Deep-red, shiny, polished and juicy.
You had to have that one.
Then one day–six months or so down the road–you happen to see an orange.
Your eyes are open and begin to wander and you discover other tantalizing delights. Mangos, pineapple, strawberries, bananas and other exotic fruits.
Your apple goes from shiny, red perfection to old, boring and unappetizing.
The brain craves excitement and novelty. It’s how we’re wired. In fact, studies show that the brain’s pleasure center “turns on” when we experience new and pleasurable events.
The problem with this natural tendency is it leads us into believing that the relationship is somehow flawed because the feeling of excitement and intense passion has faded.
Once the excitement and passion die, you tend to lose interest in the relationship and then your partner. You stop working. You stop seeking common ground and to understand each other.
In fact, six out of ten couples are unhappy with their relationships, citing lack of spontaneity, romance and sex as the primary factors contributing to their dissatisfaction.
Once the romance dies and you begin to lose interest your relationship will begin quickly tumbling towards its demise unless you proactively begin to work to counteract and embrace this new slower pace.
When deciding how to handle the boredom and salvage your relationship there are a few things you should avoid doing:
The key to combating boredom and keeping the relationship healthy is in doing a couple of things:
Boredom in a relationship signifies that you and your partner are comfortable with each other and you know each other pretty well. This is a good thing. It signifies that the relationship is stable and both partners are at ease. You have a routine and routines provide stability and a sense of security and calm. These are good things.
However, acceptance doesn’t mean that your relationship should stay in a stagnate and uninspired state. It simply means that you should look at boredom as a positive part of a healthy relationship and then work to deepen your bond and spice things up.
Relationship coach and therapist Anita Chlipala believes that when couples engage in new, challenging and exciting things together they can reignite the passion and invigorate the relationship. She suggests that both partners try new things and tackle a task together as a couple. Below are a few examples:
In the end, you decide the type of relationship you have. Whenever you hit a time where the fun, spontaneity and excitement seem to dissipate just remember that it just a phase and all relationships experience the dreaded rut. Then find creative ways to spice things up.
Couples who find ways to add novelty and excitement to their relationship report higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Once you embrace the fact that boredom will come and go throughout your relationship you can proactively attack it and live happily ever after.
The first six months are magical. There are flowers, candy and hundreds of emoji-filled texts that are all promptly read and reciprocated. When you end a romantic evening, you go your separate ways only to rush home and Facetime one another.
You eat off each other’s plate, wipe each other’s mouths and walk down the street with your hands in each other’s back pocket. You have become THAT couple but you are oblivious to what others think.
You’re in love.
And you now have the confidence in this new relationship to change your Facebook status from “single” to “In a relationship,” and to post cute pics on Instagram with “#couplegoals” as the caption. And that seals the deal. It is official. You are in a genuine adult relationship.
Life is good.
You are happy.
And then you break up.
Most dating relationships fizzle around the 18-month time frame and the breakup occurs before the two-year mark. During that time, you slowly go from hot and heavy to “meh” and the feelings associated with being in love–the butterflies and the longing–dissipate. You and your mate begin to wonder if you’ve found “the one.”
If you’re married, you’ve probably heard of the “seven-year itch.” That’s the time when psychology experts believed a marriage is at its most vulnerable. But new research shows that marriages are actually more susceptible to demise far sooner. New studies show that marriages begin to falter around year three— earning the handle “three-year glitch.” And most first-year marriages that end in divorce do so within the first three-and-a-half to five years.
After year three, you’ve probably seen your partner at their absolute worst–physically and emotionally. You’ve seen some things that you don’t particularly care for–and so have they.
You are left with the reality that your mate is flawed and a little crazy.
The honeymoon is officially over.
The feelings of being “in love” are waning. The passion is gone. Your days are bland. And sex has dwindled to the occasional, routine, uninspired and mediocre romp.
So how do you avoid splitting up?
The first thing a couple seeking a viable, long-term relationship must understand is that infatuation and love are not the same. Infatuation is the feeling. Love is the action.
Infatuation is the feelings associated with new love–butterflies, extreme longing, giddiness and the lack of objectivity. It is wonderfully intoxicating to be infatuated with someone. The problem with infatuation is that it is a feeling. And feelings change.
Love, on the other hand, has nothing to do with feelings. Love is a commitment to doing whatever it takes to make a relationship work. Including staying committed and faithful during the “down times” of the relationship.
The second and crucial thing you have to understand and embrace is that every relationship goes through a series of phases. And in order to maintain a long, happy and viable relationship you have to endure all of the phases.
You’ve got to enjoy the good and survive the bad.
Below are the five phases every relationship must endure:
This is the honeymoon stage. It is filled with lots of kisses and touching each other for no particular reason. It is when you are completely taken by your mate and are blind to his or her flaws. You are on your best behavior, take extra time getting ready and use your “A” material. It is the easiest of the five phases to endure and it is very intense.
This is still within the infatuation or honeymoon stage. You are still blinded by love but have the clarity to see that this relationship has long-term potential. This is when the relationship becomes exclusive and you begin making long-term plans with your partner.
You are hot and heavy and can’t seem to get enough of each other.
There is still lots of hand-holding, cuddling and you give each other meaningful nicknames. You begin to share yourself more intimately with your mate.
Stage three is when the relationship becomes real. The blinders are off and you begin to see your mate for who he/she really is. Physical touch–hand-holding, kissing and other forms of physical intimacy–maybe starting to slow down a bit. The butterflies are gone and your mate is not as cute as they once were.
The hardest part about stage three is that you both begin to question the relationship.
Once you’ve chosen to move past stage four and to stick with the relationship, you develop a deep and intimate bond. This is the time when couples really begin to merge their lives. Serious discussions concerning marriage, kids and finances ensue and plans are made to move the couple forward as a unit.
A partnership has formed.
Many couples make it to this phase experience a long, healthy and productive life together.
But there is one more phase…
Stage five of the relationship is when the couple becomes a solid team. The relationship moves past “me and you” decision-making and the team becomes more important than the individuals. It requires selfless acts of sacrifice, extreme levels of endurance and doing whatever it takes to make the union work.
This is the part of a relationship everyone longs for but few reach. It’s the true love phase.
It’s when the couple has its best chance of making it to “happily-ever-after.”
That’s not to say that there will not be challenges, hardships and bumps in the road. But it does mean that both parties are committed to staying and making the relationship work–no matter what.
It the place of full acceptance and unconditional love.
Most relationships that end do so somewhere within stage three. Other relationships can last for years and never make it out of stage three, but the relationship is not healthy and neither partner is fulfilled.
The first thing you must understand when you began to feel disillusioned is that feelings don’t sustain a relationship. Feelings are unreliable because they vary and are subject to moods and external factors.
Think of when a family celebrates the arrival of a newborn. At first, all of the attention is on the new addition and everything is sweet and cute. After a few months of dirty diapers, spit up and random crying the initial excitement passes but the parents still deeply love the child.
Romantic relationships function this way as well. It’s the struggling process that helps both partners grow and this process also helps the relationship grow into something better, something that will last.
Struggle and hardships are the glue and strengthening agents of the relationship, not the good times.
Giving up at Stage 3 is like declaring a patient dead while there is still a pulse.
The second thing you must understand is the duration of each stage is different for every couple. For some couples, the honeymoon stage may last for years and for others a few months.
The important thing to note is the length of the stage has no correlation to the viability of the relationship.
The third thing to remember is when you reach stage three, you determine how long it will last. Getting out of stage three requires you to make a decision. You must decide that your relationship is worth it and you must choose to go all in.
Here are a few things you can do to get past stage 3:
Allow yourself time to assess whether or not your concerns are simply connected to a loss of passion or if you have legitimate concerns about your partner and the relationship.
Saying something as simple as “I feel that we’ve lost the romance and passion we once had,” could be the jolt the relationship needs. It can initiate a healthy dialogue and assist you both in actively addressing your concerns.
Sharing your concerns and seeking advice from others during this time is normal and acceptable, just be careful who you listen to.
Once you decide that the relationship is viable–do something about it. Don’t make your decision and then hope things will get better. Actively work to improve and enhance your relationship.
Try new things. Do things your partner likes to do. Be romantic on purpose. Relationships take heaps of effort. It’s time to put in the work.
All relationships take time, energy and targeted intentional effort. It doesn’t matter how “lovey-dovey” cute and cuddly you are in the beginning. The honeymoon will end. And when it does you must work in order to make it last. Stage three doesn’t have to be the death of your relationship. You control whether your relationship lives or dies.
You control whether your relationship lives or dies.
Featured image by IG@Blackcitygirl
“The world is going to Hell in a handbasket.”
Daily we are bombarded with unrelenting reminders that the world is an unsafe place full of death, disaster and evil sadists who revel in–or at the very least are indifferent to–human suffering. Every where you look, television shows, movies, social media, radio and the local newscasts you are assaulted by negativity and sadness. The word “news” has become synonymous with tragedy, loss and torment.
If you’re anything like me, all of the sadness, pain and anguish is felt and internalized on a deep and very personal level. And if you’re not careful you can find yourself overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion and even depression–despite the fact that you have not personally experienced any tragedy.
This phenomenon is called compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue–also known as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatic stress–is officially defined as:
“feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause”
The American Institute of Stress describes it as:
“The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a “cumulative” level of trauma.”
In other words, it’s the stress of caring too much…
Initially, researchers found that sufferers most often work in fields or care for those who have experienced high amounts of trauma–such as first responders, nurses, caregivers, doctors, pediatricians, psychotherapists, social workers, etc… However, in more recent years, due to increased levels of exposure to catastrophic events and hearing tales of maltreatment–average everyday people are plagued by compassion fatigue.
Authorities in this field, such as Babette Rothschild, Charles Figley, Laurie Anne Pearlman, Karen Saakvitne, and B. Hudnall Stamm have researched this emotional malady and have found that medical personnel and psychologists–in particular–may experience trauma symptoms similar to those of their clients.
Their research shows that the act of simply listening to traumatic stories allows the emotional pain experienced by patients to be transferred to the person providing care through the deep psychological processes that accompany empathy.
Empathy is a double-edged sword that allows those who care for others to do so with precision, compassion and the “Midas touch” but it also brings with it suffering.
The more empathetic you are the more susceptible you are to experiencing compassion fatigue.
If you care for and work with others in a high trauma environment OR if you are a naturally empathetic and emotionally sensitive individual, you probably have and will experience compassion fatigue.
The first step in dealing with any issue or malady is to recognize the symptoms. Compassion fatigue is often mistaken as burnout and while they are kin to one another there are distinct differences and recovery from compassion fatigue is quicker and easier if you recognize the symptoms.
The onset of compassion fatigue can be sudden, whereas burnout usually emerges over time and lingers much longer. Compassion fatigue can take a physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional toll on you. Common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
And while this is a long list of symptoms it is not exhaustive. The bottom line is if you suspect that you are suffering from compassion fatigue it is more probable than not that you are.
Preventing and treating compassion fatigue seems like it should be easily remedied. Just stop caring so much…
For those of us who are highly sensitive and empathetic individuals and those who are called to care for and assist those in need of extensive amounts of compassion–not caring or caring less is not an option.
We can’t turn it off.
It drives us and makes us exceptional at all that we do. And it shouldn’t be turned off or muted. Your compassion and ability to empathize with others is a gift from God and a gift to humanity.
But it must be managed so it doesn’t morph into a weapon of self-destruction.
The good news about compassion fatigue is that it is preventable and relatively easy to treat.
Your current circumstances, your history, coping style, personality and temperament all
affect how compassion fatigue affects you and will dictate what you should do in order to manage your emotions.
Practicing self-awareness, self-reflection and self-monitoring will enable you to recognize changes in behavior, thinking and attitudes. And it is the critical first step to preventing compassion fatigue. Developing either informal or formal accountability and mentor relationships can also be helpful in spotting and managing symptoms.
Below are a few additional practical and effective preventive measures you should consider incorporating into your self-care routine:
Studies have also shown that maintaining a sense of humor, focusing on the positive, and practicing gratitude are highly effective when it comes to treating trauma victims and assisting them move past devastating events. When you experience compassion fatigue you essentially have become a trauma victim. Focusing on developing and maintaining a positive attitude is the first step in dealing with compassion fatigue.
Here are 3 other ways to treat and heal compassion fatigue:
Compassion fatigue is a place of emotional emptiness. You are drained, overwhelmed and incapable of truly rational thought. You tend to overhype things, lash out and are vulnerable to developing addictions and finding other unsavory sources of relief.
You have to be willing to seek professional help when it’s warranted. A close friend or mentor can help you make that decision and walk with you through the process. The quicker you get help, the faster you heal.
When you establish emotional boundaries you set a limit to what you allow in. You can’t watch certain television or news programming, you must limit your social media exposure and you have to surround yourself with people who are postive, uplifting and capable of pouring into you emotionally instead of taking from you.
You can’t make someone else whole from a posture of brokenness. Consider the airplane model for surviving a plane crash. Passengers are instructed to dawn their oxygen mask BEFORE assisting others–including small children. That’s what emotional boundaries do for you during your time of healing. They allow you to be ok before you attempt to help someone else. If you are not whole and attempt to aid others you could do more damage than good. Your goal is to always be a help and never a detriment.
Emotional boundaries don’t make you less caring, sensitive or empathetic. Boundaries place a temporary guard around your heart allowing your wounds to mend without risking further infection or damage.
This is not the job for an acquaintance or superficial friend. This should be someone who will challenge you and ensure that you are practicing good self-care. He or she will not enable you nor feed into your negative thinking and feelings of guilt. Your accountability partner will be kind, gentle yet firm and honest. They will direct you to seek counseling when it is warranted and will go with you as moral support.
Do the things in the “Prevention” section of this article with passion, intention, and fervor. Attack your self-care with the same intensity you use when caring for others. Make it your mission to be a better version of yourself so that you can return stronger, healthier and happier. This is the best thing you can do for yourself and those around you.
The true danger of compassion fatigue has less to do with it’s impact on the one suffering and more to do with those he or she serves. The most devastating result of your inability to manage and recover from compassion fatigue is that over time you lose your ability empathize.
Apathy sets in…
And apathy is the worse kind of violence and maltreatment.
Compassion is a gift. Cherish it. Protect it.
Humanity desperately needs your kind, compassionate and caring heart.
“Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” ~Dalai Lama
Conscientiousness, as defined by Psychology Today, is a “…fundamental personality trait that influences whether people set and keep long-range goals, deliberate over choices or behave impulsively, and take seriously obligations to others.”
In other words, it is the ability to live intentionally.
Many personality psychologists believe that there are five basic dimensions that comprise a person’s personality. Experts call them the “Big 5”. They include extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.
Conscientiousness is the character trait of being deliberate, careful, meticulous and vigilant. The presence of conscientiousness is the fundamental personality trait and determinant that drives people to set and systematically chase goals. It is what makes people keep their word, fulfill their obligations and remain steadfast and loyal in the face of opposition.
The absence of conscientiousness is a key contributor to the lack of success. A person with low levels of conscientiousness is easily distracted, unfocused, unmotivated, spontaneous and often described as “flighty” and “all over the place.” If you find yourself constantly failing to achieve your personal goals or quitting projects midway through–you may need to work to live in a more conscientious fashion.
Experts believe that in order to actively become a more conscientious person you must work to be organized and industrious.
Organization and living an orderly life is a predictor in whether or not you achieve what it is you want in life. Having things neat, tidy and well organized keeps your mind neat, tidy, organized and focused. Establishing routines and sticking to them as much as possible is a great way to bring order to your life.
When working to become more organized be careful not to over do it. Placing routine and order as a top priority leads to perfectionism, anxiety and other counterproductive attitudes. Put yourself on a schedule and get organized–but don’t go overboard.
Industriousness is associated with tenacity and grit. It is the passion and perseverance needed to achieve long-term goals. Industrious people are often described as achievement/goal-oriented, disciplined, efficient, purposeful, and competent. They are productive–not just busy. They chase their goals, live life intentionally and methodically work hard to achieve their destiny.
Conscientious people have several common habits that are worth studying. Here are the top five common practices of those who have mastered conscientiousness:
The conscientious mind always evaluates the pros and cons of a situation and considers the consequences of his or her actions. conscientious people exercise impulse control and work to act versus merely reacting. They count the cost before they undertake an endeavor and give their word.
Before launching a business, a conscientious person will do extensive amounts of research and ensure they have the appropriate capital and resources in place before diving in and launching their business. They understand the market space, their brand, their customers/clients and know the type of people they need to hire in order to be successful. Their business succeeds and thrives because of preparation, planning and diligence–not luck.
Because the conscientious think before they act, they are able to only commit to things they know they can deliver. They provide exactly what they promise. They consider the cost before they make a promise and then they dogmatically work to do what they say they are going to do.
If you promise your best friend you are going to help them move on a specific weekend, that is precisely what you should do. But before you commit to helping your friend, you should first ensure that you are available for the date and duration of time they need you. You should add it to your calendar and consider that date, time and task non-negotiable. You should show up when you said you would, work hard and fully deliver on that promise.
Taking mental notes is great and we all do it. But there is one major problem with using your mental notes to recall information–you won’t remember it all. Conscientious people write things down. They add dates to their calendar. They are schedulers and note takers. They intentionally make jotting notes a part of their routine and a standard practice.
Quitting is not an option. Take breaks. Regroup and restart. But don’t ever quit. Remember, in order to be successful you need drive, determination and a stubborn will. You have to have fight, grit and a scrappy attitude to be who you were born to be.
Consider Desmond T. Doss.
Desmond was a combat medic serving in WWII and his heroic actions, driven by his value system, led him to perform acts of heroism during the Battle of Okinawa. He became the first ever conscientious objector in U.S. history to win the medal of honor. And he did it without ever firing a shot.
Desmond epitomizes the type of fight, tenacity and strength of will the truly conscientious have.
Conscientious people are not cowards or victims. They take responsibility for their part in failures and don’t run from problems. They stand flat-footed and stare their issues in the eye. And then they devise a plan of attack. They are brave, tough and resourceful. They seek out solutions to their problems and refuse to “sweep things under the rug” and blame others.
Being tagged a conscientious person, on the surface, seems like it would be a pretty good way to be classified. The label ‘conscientious’ carries with it a deeply romanticized and philosophical, martyr kind of vibe. It sounds sexy. But the truth is that those who truly commit to living a life of conscientiousness subject themselves to a lifetime of sacrifice and to the possibilities of being ostracized and misunderstood.
Conscientiousness is an act of one’s will. It is intentional and requires purposeful actions, an organized mind and an industrious attitude. By internalizing and embracing the five key habits of conscientious people, you set yourself up to be a reliable, productive and wildly successful best version of yourself.
Featured Image by Noize Photography on Flickr
Several years ago I was in a terrible car accident. It was a normal Thursday morning and the interstate was fairly busy as is usual for that time of morning. I was traveling with the flow of traffic, in the far right lane doing around 75 mph. There was a light drizzle falling and the roads were wet and slick as it had been raining all morning.
I hit a wet spot on the highway and hydroplaned. The car went into a violent tailspin and careened into the side wall and ricocheted back into oncoming traffic. Cars slammed into me hitting me on all four sides. It was like the car became a ping-pong ball as it was batted back and forth across the expressway …
The accident was traumatic and devastating. And while I walked away virtually unharmed three other individuals in the accident were critically injured.
I was shaken, afraid to drive and horrified that others were injured in the accident while I walked away unscathed. The one bright spot amidst the shock, tears and heartache was the understanding, devotion and genuine care displayed by my family and friends as I went through the healing process. It meant the world to me.
Several months later a friend of mine committed suicide. Once again I turned to my support system. This time, however, their response was a bit different. It wasn’t that they didn’t care per se, it’s just that they expressed their feelings a bit differently. I sensed that they couldn’t quite feel where I was coming from. They seemed to be more understanding and emotionally supportive during my car accident. Their lukewarm and slightly distant responses left me feeling confused and a little hurt.
These two experiences taught me the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Once I was able to gain a bit of distance from the situations and view them a bit more objectively, I realized a few important factors which helped explain the conflicting responses I received.
The first thing I learned is that when people have shared or similar experiences, they have a concrete frame of reference. The situation resonates with them more.
During my car accident I heard things like, “girl, I know how you feel,” or “chile, after my car accident I felt the same way, take as much time as you need before you get behind the wheel again,” and “call me when you ready to try driving again, I’ll go with you.”
These responses came from a place of knowing how I felt in the moment. These responses were sprinkled with kindness, concern and most importantly, empathy.
The second important thing I learned is that when it comes to experiences that are foreign to others, people tend to disassociate their feelings and lean towards providing advice. This type of response–while it can appear uncaring, cold and a bit callous, truly is birth out of a place of sincere care and sympathy.
And there in lies the difference between empathizing and sympathizing. Empathy is the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. It is the ability to stand in his or her shoes and endure the gut punch.
Sympathy, on the other hand, allows another person to see the situation through the lens of a spectator–similar to watching a movie. It is a place of distance and inexperience. It allows an individual to see the gut punch but not feel it. It leaves the spectator saying, “Man, that must have hurt. If I were them I would have…”
The worse thing you can do during a time of turmoil is to provide unsolicited advice. Sure you mean well, but giving unsolicited advice is never a good idea. Nine times out of ten, when a person is in despair they want to feel heard and understood. As hard as it can be sometimes (most times)–simply listening to a person can be the most helpful and profoundly comforting thing you can do. When a person is in pain–emotional support always trumps practical advice.
For example, let’s say your good friend’s company is restructuring and your friend is one of the ones who is downsized and you’ve never struggled with job loss or unemployment.
Saying things like “at least you got your health,” or ” you’ve got money saved, you’ll be alright…” won’t help. These statements are accurate and your friend will bounce back, however, the true struggle may have nothing at all to do with money. He or she could be feeling betrayed, devalued, unappreciated and feel a loss of identity. Those responses don’t address how the person is feeling.
And please, please fight the temptation to provide unsolicited job leads immediately. Give them time to process the situation.
The first thing you must do in this situation is recognize that you DON’T understand what they are going through–and that is ok.
Instead of diving in head first and trying to fix it with all of your pragmatism, listen first. Try to understand how they are feeling. Try to visualize what they are saying in your mind’s eye–not how you would feel in the situation but try to imagine how they said they feel.
Then and only then should you speak. And when you do, say things that validate and address their concerns such as, “you put in so much time and energy into that job, I understand why you feel betrayed, ” or “you’re right, they should have at least given you a warning that the company was downsizing…”
If all else fails, just listening, wiping away tears and letting them know that you are here–no matter what they need…is more than enough
Try to establish some sort of common ground in your mind. In the example of a friend being downsized–try relating to their feelings of rejection. We’ve all experienced rejection in some form or another. Maybe you had a bad break up with your Ex. The situations are very different but the feelings are parallel. Draw on that experience to help you empathize with what they are feeling.
Finding a way to relate to those around you not only makes you more empathetic it makes you more relatable. When you meet a new person, make it a practice to find at least three things you have in common with them.
Also, when people are sharing their experiences with you, work to engage your imagination and visualize what they are saying. Try injecting yourself into the situation and feeling what they felt. Doing this helps train your brain to move from a state of ego-centrism to being “other’s” focused.
When a wound is fresh and a person is angry and hurt they are also confused. This is why listening to understand is paramount in producing an empathetic response. You have to listen with your ears, your eyes and most importantly your heart. You have to hear the subtext and the things that go unsaid.
Parents, teachers, caregivers and anyone who works with children understand this concept. Kids–especially when they are very little–don’t possess the proper vocabulary to adequately express themselves. Adults have to assess the situation, interpret body language and facial expressions and in some way relate to what the child has experienced. The adult then responds to what the child is feeling in lieu of what they said.
The key to comforting someone who is hurting is listening. You could have experienced the EXACT thing they are going through but you and your friend are unique individuals and see things differently. You may think you know how they feel because of how you felt but you can never be sure until they tell you.
You have to learn to fight the urge to jump in and say something. Even when the situation gets awkward and you feel something should be said. Fight the urge. Turn off your inner dialogue. Stop constructing your response. Listen to them.
They will tell you–through their words, tears and actions–exactly what it is that they need. And if you are unsure what to do or say, asking the simple question, “what can I do to help” or what do you need from me,” is better than assuming and doing the wrong thing.
Empathy requires more than merely putting yourself into someone else’s position. It is the ability to imagine yourself as him or her in the exact situation he or she is in. You cannot empathize with an abstract. The experience must become concrete.
When done correctly, empathy leads to compassion which is suffering with someone in lieu of merely pitying them. True empathy says, “I share your emotions.” Compassion, which is built from empathy, says “I share your emotions and care enough to help you heal.”