Please Don’t Fix Me: What True Empathy Is (And Isn’t)

“No one mentioned until I was in late middle age that—horribly!—my good, helpful ideas for other grown-ups were not helpful. My help could sometimes be 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.

This was what I thought was helpful.

After my partner mentioned that his joints were hurting, I assumed he was referring to me. You are welcome I was able to show him how to do yoga to relieve the pain. After my friend said how miserable she was at her job, I assumed she would be happy to teach me yoga poses. You are welcome me to tell her how to find a career she’s passionate about. He had broken up with his colleague, which I found quite shocking. You are welcome I want to encourage him back out on the trail.

This is what I now know.

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. Since we are uncomfortable with our pain, it is important to provide a solution. AndThey are our priority. They are our priority. Advice is something they will need, according to us.

Turns out, this isn’t true. This lesson was taught to me by my sister, who told me of a heated argument that she had with her best friend.

While we were eating noodles and dinner together, she opened up about the pain she experienced and her uncertainty regarding whether or not their friendship would heal. I offered a few suggestions: “Have you tried calling her instead of texting? Perhaps you could invite her to have coffee with you so they can share their thoughts. Maybe when you do, you should take it in turns to speak to each other, while the other listens without interrupting?”

I was irritated when she glanced at me.

“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.”

It was a surprise to me, but it did not take long for me to accept the truth. I just want to be there for her. 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.”

This was truly a revelation. My sister is very direct and will ask for anything she needs. 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.

The only thing I want to hear is my voice.

Listening is sufficient, but wait!

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 like to share because I need 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. It makes me feel less isolated.

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. This needs to change.

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. We can then have a conversation. Is that okay?”

I’ll be honest. 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 toFixed people. But, I do still feel the need 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?!”

It is possible to believe that this statement can be true at some level. We empaths AreWe are emotional beings. It’s how we’re wired

However, I didn’t use it 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.

Empathy is first and foremost something that we should have. do. We don’t think so. are.

True, there are some people who feel more empathy and have a greater ability to connect with others. However, true empathy can only be achieved with practice. 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. You can be sure that we all do. Each of us has 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.

Are you feeling the desire to help others? You are 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:

  • Keep your mind centered and grounded while being present for our friend.
  • Paying attention to what they’re saying and reminding ourselves it’s about them, It’s not all about Use this site
  • 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’tWhat does it 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 percent of my paycheck, that might work for you.”)
  • Sneakily “coaching” or interrogating them—Particularly 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. I feel more connected, assuring, and nourished by the first list. However, the second list is still my favorite.

I am able to get lots of practice in order to improve my empathy.

My partner, my children, and friends all get it daily. It’s even possible to practice with my elderly friend, my family, my friends, my friendly local barista, or the cashier at the 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.

They need me to be there for them. To Be with them—to listen—without the need to Do anything. We can dance together through the pain. And maybe, just maybe, that’s more than enough.

Becki Sams

Becki Sams is a writer who’s obsessed with how to stay calm, kind, and sane in our busy world. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her making plant-based brownies or zenning out on her yoga mat. Careful: hang out with her for too long and you’ll wanna quit social media so you can get more meaningful stuff done. Come say hi at beckisams.com and download her free guide to *instantly* clear mental clutter.

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