Practicing Empathy is Hard
I like to think I’m an empathetic person, and for the most part, I believe that description accurately defines my character. But plenty of times I’ve fallen short of being empathetic, especially with those closest to me.
Recently, my husband spent most of two days with our kids on full dad-duty. I was busy working, running errands, and taking care of appointments, while he gladly spent those two days keeping our kids busy, active, and fed. He also made time to help around the house and assist with some fall clean-up at his parents’ home.
While I was extremely grateful for his dedicated support those two days, I completely failed to show empathy or compassion when he voiced how tired he was at the end of it. My response to his exhaustion sounded something like,
“Well, now you know how I feel because this is what I do all the time.”
Pridefully shoving aside his emotions, I chose to elevate myself. I didn’t listen, encourage, or support him in a time of need; I simply reminded him of the work I typically do each day and how he should take notice.
Not very empathetic of me.
As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I realized how horrible they were, yet instead of apologizing, I continued to justify “how hard I have it.”
Even more yikes.
After our kids were in bed, God worked on my stubborn heart- pushing me to go back to that conversation with my husband. That night, I acknowledged my prideful heart and hurtful words. I apologized to my husband for my lack of empathy, and thankfully we reconciled quickly.
Are you like me? Have you spoken words showing little compassion or concern for another’s struggles? I would imagine we’ve all been there at some point. Our natural, fleshly response is often one that wants to brush aside someone’s hardship or even justify it instead of connecting and empathizing with others.
Practicing empathy is hard, but it’s needed if we want to develop strong, healthy, and lasting relationships.
So how can we choose to be more empathetic with those around us?
1. Choose to sit in silence and listen.
In our deepest hurts, having a friend or family member just sit with us to listen is powerful. In the silence, there is work and connection being done.
Job experienced this quiet presence from his friends during immense suffering. His friends initially, lovingly sat with him for seven days without saying a word (Job 2:13).
Have you experienced the power of sitting silently with a friend or loved one who is in a deep hardship? Or maybe someone has sat with you in a quiet, comforting silence. The silent presence of a loved one, holding your hand, or just being near, can mean so much during a difficult time.
Sometimes there are no words to say. There’s no specific fix or encouragement to give, but your presence matters.
When we practice sitting and listening, we are connecting and building a stronger relationship. We are choosing relationship over filling the void with meaningless talk.
To answer before listening- that is folly and shame.Proverbs 18:13
2. Connect rather than “fix”.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a vulnerable state, I want someone to identify with my struggle and encourage me. I don’t always want someone to jump right in and start “fixing” my problems. I want someone to identify how hard something has been and how angry, sad, or burdened I am.
While that may sound funny, when you or I begin fixing someone’s problem, rather than empathizing and truly listening first, we’re pushing aside what really matters- connection. Real, authentic connection starts with empathy and compassion.
When you feel listened to and loved, you will be more likely to take advice when the time is right. But connection and empathy come before fixing.
Have you noticed when others start with “fixing” problems instead of connecting first, it often makes things worse? I’ve noticed when certain individuals jump into “fixing”, it’s often a fix that doesn’t relate to what’s needed or the person who is struggling shuts down because of a lack of connection.
When Jesus met with Mary and Martha after Lazarus had died, Jesus already knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but He didn’t go straight to fixing the situation. Jesus was first moved with compassion to weep with Mary and recognize how much this loss hurt because they both loved Lazarus dearly.
When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.John 11:33
Jesus wept.John 11:35
Part of being human is connecting on a relational level with others, and that means bearing one another’s burdens, sitting with the hurting, and choosing to connect over trying to make everything “perfect”.
Bear one another’s burdens, and therefore fulfill the law of Christ.Galatians 6:2
While empathy can be challenging for all of us at different times, it is essential for each of us to have flourishing and meaningful relationships. Our Lord and Savior showed the deepest empathy and compassion toward us in our sinful and rebellious state. Without Jesus’ compassion, we would not have a right relationship with God the Father. Jesus chose empathy, connection, and sacrifice, before fixing.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.John 3:16
As you and I go out into the world, let’s choose to empathize with those around us in our daily interactions, not neglecting to show compassion to those within our own homes. God can use your empathetic heart to bring peace and comfort by shining Christ’s light.