Updated: Dec 22, 2022
In the US we are experts at having light conversations. Friendly, but not too friendly, informative, and interesting without going too deep. There’s a feeling that we don’t have time to stop and go deeper. We pass people with a quick, “how’s it going?”, and “it’s good.”
I can remember my mom telling me it was polite to always ask how the other person is doing.
This felt awkward, but I also believed she was right. To solve my problem, I learned to get my “how are you” in before the other person – so I wasn’t left trying to get it in as the other person was walking away. I already had a sense that greetings move fast in this culture, and even that sometimes people don’t truly care how you’re doing. Not in a mean or unkind way…We simply want things to be nice and friendly.
Maybe because of our culture's niceness, we get this idea that we don’t want to burden others with hard things.
There’s a feeling that we don’t want to bring people down. Or possibly, we might be afraid of how the other person will react if we are vulnerable. I’ve tried to observe myself and have realized that sometimes I feel comfortable being vulnerable and sometimes I don’t. It can depend on a few factors like, what’s going on around me (am I around lots of people?), my time (am I in a rush?), and most importantly, do I feel safe and that the person I’m talking with is trustworthy. If not, forget it!
I don’t think this feeling of safety is the same for everyone.
If someone has been through trauma or a lot of rejection it could make it very hard to feel safe with others. There are many things that could traumatize a person and cause them to guard what they share with others. We can’t turn the impact of trauma on and off like a switch. A person can’t just be OK when they want to be.
Most of us also like to feel that we are being understood. And that the person we are talking to is actually listening. Sometimes I feel that listening is a lost art. Our culture moves so quickly and anything longer than a minute feels too long. So, this could translate to feeling like the person we’re talking to isn’t even that interested to hear what we’re saying, or even that they care. We might begin to feel (and fear) that what we are saying isn’t worth listening to.
Sometimes, a person might feel that going “there” would be more pain than they can stand. It is safer not to go near a certain area of their life. And staying on the surface level of politeness and lightness will keep them from having to feel the pain again.
There are many reasons why we might not feel OK sharing our stuff, or going deeper and actually talking about our emotions.
I’m often asking how people are feeling. Not just as a counselor, I really want to know the answer to how are they feeling. It can be hard sometimes for people to “open up.” It can be a struggle to feel safe enough to share. We’re so used to moving past what we’re feeling that it can even be a struggle to put a name to what is being felt.
I like helping people to be able to talk about what they are feeling. To be able to go to the hard and not-so-nice places and sit there with a person and allow them to feel what they’re feeling. So often, in the niceness of our culture, we can want to make someone feel better or promise them that “it’s going to be OK.” Of course, I do have hope that things will work out and that things will get better. But, that is not usually what a person wants or needs to hear when they are in the midst of sorrow or suffering.
True empathy happens when we allow ourselves to feel with the other person. We can offer empathy anywhere, not just in a counseling office. It can be simple like giving time to listen. It can be genuinely saying, “wow, I’m sorry to hear that” or “I don’t know what to say but I’m here for you.” It can be saying, “can I pray for you right now?”
Empathy is not about trying to make someone feel better.
It’s not about looking on the “bright” side. It is about being willing to be there with that person, and somehow identify with what they’re feeling. Even if we haven’t experienced what that person is going through, we can find some connection within ourselves, and sit with them in it.
I’m biased because I’m a counselor so I believe that talking about what we’re feeling, our emotions, is helpful and important. I’m thankful that more and more people are beginning to see the value of this. And to understand that bringing emotional “stuff” out into the open can be part of healing from it.
Find people in your life who truly want to listen to you – and be sure to listen to them, too! Find people who you can trust. Find a therapist who you can talk to, and who you feel you can trust. Give it a chance, even if you feel uncomfortable. Be willing to look at the painful stuff and let the light shine on it so that you can begin healing.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15
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