How Showing Empathy Can Help You Support Others
By: Elizabeth Lowder
When a friend or loved one has experienced a loss like a miscarriage, failed IVF or even a negative pregnancy test, we want to do something to help. To take the pain and sadness away and to help them feel better. Common responses couples hear when they’re going through infertility might be something like “It’ll happen for you when the timing is right.” Or “Everything happens for a reason” or even “God has a plan.” All of these things may or may not be true – but they’re likely not achieving the intention of supporting a friend in a meaningful way.
As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice, I’ve worked with hundreds of women who have shared the disappointment and profound sadness they have experienced with infertility and loss. It is not uncommon for well-meaning friends and family to say something to them that made a lasting negative impression. These women sit with me in my office and say they wish someone would just acknowledge how tremendously difficult all of it is for them. Not try to find the ‘silver-lining’ for them. They want to be seen and heard, and only then does the real healing begin.
You might be thinking, “I’m not a therapist or a social worker! I don’t know what to say…what if I say the wrong thing…maybe I just won’t say anything at all!”
Couples experiencing loss understand that people don’t know what to say. They know you may be afraid to try and connect. 10 out of 10 women at Sage Tree say they’d rather people said something rather than nothing at all. The absence of any support can lead to people feeling hurt, ashamed and even more alone.
The solution is simple, but not always easy. Women going through loss are looking for empathy. Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, has outlined 4 steps to offering empathy that I use in my psychotherapy practice.
In order to show someone that you’re there for them, you need to put yourself in their shoes. Some people fear the closer they get to someone’s trauma – the more risky and uncomfortable it is for them personally. The good news is that trauma is not contagious! In order to truly connect and not detach from people experiencing loss we need to take a moment to think about what they must be experiencing from their point of view.
Stay Out of Judgement:
While implementing the first step, it can be very easy to begin with good intentions and quickly veer off into judgmental territory. For example, let’s say your friend just endured her fifth 1st-trimester miscarriage. If not mindful, your good intention could turn into blame. “Well I would never try again after the first or second pregnancy loss! What was she thinking?” Before running to judge let’s remember that humans use judgement as a protective measure to avoid feeling pain. But we don’t have to fully feel the pain of others in order to take an empathy snapshot and proceed accordingly. If you want to truly help a loved one, avoid trying to answer the questions ‘why?’ and accept that it’s their reality.
Recognize the Emotion:
If you’ve adopted your friend’s perspective while staying out of judgement, you are more easily able to discover what they might actually be feeling. Perhaps you can better understand what you may be feeling if you’d been in their place. What is that feeling? Mad, scared, sad, happy? Many therapists believe those are the four main emotions we all experience and all other words for our feelings fall into one of those categories. Devastated? That sounds like it could be scared or sad. Shocked? Maybe that fits in the mad category. Everyone experiences feelings differently. It’s less important that you get the specific description of the emotion right and more important that you try and recognize it. To improve your emotional vocabulary, check out this Emotion Color Wheel tool.
Communicate Your Understanding of the Emotion:
Steps 1-3 walk you through how to internally prepare and process your empathy for another person, this step implores you to communicate it! None of the aforementioned steps matter if you don’t engage in this crucial step. Set the tone by saying that you see them and hear them. Verbalize that you could imagine feeling devastated/sad/upset if you were going through a loss. Name the emotion out loud. Don’t worry if you get the exact quality of the emotion incorrect. In my clinical experience, clients don’t get angry if my attempt to name the emotion was not 100% accurate. People will feel validated and correct the emotion themselves if needed. Maybe they’ll say “I don’t feel frustrated, but I do feel very disappointed.” Great! Now we know what they’re feeling and have more information to use to help support them.
A final tip to keep in mind when practicing empathy is to Connect with the Emotion NOT the Experience!
You don’t need to have gone through the exact same experience in order to effectively demonstrate empathy. No two individual stories will be the same anyway, even if they had similar experiences. That’s ok and should not hold you back. Have you ever felt sad before? Scared? It could have resulted from an experience that has nothing to do with infertility or pregnancy loss – connect with what the emotion FELT like. The circumstances are details, the emotions encapsulate the human experience and reinforce what you two have in common. The emotions are what need soothing.
I am curious to see what you notice once you begin practicing the steps of empathy with your family and friends! Feel free to tell me what worked – and what didn’t via email at email@example.com or by visiting Sage Tree Therapy’s Facebook page.
About Elizabeth Lowder
Elizabeth Lowder is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the founder of Sage Tree Therapy located in St. Louis, Missouri. This psychotherapy practice specializes in perinatal mood disorders, birth and pregnancy trauma including infant loss as well as high-risk pregnancies and other fertility concerns. Ms. Lowder is an Adjunct Professor of Social Work at Washington University and stresses the importance of learning and practicing empathy skills to her students. She also sits on the Executive Board of the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation. She believes that every woman’s story is important.
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