Offering “too much” Empathy
Recently a gem reader asked the following:
"I've encountered a situation where a friend to whom I've been trying to offer a lot of support, listening, and validation now is very angry with me. She says I talk down to her, treat her like a child/disciple, condescend to her, etc. I would like to apologize for her hurt but can't figure out ANY way to do so that's not just going to make her rage against me more. If I say anything even remotely like, "Sounds like you are feeling X," that's precisely the language that makes her snap at me that I'm being patronizing. So without empathy guesses, is all that's left is for me to just listen silently? Any suggestions?"
Seeing your friend in need your natural response is to offer help. When you have skills in empathy, you find that your friend soaks it up and often feels relieved to have needs met in this way. So what went wrong in the situation described above?
My guess is that mutuality was not being maintained in this friendship. Giving support to your friend doesn't mean abandoning your own needs. It's easy to get caught in the idea that because your friend is hurting you should indefinatly set aside your own needs. You have trouble imagining s/he can meet your needs. Here is where you subtly start to hold your friend as less than. You are the strong one that can offer support and she or he is less capable. While you may not have this thought, offering empathy without sharing your own vulnerability and needs lends itself to this power over dynamic.
When you are offering empathy and your friend says you talk down to her, she is likely expressing a need for mutuality. You can meet this need for mutuality with honest expression. In the situation described above our gem reader might say something like this:
"Yea, I can see why you would say that. I haven't shared what's going on with me. Right now I am feeling disappointed and sad because I care about our friendship and I see that holding back from sharing my vulnerability doesn't work. I would like to talk about what's been going on with my family. Are you up for listening?"
When your friend is struggling it's easy to compare problems and decide your problems are so much smaller it's not worth bringing up. What's important to remember is that it's not about the relative size of a problem or some quantity of suffering. It's about a mutual sharing of inner experience and support. Asking your friend to be present for your sharing even when s/he is suffering sends the message that you see him or her as a trusted refuge in your life. This is a gift. It can help your friend connect with a place inside that is capable and loving and much deeper than their immediate suffering.
This week pay attention to mutuality in your friendships. Are there friendships where you could offer more of your inner experience? Are there friendships where you let your friend mostly offer you support? Create mutuality by making direct requests to be heard to hear more from your friend.