Ah, empathy...without it our world would be a sorry place. Humans are social creatures, and a lot of our social interactions are actually built upon our empathy for each other. Even down to something as simple as someone asking to borrow a pencil at school one day–the reason we say yes is because we can empathize with their plight! We know or can imagine how hard not having a writing utensil is, and so we offer to help since we can. As such, I think we can all agree that empathy is a good thing :)
At the same time though, being empathetic can sometimes be a bit of a pain...literally. When you hear that your friend is feeling kind of down and your day is suddenly ruined? Not a fun experience, particularly if you were already not having a great day anyway, feeling the added burden of someone else's sadness can be really hard.
How then, do we solve this problem? We don’t want to abandon empathy–that’s a recipe for global disaster, as well as an even sadder friend/family member/whoever that didn’t get any empathy from you, but there must be a way to make it easier on everyone concerned. Turns out, that is possible, and there are actually multiple ways to do it!
- Remember it’s not about you. This is about whoever is feeling sad, embarrassed, or hurt, not you. I like to think of it as if I am just an onlooker who has (and should use!) the power to step in and help, but I’m not really affected personally. Of course, that’s not strictly true, we all know our social bonds (even with people we don’t really know) go deeper than that, but it can help remind me not to get in too deep.
- Seek your own support! This one might seem counterintuitive (“OK, so I’m having a hard time because my friend is, I should then inflict the same thing on another friend?”) but it’s actually often the most important! In my opinion the point of empathy is to take care of and love each other, so allowing more people to experience that and offer support for each other is a beautiful thing. Of course, there are some situations when someone is going through enough already and it really is not a good idea to add more to their plate, but in general, please don’t be afraid to ask for moral/emotional support when you’re feeling too bad for/helping someone else through a rough spot.
- Comfort, but don’t feel the need to solve the problem (Understand your human limitations.) Oftentimes the things that affect us and our loved ones the most are things that we really can’t “fix” as such (health problems, a bad grade, something that happened to embarrass them, etc.), so the only way we can really help is just by comforting them: reminding them that they’re loved and appreciated for being the wonderful person they are. If there is something you can do to help solve the problem, by all means go for it! Just don’t feel the need to fix everything, because then if you can’t you just feel like a useless failure...even when you’re doing the thing your friend/family member actually needs the most, just by hugging them and/or offering sympathy!
- Take a break when necessary. Pretty straightforward honestly. Being able to withdraw for a short amount of time when you need to is really important for your mental health. We all have times when we need to relax, calm down, and let our emotions out, so listening to music, going outside, or whatever you’d do if you were the one struggling with sadness/hurt/whatever can be just as beneficial when you’re feeling any given emotion ‘second hand’. It’s also OK to tell your friend (or whoever is having a hard time) as such, if you feel bad or are concerned that they might think you’re ignoring them or don’t care. Make it clear that you really do feel terrible for them, but that you’re having a hard day and just need a break from bad news/negative emotions...they’ll understand ;)
- Most importantly though, embrace your empathy level! However empathetic you are or are not, we need all kinds of people in our world. If you’re super empathetic, you can absolutely try the above tips for handling it, but that doesn’t mean you should try to hide it away and become unfeeling….our world needs you :D On the flipside though, not everyone needs to have the same personality, and as long as you still care about others and do what you can to help make the world a better place on the outside, you don’t necessarily need to be that affected internally.
Alright, I hoped some of that helped! It’s not always easy being empathetic, but there’s a lot of good that comes from it. And hey, sometimes you get to feel great just because someone else you know had something nice happen to them! :D
Feel free to comment below to share experiences or other advice! And as always, I’m here if anyone needs/wants someone to talk to about this or anything else <3