Do you ever get these unhelpful comments when you share about your challenges? If you say you have a backache, you may hear, “At least it’s not cancer.” If you need a filling in a cavity, someone may say, “It could be worse. At least it’s not a root canal or a crown.” If you have a relationship issue, it’s, “At least you didn’t marry/have kids with/move to be with them.”
These statements minimize, patronize, and disempower the person with the problem. They’re just plain hurtful. They reinforce any feelings of brokenness, and your own inner critic who says you shouldn’t be complaining. You start to wonder, “Am I making this up? Is this just not a big deal?”
Why do people say these things? There could be several reasons:
- It’s how they’ve learned to respond to and cope with difficult situations, and they lack the awareness that it could have a harmful effect.
- They care deeply for you and wish you weren’t in pain or struggling.
- They do not have the skills to be truly present for someone in pain. They simply do not know what to say.
Sympathy versus empathy versus compassion
Sympathy—which may stem from pity—is what we often give people, which is not what hurting people want or the healing support they need.
Empathy is when you feel the feelings and pain of the other person through their lens or their experience. Empathy may even be where you “take on” someone’s pain, because you really wish you could take it away for them. You may even feel their pain and hurt, possibly unintentionally, however destructive it may be for you. We tend to empathize more with people like us and there may be some bias. Side note: It is exhausting to be in a space of empathy alone.
Compassion, on the other hand, is the pure intention of being of benefit with a genuine desire to help. Compassion comes from a place of understanding and intention to be helpful without the need to feel what the other person is feeling.
Compassion does not deplete your energy. In fact, it can be energizing to be helpful as long as you don’t lose yourself in the process.
Society is only recently starting to awaken to how we should be compassionate instead of sympathetic or, to some extent, empathetic. Sympathy has been the accepted response for many generations now. It’s certainly what I experienced from my own parents.
You can learn compassion
Mindfulness is another important component of self-compassion and compassion for others. Meditation is just one path to mindfulness—there are many others to explore.
Next, think of how you can best be useful to others. This may be something you include in your morning meditation or journaling practice.
Beware of empathy burnout or compassion fatigue
If you find you are taking on other people’s pain and problems to a point of empathy burnout or compassion fatigue, here are some things you can do:
- Heal your own trauma. If you are an empath or are experiencing empathy burnout, research says you may have experienced your own traumas, causing you to be acutely aware of other people’s actions, feelings, and thoughts. Therapy—specifically, Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART®)—can be very helpful in alleviating and clearing your past traumas; bringing homeostasis to your inner guide; re-energizing you; and helping you to be constructively compassionate.
- Send healing thoughts. When you see others who are struggling, send them healing thoughts (or prayer, if that appeals to you). Help only those who are interested and don’t give advice unless asked. Even then, speak from a place of training, professional expertise, or personal experience. Be sure your disclosure is not self-serving.
- Model self-care. Practice self-compassion, mindfulness, and other nourishing habits and demonstrate that it’s okay to set boundaries to make these things happen.
- Listen, listen, listen. Don’t say you understand unless you do. Offer encouraging phrases that show you are listening without the intention to remove their pain, only to walk alongside them in their pain.
- Attend Al-Anon meetings. Here you will learn to be helpful to others who struggle with alcohol, drugs, or other problems; or who are currently sober and wanting to stay that way.
When you start by showing compassion to yourself, you can learn to give others that same gift—without depleting your own resources.