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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.

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6 Responses

  1. Aug 10, 2012
    Katrina Voysey

    I resonate with this situation as my daughter - who is a child - hates it when I try to guess her needs or feelings. She just tells me to shut up and she does not want to talk about it. I put it down to her being sensitive/shy and hence having a high need for privacy. I guess parenting can tend to be a more uneven relationship as well.

  2. Aug 10, 2012

    Thanks so much for this one!! I just had an email from my mom offering empathy that was completely unsolicited, and I wasn't needing or asking for from her. Actually, it was just the opposite. I was wanting space away from this over nurturing. This post helped me see why I was reacting so strongly to something that appeared so nice.

  3. Aug 10, 2012

    Hi Lashelle!
    I would also offer an in- between step- checking with her if this is true for her, that she would like more mutuality...

    I also experience anger from my kids( particularly my daughter) when I tend to offer Empathy - somewhat mechanically. It's a wake up call for me - and I sometimes say to her: " You know, I am just really trying to understand...sincerely- and this tends to soften things up and clarifys what need I am trying to meet! Thanks Lashelle

  4. Aug 12, 2012

    Thank you all for your comments. Yes, Yael, great points, both of them. Thank you for your contribution.

  5. Oct 19, 2012

    Hi, and thank you so much for this wise response. I am the original letter-writer and just now saw this, many months later. The friend in question is not speaking to me, told me "don't talk to me for awhile." I wrote a paper letter which tried to say a very similar version to the above. But I think to her it sounds like I am making excuses for myself, and...I don't know what will happen, I don't know how willing she is to be friends again. I have learned SO MUCH from this experience though, including what you noted: that when I shut down from sharing my own life, in comes this subtle dynamic of "helping" = talking down to. Thank you so much, again--xo

  6. Oct 23, 2012

    Your welcome. I am hearing there is both pain and gratitude here and much learning. May the learning serve you well as you go forward.

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