Don’t “at least” me

By , December 5, 2017 6:23 am

Have you seen this (short) Brené Brown video about empathy versus sympathy?

A coworker shared it earlier in the year, and I’ve thought about it often since. The gist of the video is that empathy fuels connection with someone, and sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is taking someone else’s perspective, not being judgmental, recognizing emotion in the other person, then communicating it.

Empathy is NOT finding a solution, or silver lining, or saying “at least fill in the blank!” when someone tells you about a situation they are struggling with. It’s not coming up with the perfect thing to say, it’s connecting with someone when they’re in pain.

The part of this video I think about the most is the note of saying “at least this” as not being empathetic, because we ALL do it. I do it! It’s natural! We immediately think “wow, it could have been worse if this!” Or, “at least not everything was affected.” And we often express that thought.

But people who are expressing pain about something are already living that pain, and don’t want to hear theories about how it could have been better or worse. They just want to be heard.

In the same vein, a friend shared this article (pdf here), giving suggestions on how to comfort friends suffering with the holiday blues. It has four points, and the second one, you guessed it, is about empathy, and how we tend to empathize with someone by mentioning something similar we’ve encountered.

Sociologists call this conversational narcissism: that moment when we shift the conversation to put ourselves in the spotlight. Odds are you don’t actually know how they feel. Even if you do, you should focus on their experience, not yours.

“When you’re faced with tragedy,” writer Tim Lawrence notes, “the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words: I acknowledge your pain. I’m here with you.”

That is basically the same conclusion the video came to – acknowledge what you’re hearing, let them know you are glad they told you, and don’t come up with a solution or suggestion, and especially, don’t “at least” them or make it about yourself.

It’s definitely something I am working on!

24 Responses to “Don’t “at least” me”

  1. ChezJulie says:

    Yes, I’ve seen the Brene Brown video. It’s really good.

    I think I am guilty of conversational narcissism at times. And I’ve noticed it from others, too. I think as women especially we are programmed to try to find a similar thing from our own lives to show that we understand. And sometimes that is a good thing (“I’ve been through that, too”) and sometimes it’s a bad thing (“Your aging parent is sick? Let me tell you all about my aging parent so you feel even more stressed…”).

    • kilax says:

      Have you read any of her books or seen any of her other videos? I downloaded an audio book of hers but haven’t listened to it yet.

      I agree that women tend to be programmed that way too. And I think the video is saying to find that connection, but say more like your fist example, than your second, lol!!! And in some situations it really is okay to go back and forth, too. We just gotta be mindful, right?!

  2. Anne says:

    I think I’ve told you about this person before, but I used to work with someone that would ALWAYS try to one-up someone else’s pain/struggle/annoyance. “Oh you think that’s bad…”

    I do tend to relay my empathy and understanding when someone is having a hard time by telling them *how* I can relate, because often I have experienced something similar and I want them to know they’re not alone in the way that they’re feeling. But there’s a fine line between relating and making your empathy ALL about you instead of the other person (as you know, this happened to me pretty recently, and it didn’t make me feel like the person really cared about my situation). You’re right though that people really just want to be heard and have their feelings be acknowledged.

    • kilax says:

      Oh gawd. I would hate that and NEVER want to talk to that person. And that’s a whole other topic I’ve been thinking about – people who think the whole world is out to get them, or/also, no one else has it as bad as them, and should never complain about anything trivial.

      I tend to do the same as you, for the same reason – to say, “it sucks! I’ve been there too.” It’s hard not to when someone is going through something sh*ty that you went through and had wished to have a friend who could relate at the time! But yeah, you can’t flip it to all on yourself! And you definitely don’t. I think it’s really hard for some people not to though. Like “now is my chance to talk about this thing?!” I don’t know. Some people are just really not thoughtful!

      • Anne says:

        Yeah I couldn’t really avoid her, so I just started smiling and nodding to just get through it. I think she’s a good person who just has no clue how to relate to others sometimes.

        Some people are just really self-absorbed, so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising when people like that turn your pain into something about them. Sigh. Oh well. At least (OOPS, sorry!) we both have people we CAN talk to when we need it 🙂

        • kilax says:

          That is the nice, mature thing to do 🙂

          LOL at your “at least”! But that’s a good point – we all recognize who we should and should not go to when we need someone to emphasize!!!

  3. Shelley B says:

    Thanks for this reminder – I have a friend who just lost her husband, and I’m muddling my way through being there for her.

  4. Chaitali says:

    Thanks for sharing that article! I hadn’t seen it or the video before and they’re really helpful.

  5. Alyssa says:

    This is a nice reminder and something that I think many of us can work on! Seeing how others reacted after my recent loss was eye-opening for me on how I can do better.
    Another thing I think is important is “don’t say nothing”. Even if all you say is “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.” That’s better than silence. Even a short text is okay 🙂

  6. What a great video! This is such a good topic and I think it depends on the person with how to respond. For me, most of the time I just want someone to listen to me!

  7. Amy says:

    I experienced many different expressions of sympathy/empathy in the past few weeks following my dad passing away. I can’t think of any that made me feel bad – they all meant a lot to me! But there were some people who I expected to hear something from who didn’t reach out, and that was disheartening. I don’t think it was malicious – I just think people are afraid to bring it up because they don’t want to make you feel bad. But not acknowledging your loss is worse. So I guess what I learned from this, for myself in the future, is say something, call, send a card/text/email/FB comment, because it all means a lot to the person who is grieving, even if it’s just to simply say you’re sorry for their loss.

    And in general, empathetic listening is a skill that one can learn, but it does not come naturally – I think it is human nature to want to contribute our own experience to a conversation in order to forge a connection with the other person, but I guess it’s important to have a balance in this, and not go overboard with it, always turning the conversation to our own stuff. Because that can get really irritating – I’m sure we all have that one friend who always does that – I know I do!

    • kilax says:

      That’s a good lesson to share. Someone else who lost a family member recently also commented that silence is worse than saying nothing! I need to keep that in mind!

      Exactly – how else are we supposed to connect and relate without sharing our similar experiences? We just gotta have balance. And we all do have that friend (or two) lol!!!

  8. Karen says:

    I’m exactly what ChezJulie said! I do try to chat an example to show I totally get it…
    I do think it so important to let a person have their emotions, I can’t deal withthe it could have always been worse thing, I feel like it just excuses away whatever is going on…as if you should suck it up and move on.
    I also get irritated when people tell me to be positive about the problem, like about my feet issues…ugh. I just want to whine lol
    This is good topic! Good food for thought

    • kilax says:

      That is exactly how “it could have been worse” makes me feel too. Like they think I shouldn’t even be upset!

      Oh man. Whine away about those feet! That has been going on forever and you ARE as positive as you can be.

      Thanks 🙂

  9. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the video before, but I know I saw something on Twitter a bit more than a year ago that had the same message – that you should really try to avoid saying “at least” whenever possible. I really took that to heart and have tried to work really hard to not say it to anyone, even though I’ve caught myself on the verge of saying it many, many times! I think it’s really, really important to never minimize another person’s suffering, even if you think the thing that’s causing them to suffer isn’t a “good enough” reason (like no one’s going to fault you for suffering if you lost a loved one, but some people might fault you for suffering over, I don’t know, ripping your favorite pair of jeans or something else that seems relatively trivial). If it’s good enough for you to be upset about it, then it’s good enough to be upset about it, period, even if “at least” you still have your health/family/other pairs of jeans/whatever.

    • kilax says:

      That is where I am with it, too. I feel like I need to be more mindful when someone is suffering over something that does seem more on the trivial side to me, like your jeans example (or, a situation that they put themselves in…). If they are upset, I should be considerate.

  10. Lauren says:

    Yes I love this video! I’m a volunteer crisis counselor (not a professional in any way, this is not my line of work) and we watched that video as part of training. I never say “at least” anymore in my personal life and it’s kind of noticeable now when it’s said to me. It’s not intended to harm of course, I’ve said it a ton of times myself. But I think more about empathy now. Just to sit there with someone in their experience. As a counselor we don’t ever try to relate our own experiences, even if we share in what they person is going through. We just hold space in that moment with them, tell them “yes, this is hard”, and listen. I feel I’m better listener overall now and appreciate when people don’t “at least” me. 😉

    • kilax says:

      That is neat they shared this as part of training! And that you are doing so well with it!!!! I mean, you have to, as a counselor! Do you have any other listening tips? 🙂

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