Empathy vs. Sympathy - Helping a Loved One Through Their Healing Journey

Written by Gluckstein Lawyers

Trauma, mental health struggles, and recovery after a life-altering event can be a very isolating experience. As a loved one, there are fewer things harder to watch than a person we care about going through a difficult time and not knowing how to help them.

How can we help a loved one who's struggling in some way, whether it's for mental health reasons or recovering from a traumatic event? The first step isn't to express sympathy, but instead it's to express empathy.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Society tends to make these two words synonymous, but actually they look very different when an action. Brene Brown explains the difference through this incredibly inspirational and helpful cartoon below. We encourage you to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369JwAs Brown tactfully explains in this video, sympathy is something that's often expressed from a distance, and at times can hit the wrong tone. It lacks compassion, and creates a disconnect. Empathy is a far different expression. It creates understanding, appreciation, and connection. Choosing empathy often means making the more intentional, and uncomfortable, choice of action. For this article, we're going to outline the ways you can exercise empathy to help a loved one who is going through a difficult time.

3 Empathetic Practices

  1. Be Present: Empathy involves going into that place of discomfort with your loved one, and just focusing on being present with them. When someone is feeling sad or is going through a tough time, the reaction of most people is to give them space and leave them in solitude. At times this may be what they want, but it's best to check-in directly with them to find out if they truly want to be alone, or if they're okay with you being present with them, and whatever it is that makes them most comfortable.
  2. It's Not Your Job to Fix Things: Human beings are problem solvers-- we see an issue and our first instinct is to try and make it better or fix it. The problem with this fixing mentality is that it can be very damaging for someone who is having a mental or emotional struggle. They're not broken, they don't need fixing. What they need is time, love, healing, and constructive recovery. There isn't a perfect word or right sentence that will make everything feel better and make everything terrible go away. Being empathetic means understanding that times are tough right now, and letting that loved one know they're not alone in these difficult times.
  3. Connect on a Vulnerable Level: As Brown explains in the cartoon above, the foundation of empathy is connection. And to be empathetic is not only a choice, but it's an extremely vulnerable choice to make. In order to connect and be empathetic with someone else who is struggling, we ourselves have to remember, reflect on and communicate about a time when we too were struggling. As mentioned above, expressing empathy is usually the more difficult, and uncomfortable, choice to make in the moment. Why? Because connecting about pain and hurt is never going to be an easy thing to do. But it is a powerful thing to do.

Most often, the best way to help and support someone who is struggling through mental illness or is in recovery following a trauma is to simply be there with them, and let them know that they're not alone. At times, they may want to talk about their feelings, and your role is simply to listen. Other times, they may just want to turn on a movie and be in silence with another person nearby. Healing and recovery look different for every single person. The best way to find out what a loved one needs in the moment is simply to ask. Ask them what they'd like to do, offer suggestions of what you can do for them to take the burden off of them having to decide, and respect what it is they need or what is professionally recommended by their doctor as they continue the long journey of healing. Recovery is an isolating activity. The best way we can comfort our loved ones is letting them know that they're not fighting the fight alone, and we're in their corner as a safe space to land.


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