How to Practice Empathy and Prevent Emotional Impotence

Your first question after reading the title is probably “What is emotional impotence?”

Emotional Impotence is a term sometimes used in behavioral health, also often called toxic positivity or chronic optimism, and refers to the act of compartmentalizing or dismissing negative and often traumatic experiences in order to “feel better.”

This behavior can be expressed inward towards one’s own struggles or outward onto other people and the traumatic experiences they are enduring, but you will notice this behavior in others before you will ever notice it in yourself.  Examples of this behavior can be seen in statements such as:

1)  It might be hard now, but things will get easier.

2)  You’ll feel better in time.

3)  Just don’t dwell on it.

4)  You need to move on.

5)  I think you need to do this… and you’ll be okay.

6)  You need to believe that it happened for a reason.

7)  You need to accept it.

8)  I’ll keep you in my thoughts.

9)  This was part of god’s plan.

10)  I’m praying that you’ll get over this.

One of the most egregious examples I have ever heard someone say or post online was to a grieving parent who had lost their child. Someone posted this comment on her Facebook page, “Thank God he graced you with other beautiful children!”

Though perhaps intended to be consoling or reassuring, this utter shit-show of apathy was abhorrent to read, I cannot imagine how the mother felt receiving those words. It’s as if this lady thought that because the mother had other children she need not dwell on the loss of the one and just be grateful she still had the other children.

This social media comment was borderline, if not full-on, psychopathic. Unfortunately it is not the first nor the last such comment I’ve read on social media or statement I’ve heard in person that stunk of emotional impotence. I am quite mortified by the atrocious things people will say without thinking of how the statement might actually come across to the recipient.

These types of responses can be delivered by both strangers and people we would otherwise classify as close friends or family. Another horrible thing I’ve seen or heard people say to grievers, were to young widows or widowers, statements like, “You’re young, you have time to find someone new.”

Though not intended to be malicious, selfish, or detrimental, or honestly outright psychopathic, all of these remarks are invalidating and dismissive of someone else’s traumatic experience and the extremely difficult emotions felt in the fallout of that trauma. Individuals say these things in an unconscious attempt to bring attention to themselves and to feel good as though they are being helpful, while not actually helping the other person at all.

A useful analogy would be this: you walk down your street after a bad thunderstorm and see your neighbor attempting to lift a tree limb that had fallen down onto his car. Instead of stopping to ask if you can assist, you shout to him, “Lift with your legs!” You carry on with your walk, proudly patting yourself on the back for offering your neighbor what you perceived to be supportive encouragement.

While not factually wrong, such a statement is rude and unhelpful to the neighbor. Yes, it saves you from having to get emotionally invested in your neighbors struggle, but it also dismisses it as nothing to worry about. Although this type of behavior can occur in a multitude of situations, it frequently occurs after loss, when people attempt to offer their condolences but then quickly or even immediately move on with their own lives and expect the griever to do the same because it’s uncomfortable for them if the griever doesn’t.

They want that person to quickly heal and move on because it impedes upon their own positive and optimistic view of life, which they need in order to feel good about themselves and their perception of life.  They selfishly see other people’s grief as a hindrance to their own joy and happiness.

It’s delusional thinking and a type of wall they build up around themselves to conceal their own trauma and their lack of willingness to address their emotions about those experiences.  Hence the name: emotional impotence.  It is literally their inability to address their own issues while projecting it onto those around them. This is why it’s toxic.  There is a huge difference between addressing trauma and concealing or compartmentalizing it.

So, if someone you know is struggling or grieving, what should you do or say instead? What kinds of actions or statements should you do or say to appropriately express how you feel about the other person’s grief or trauma? This is the power of sympathy and empathy, the ability to emotionally understand and connect to other people and the things they experience.

Often times people confuse empathy and sympathy, sometimes viewing them as interchangeable and sometimes drawing the false conclusion that one is always better than the other. It can be very difficult to properly understand them. Sympathy is your ability to understand that someone is going through something that is challenging their resilience. This could be anything from losing their job to losing a loved one. You may not understand how they feel about that experience, but you know that any reasonable person would be upset and struggling.

In my years of teaching, I have sometimes encountered people who believed that sympathy is less-than empathy, that somehow sympathy is for those incapable of practicing or expressing empathy. This is not true and represents a misunderstanding of the proper usage of these tools of social behavior and denigrates the honest value of sympathy.

When you go the store to purchase a card to express your condolences, you do not purchase an empathy card, you purchase a sympathy card. There’s a reason for that. Sympathy allows you to express yourself to the recipient without fully grasping what the recipient is actually thinking or feeling. It is a generalized expression of support and is appropriate for a wide range of recipients, anything from near complete stranger to a friend or family member.

Empathy on the other hand is a deeper, more careful, more attentive dive into human interaction and social understanding. Sympathy stops at the door and offers a casserole, empathy walks through the door and bakes it in the kitchen.

There is an old saying, “Empathy is your ability to understand what it’s like walking in another person’s shoes.” This description is true, but I often feel it doesn’t fully encapsulate the hard work that empathy truly requires in order to be authentic and effective in social situations. Empathy is more than looking at another person and imagining how that person might be feeling because doing that is still sympathy.

Empathy requires you to interact with the other person, to ask open-ended questions, to paraphrase their responses for the sake of your own better understanding, it requires you to remove yourself from the psychological equation you need to answer in order to understand the other person. What does that mean? You need to literally stop thinking about yourself and how you would act or feel or think in the situation. Stop thinking about your past experiences, your perceptions and perspectives, your past actions, your opinions and beliefs, you must fully let go of your ego.

This is why so many people fail at practicing empathy. Their ego doesn’t allow them to remove themselves from the equation, and instead insists that they always be a part of it, they feel compelled to always evaluate people and situations based on their own experiences, rather than on the other person’s experiences.

This analogy is extremely helpful in understanding the concepts of sympathy and empathy: You work with someone whose grandfather passed away last week and they are returning to work today and you want to express your condolences. You have also lost your grandfather and you reflect on how it makes you feel. What you choose to do next will determine whether you are practicing sympathy or empathy.

If you approach that person and offer your condolences, stating that you have also lost your grandfather and tell them that you can relate to what they are going through, then you are practicing sympathy. If on the other hand you approach them with condolences and ask them how they are feeling so that you can understand how they are mentally and emotionally experiencing that trauma, then you are practicing empathy. That’s the difference, whether or not you are leaning into that social interaction from your perspective or from the other person’s.

True empathy requires you to remove your perceptions and perspectives from the equation, essentially yourself, and focus solely on how the other person is perceiving and feeling about the experience. The reason this is important is because how you perceive an experience will not always be the same way that someone else perceives an experience. Going back to the analogy, the relationship that you had with your grandfather, may not be the same as your coworker’s relationship with their grandfather. When it comes to empathy, one of the most important rules is to never assume how someone else feels about any given situation.

The only way to know how someone else feels is to ask them. This is not always easy, and can often be difficult when you are engaging with someone who does not express themselves very well or when they simply don’t want to talk about the experience. If this is the case, you cannot pressure or force them to do so, simply accept things as they are and offer sympathy.

This goes back to what I was saying earlier, there is nothing wrong with expressing sympathy, it is not the ugly step-sister of empathy, both of them have their place in social behavior and both have important value to offer in human interaction. You just need to understand how and when to practice them.

If the other person is not able or does not want to express their emotions about what they are experiencing, but you still want to show them that you care, then use actions rather than words. So, if you know their lawn needs mowed, then mow it.  If the leaves need to be raked in their yard, rake them.  If the snow in their driveway needs to be shoveled, shovel it.  If they haven’t left their house and walked to the mailbox to get their mail all week, go get it and bring it to the door.

Remember, sympathy is your willingness to show up at the front door with offerings in-hand, empathy is walking through the door if/when they invite you in. Apathy is you avoiding the house altogether, or in some cases allowing your dog to shit in their yard as you go for your self-absorbed morning stroll.

Seriously though, if they call you or message you to talk about their grief, shut up and listen, even if they talk about it a lot and take up your time and make you uncomfortable.  They didn’t call for your advice unless they specifically request it.  Practicing empathy means you never give unsolicited advice! Always remove your ego from the conversation.

If you really can’t handle someone else’s emotions, understand that it is a reflection of your inability to deal with your own emotions and that it is not the other person’s fault. Be honest and politely apologize and tell the other person that you are struggling with your own emotions and that you are being triggered by the conversation.  If you know the person has no one else to talk to, ask them if they’ve heard of the various warm-lines, crisis-lines, and hot-lines for those struggling.

If you are able to practice empathy and listen to them, here are some more generalized things to keep in mind when you have conversations with them:

Let them know they can talk to you about what they are dealing with.  Let them know they can contact you whenever they need to if that’s an option for you.  Do not induce guilt trips or give them ultimatums about what you think they need to do or what will make them feel better.  Do not make it about you, they didn’t call or text you to hear about how your significant other won’t throw their dirty laundry in the washer or any of your other problems!

Establish social boundaries between you and them to make sure you are not overwhelmed by their grief or emotional struggle – be honest and tell them what days or what times of day or night they can call or text. Do not assume you know what they need, never assume why someone feels a certain way, or how they feel about any given situation.  Regardless of what you believe about your alleged superpowers, you can’t actually read their mind. Not everyone experiences every situation the same way.

Two examples of things you should say:

1)  I am here for you and I support you.

2)  It’s okay to feel the way you do.

Give praise when they do things despite their circumstances, point out their strengths and the things they have been able to accomplish despite the experience they have been going through, to remove shame over their emotional struggle. Remind them of their previous or past accomplishments.

We have a culture in America that is not well-suited for emotional understanding, or emotional intelligence.  The words we choose to use, the phrases we rely on, can either make or break another person’s recovery from a traumatic experience.  Think about what you are about to say to another person, think about how you’d feel if you were on the receiving end, and if ever possible ask them questions so that you can understand how they are feeling about their situation and how they perceive it.

In closing, if you wish to be a more empathetic person:

1) Never make assumptions

2) Remove yourself from the equation

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