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“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel”. ~ Maya Angelou

February 22, 2021

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself”.  ~Mohsin Hamid

I came upon this quote one day when I was trying to explain what I meant when I said someone was empathetic. I thought it was simple but beautiful.  I have met many individuals who will tell me that they know how it feels to experience something that I am feeling, and they may have had a similar experience or loss in life, but I guarantee that our experiences and feeling are different.  Our reactions are made up of different life experiences, so they are not exactly the same. Many people are sympathetic and kind, and compassionate.  It is a rare ability to be truly empathetic.

“Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It’s all through our own individual prisms.”  ~ Sterling K Brown

I saw a quote the other day that put it in simple terms. Sympathy is feeling sorry for another person’s hurt or pain. Empathy is walking in another person’s shoes.  Compassion is love in action.

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There are many times when someone does not know how it feels to be you, and that is okay.  It is perfectly ok.  Nonetheless, we can still be compassionate.  “I am sorry you are going through this.”  “This must be difficult.” And my personal favorite…

“How can I help?” 

Dr. Max Goodwin asks at every turn on NBC’s “ New Amsterdam ” when he becomes the new medical director at the eponymous fictional hospital. And he really, really means it. Not only does he repeat the phrase ad nauseam because he’s so damn earnest, but he also says it in Spanish.

Everyone needs to be heard, truly heard, not just the “I heard what you said” but the unsaid things, the body language, the sound of the person’s voice, the facial expressions, etc. It is not easy to really hear someone, and yet, it can be simple. In nursing school, we had an exercise where we would gather information from a patient. We had to gather the usual patient history but we had to sit with them, facing them, closed-door or curtain, taking out all of the distractions. We created a zone where the patient felt comfortable speaking, we asked open-ended questions, and we repeated what they said often starting with “What I heard you say was….. was that what you said?” We were looking for information that might now be given in asking the usual questions, and we were really fine-tuned in listening to what they said.

Today, the world feels overwhelmed with distractions. I can not remember the last time I was with a doctor when I felt I had their full attention. I have to write down the highlights of what I need to say during an appointment more often than not I leave feeling rushed and not heard.

“To be able to listen–really, wholly passively, self effacingly listen — without presupposing, classifying, improving, convertintng, evaluating, approving or dissaproving, without dueling with what is being said, without rehearsing the rebuttal in advance, without free associating to portions of what is being said so that the succeeding portions are not heard at all–such listening is rare”

Abraham Maslow

Listening, and really hearing what a person is trying to communicate is not simple. It is a skill, a gift, that comes from deep in one’s heart. One has to be willing to really be open to LISTEN to another! I am sometimes guilty of not hearing what a person is saying when I do not validate their feelings/story and rush to tell them my story. Often I have to focus and pause and let them say what they are trying to say in full without interruption. I have read a lot about how we should not need external validation for our feelings or actions, I tend to disagree. When we I feel that someone has acknowledged what I have said or done, even if they disagree or would have done or said something differently, it makes a difference. I feel heard.

To me, sincere interest in what a person is saying (with words or body language, tone, etc) is a vital part of being empathetic. Paying attention, not to what your story or reply will be, really listening, because you care, you want to hear what they are “saying” is a vital part of empathy. Every moment in life, every single story or tale does not cry out for the “are you really listening?” Often, the best response is nothing, just a nod of the head or in pre-pandemic times or a touch on the arm or a hug. I miss hugs, elbow bumps are not the same.

Kindness and empathy often go hand in hand. I think that some people do acts of kindness with no need for recognition but just because they know what a simple gesture would mean to the other person. I follow a group started in Australia called the Kindness Pandemic. The people who participate seem to be thoughtful, generous people. Small, random acts of kindness, paying it forward, or being grateful for receiving an act of kindness/empathy are abundant.

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?

~ Henry David Thoreau

Remember when it was safe to blow on a cake!!

It is sometimes difficult for me to understand why being empathetic is not second nature. I have been exceptionally blessed that my mom, Virginia, and my mother in law, Maryrose, were some of the kindest, most thoughtful, and empathetic individuals. They were loving and compassionate, and no matter what life handed them, they made time for others and cared.

In my nursing and volunteering careers, I have been fortunate to meet many amazing, compassionate, and empathetic nurses. When I was assigned to volunteer in the Heart Failure Clinic, I was afraid because I felt as if I might not fit in or be able to feel useful. Heart failure was not in my skillset, or so I believed. The nurses Charon, Marianna, Diane, Beth, and Hilary not only made me feel welcome and valued. They did their best to understood and empathize with the patients and families and went above and beyond. They tried to understand what the patients and families were going through and always did their best to help.

There is nothing wrong with kindness or sympathy. They are both wonderful attributes which everyone should have. The empathetic person often takes kindness and sympathy and takes it a step further. It is not telling your story to the person in pain, it’s trying to understand how their pain feels to them (mental or physical) and attempting to figure out what they need from you when sometimes they can not put it into words. Often, it is not advice or something physical, it’s just being there that makes a difference, often time a lasting memory

My children Dan, Becca, Kristen, and daughter in law Ann Taylor, are awesome listeners. They are compassionate and kind humans. My husband Skip often takes the time to just let me ramble on, he cares deeply and I honestly do not know how I would be here without him.

The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” ~ Meryl Streep

I have a few people in my life that have told me they are here for me, when and if I just want to talk, they will listen. It means the world to me knowing that. Those are the type of people whose first comment is not “Well, at least…. ” or to offer suggestions what I might do. I understand the message, and it was probably something I had considered, but it is not necessarily what I need to hear at that moment. The message is perfectly appropriate and true, it just did not feel empathetic at that moment, mostly because I may have felt that they did not hear or acknowledge my feelings. Skip asked me when he previewed this blog what was the point I was trying to say as my blogs are often different than this one. First, I turned it around in an old consulting trick I learned and asked him “what do you think I was trying to say?” (Which I thought was hysterical). My point is never to make anyone feel unkind, but rather to explain my viewpoint on what it feels like to receive empathy and how wonderful it would be if everyone could be kind, caring, sympathetic, and empathetic.

By no means whatsoever am I the epitome of empathy. In life, and highlighted more so in the pandemic world, it feels like there is often more time for contemplation. Often in the middle of the night, I am awake and my mind will not shut down. Everyone had a lot going on in the past year and not in a good way. Even when one tries to look for the silver lining, it feels difficult and often impossible to find one. For myself, no inspirational quote or knowing that others had it worse in life than I did suddenly made everything better. Often, we give it the best we can. I want to tell you……

If someone leads with kindness you are on the right track. Understanding that someone may be hurting, even though you have not experienced what they are going through does not mean you should not try to help. Most times you can not “fix” what an individual is feeling, nor do you need to by actions or suggestions.

When we empathize with others, we give them space to process, time to feel heard, a chance to experience support, and the opportunity to feel validated in their feelings.” ~ Emily De La Torre

The following are the usual comments made to try to offer comfort, but yet not comforting: (and I have said some of these myself at times) “Everything happens for a reason, This too shall pass, Just look on the bright side; I know how you feel, or something better is just around the corner.”

An author, Shelby Leigh, suggests that statements such as these are often helpful to let the individual know that you are there for them and that you hear them. Often, validation helps.

“I am so sorry you are feeling this way.” “I hear you.” “No wonder you are upset.” “I am sorry you are going through this.” “That must be difficult,” or if fictional Doctor Max Goodwin of New Amsterdam asked, “How can I help.”

Whether you listen without comment, send a card or note, give an unexpected bouquet of flowers, hold someone’s hand, gift a giant chocolate candy or a bottle of wine, (or both), or surprise someone with a hug that you wish would never end, know that you are loved, you are appreciated and that you make a difference. Remember to try to be kind, loving, and empathetic to yourself, because you deserve it!

“You cannot do kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Let kindness write all the chapters of your life.” ~ Alexandria Vasiliu

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One Comment
  1. Marilyn permalink

    Betty – you are one of the kindest people I know and your insightful wisdom is your gift to the world. Love you bunches!

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