“No one mentioned until I was in late middle age that—horribly!—my good, helpful ideas for other grown-ups were not helpful. That my help was in fact sometimes toxic. That people needed to defend themselves from my passionate belief that I had good ideas for other people’s lives. I did not know that help is the sunny side of control.” ~Anne Lamott
I’m a well-meaning empath.
If you share your problems with me, I’ll quickly make them my own. I’ll listen intently, feel deeply, and want to help. I’ll give you advice and solutions you didn’t ask for, then be annoyed when you don’t do what I suggest.
I used to think this was being helpful.
When my partner told me his joints were aching, I thought he wanted me to teach him yoga poses to ease the pain. When my friend told me how much she hated her job, I thought she wanted me to tell her how to find a career she’s passionate about. When my colleague told me about his breakup, I thought he wanted me to encourage him to get back out there.
Now I know better.
We Don’t Want Advice (Unless We Ask for It)
Most people who call themselves “empaths” also suffer from this affliction.
We think because we feel another’s pain as if it were our own—and find it easy to put ourselves in other people’s shoes—that it’s our responsibility to fix that pain. We believe we need to offer a solution, because sitting with the pain is uncomfortable for us and for them. We want to rescue them. We think advice is what they need.
Turns out, this isn’t true. I learned this lesson when my sister told me about a big argument she was having with her best friend.
As we sat eating noodles over dinner, she shared how hurt she felt and how unsure she was about whether their friendship would recover. I offered a few suggestions: “Have you tried calling her instead of texting? Could you ask her to meet for coffee so you can talk it out? Maybe when you do, you should take it in turns to speak to each other, while the other listens without interrupting?”
She looked at me with a flash of annoyance.
“Becki, I don’t need you to fix this for me. Please don’t give me advice about it. I just want you to listen.”
Admittedly, this took me aback. She just wants me to listen? As in, sit there and say… nothing?
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want,” she said. “Maybe you can tell me what you heard, so I know you’ve been listening. But I don’t want any tips. Thanks.”
Honestly, this was a total revelation. Since my sister is pretty direct, she has no problem asking for what she wants and needs from me (or anyone else). But most of us are too polite—or too scared—to ask for what we really want.
When I thought about it, I realized that when I share my inner world with someone, I don’t want a solution, unless I explicitly ask for one.
What I actually want is to be heard.
Wait, so just listening is enough?
We don’t share parts of ourselves with others in an effort to receive tips and tricks. When that’s what we want, Google has us covered.
Personally, I share with people because I want to receive support. That support can be as simple as someone looking me in the eye and saying, “I get it.” Letting my pain exist between us and letting it be okay that it’s there. Making me feel less alone.
The need to be seen, heard, and understood—the need to matter—is universal.
Ironically, when we try to help others by rescuing them, we don’t meet this need at all. In fact, what we’re saying is, “I don’t believe you have the resources you need to find your own solution to this. Here’s what I know, so do this instead.”
We’re saying their pain isn’t okay. That it needs fixing.
I’m also ashamed to say that, more often than not, I make someone else’s problems about me. If they tell me what’s on their mind, I might share my experience of a similar situation (and how I dealt with it) or emotionally react to what they’ve said (so they end up taking care of me instead of the other way around).
Recently, my partner said he’s having an issue with our relationship.
“I want to tell you this, but it would be great if I could talk without you reacting to it,” he said. “If you could just listen—without sharing your thoughts—and give me space to be open about this with you. Then we can have a dialogue afterwards. Is that okay?”
Now, let me be clear. It’s been years since my sister taught me to quit giving advice and calling it “empathy.” I thought I’d become so much better at listening. As it turns out, I’m better at not trying to fix people. But I still have a tendency to react to people’s stories with my own thoughts and opinions, instead of showing that I’m actually hearing them.
“He knows I’m an emotional creature, though,” I said to myself. “What the hell does he expect?!”
On some level, this is true. We empaths are emotional creatures. It’s how we’re wired
But I decided not to use this as an excuse. If I wanted to experience the kind of love, intimacy, and connection I really craved, I needed to learn how to be there for people—without inserting myself into their problems.
What True Empathy Is—and Isn’t
In my studies, ranging from the work of Marshall Rosenberg and Nonviolent Communication to everything by Brené Brown, here’s what I’ve learned about empathy so far.
First of all, empathy is something we do. Not something we are.
Yes, some of us are more naturally empathic and find it easier to relate to others. But true empathy is a skill. It’s something we can learn and improve at. Plus, many of us who call ourselves “empaths”—myself included—think we don’t need to work on these skills. Trust me, we do. We all have blind spots.
Let’s say a friend comes to us and says they’re having a hard time right now. They’re in piles of credit card debt and feel like they’re drowning. They’re working extra hours and even started a side hustle to pay it off, but they still feel stressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out.
Feeling the urge to offer advice already? Yeah, me too.
Instead, let’s pause and think about what our friend wants. They might be feeling ashamed, so it’s vulnerable for them to share this with us. Since they’re already actively working to solve the problem, they probably don’t need our best debt-clearing tips, either.
Here’s what true empathy might look like in this situation:
- Consciously staying centered, grounded, and present with our friend
- Paying attention to what they’re saying and reminding ourselves it’s about them, not about us
- Maintaining eye contact, nodding, and offering non-verbal cues so they know we’re listening (“mmm”)
- Reflecting what they’ve told us (“I’m hearing you feel really stressed about this and you’re worried about paying your rent next month”)
- Using this magic question: “Is there more you want to say about that?”
- Asking before offering advice and being okay with hearing a “no” (“I have an idea that might help. Do you want to hear it?”)
- Asking before jumping in with our thoughts (“I’d like to share my perspective on this with you. Are you open to hearing it?”)
And here’s what it wouldn’t look like:
- Offering judgments, analyses, or opinions on what they could—or should—be doing differently (“You should read this great personal finance book.”)
- Dismissing their feelings and therefore invalidating them (“It will be fine.” Or “Yes, but at least you have enough money to get by; some people don’t even have that.”)
- One-upping them by sharing a personal experience which seems worse (“I know what you mean, I got myself into twice that amount of debt a few years ago…”)
- Explaining why we think it’s happening and trying to pinpoint the reasons (“Your parents never taught you how to manage your money.”)
- Sympathizing with them (“Oh, you poor thing, what a mess you’re in.”)
- Educating them about what we’ve learned and how this can be applied to their situation (“I started by saving 20% of my paycheck, that might work for you.”)
- Sneakily “coaching” or interrogating them—especially if we’re qualified coaches (“How are you getting in your own way here? How has been in debt kept you feeling safe in some way?”)
Looking at these two lists, it’s clear what I’d like to receive from another human in response to the debt situation. The first list feels far more intimate, affirming, and nourishing. Despite this, I still find myself doing things on the second list all the time.
Luckily, I get tons of practice to develop my empathy skills.
I get daily practice with my partner, my family, and my friends. I even get it with the elderly woman who sits next to me on the bus, the friendly barista at my local coffee shop, and the cashier at my nearest supermarket. I don’t always do it perfectly, and that’s alright.
I’m just trying to remember that people don’t need me to fix them. They’re not broken.
What they need is for me to present with them. To be with them—to listen—without the need to do anything. For us to dance in the pain, together. And maybe, just maybe, that’s more than enough.