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Practicing empathy…

Recently I have heard a few people open up about really tough and challenging life circumstances. This isn’t the first time I have heard others talking about loss, trauma, addiction, and tragedy. I have even experienced some of those things myself. This time, though, I found myself really wondering why some people experience much more challenging circumstances than others.

The minute I begin to start questioning this, I know that it is a question I can never understand. My life has led me to a strong belief in something greater than myself. Maybe that’s it then— maybe I am not meant to understand why others suffer. Furthermore, maybe I am not meant to understand why I have gone through the things I have gone through.

I am wondering,though- has anyone experienced similar feelings or thoughts? Can we truly practice empathy for others who experience trauma? Or do we just have to acknowledge our own limitations and “be there” for them?

9 Replies to “Practicing empathy…”

  1. amber says:

    i think it’s impossible to practice empathy all the time, if you have never gone through something similar. but it is important to try not to pity the person, as pity can really arise quickly out of sympathy. sometimes when i know i can’t really understand what the other person is feeling, i will even tell them that. instead of saying, “oh it must be so hard for you” or “i can understand how you feel,” i might actually say “I can’t even imagine how you are feeling right now, but i am here to listen or just to sit next to you in silence.” being there for someone else does not necessarily depend upon the amount of empathy that you have, and being there for someone else is what is the most important

  2. maria1234 says:

    I think that we can never truly understand what another person is going through or has gone through. Even a similar traumatic event has different effects on different people because the context and circumstances impact it so much. When someone is going through or has gone through a traumatic experience I think all we can do is listen and be there for them. Sometimes I think that saying “I know exactly how you feel” is not the best response because most of the time we actually REALLY DON’T know at all how someone feels who has suffered something terrible. But regardless of whether we understand exactly how they feel, we can recognize when someone is sad and in pain and we can be there, offer a hug, an open ear, a smile, a distraction – everyone needs different things when they are suffering and I think the best we can do is try to do is be there as much as we can and support one another.

  3. samdc says:

    ​I think there are certain things we can understand but we do have limitations. It’s important to remember that it’s not about us and that we are there to help and be there the best way we can be. We should try to learn more about what the other person is experiencing and notice our limitations. I think the most important part of it is to understand what exactly the person that is going through trauma needs from us and how we can get to where we are the best at providing that for them.

  4. wisdom2015 says:

    I can only echo the wisdom of these questions. I think that empathy is often possible–there are so often resonant experiences between lives–but it’s also so important to understand the limits; the ways that assuming we know what someone else is feeling (or falsely conflating something we’ve felt) can be just as damaging as assuming their experience is really far away from our own.

  5. ewriter2015 says:

    This is something that I have done a bit of reflecting on in recent years as grandparents have passed away who in my mind have been at the root of unhappy and tragedy filled lives on one side of my family. The fact is that addiction runs in families. With addiction come the byproducts… every member of a family where addiction is an issue adopts, knowingly or unknowingly personality traits and characteristics that will inform all of their adult thinking patterns, relationship patterns etc. Anyone born into a family where addiction has been an issue will probably have some level or addiction themselves or, adopt the traits of co-addiction which presents a myriad of issues in its own way by becoming too invested in other people or overly compassionate to a point that it is self damaging.

    In this way, it does make sense that unfortunate struggles and circumstances seem to occur disproportionately for some people. In the case of my father who had an alcoholic and abusive father and struggled with addiction issues himself – he also had to face in his immediate family a younger brother who became heavily addicted to cocaine and committed suicide, another younger brother who was in jail for a time due to pedophilia, a sister who has had issues with men, relationships and money her entire life — so many tragic circumstances seeming to befall one person. In contrast, my mother’s family has a stark lack of tragic circumstances because addiction issues were either not prevalent in addition to strong family ties and support systems. Mentally healthier adults were the result of that.

    Families are the one card dealt to us in life that we have absolutely no power to change. But taking time to take a long hard deep look into some of the issues that people have had in our families can help to better understand our own attitudes, characteristics and tendencies and try to identify the ones that really don’t serve us in order to avoid carrying these issues into the lives of our children.

  6. thepainter says:

    I agree with Maria… it is important not to say that “I know exactly how you feel” when you don’t actually know exactly how they feel. And, honestly, you can really never know exactly how somebody feels because all of us interpret events, words, and situations differently and find different emotions from them. When I’ve been in a difficult place myself, I know that it is helpful for me when somebody just listens to what I have to say or just sits around with me, like Amber was saying, because most of the time that’s really what I need in that situation.

  7. sunshine says:

    I used to always want to fix everyone’s problems and make everyone “okay.” Over the past few years I have come to realize that it is not my job to fix everyone and the best that I can do is to be a good friend and be there to listen when someone is having a hard time.

  8. Anonymous says:

    It can be tough to really understand what others are going through. There are a lot of times when I cannot relate at all to their experience, and I just have to be there for them and listen.

  9. mmariani41 says:

    I feel that I can relate to other people to a degree who have experienced loss and pain due to loss I experienced in my childhood. Not all pain is the same. It looks different for everyone. I find it easier to relate to individuals who have experienced struggles in their life because I have, too.

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