We Need Empathy Not 'Fixing'

Here's the deal, the human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed - to be seen heard and companioned exactly as it is ~ Parker Palmer.

I love this, I'm calling it a #truthbomb

I was part of a discussion recently on empathy and how powerful our words and interactions can be. 

What came up in the discussion is that we have the power to build connection and understanding with the person we are seeking to be empathic with as well as the power to make the other feel misunderstood and disconnected.

You can try a small experiment with this...

Imagine a small challenge you are facing, nothing too difficult or painful but a challenge none the less.

Now imagine me telling you. 

1. "I know exactly how you feel..."

Notice your reaction to this statement.
How did your body react to this?

What about this one...

2. "I can imagine how much pain you are in and how difficult that feels for you and that you'd like to find a way to get through this"

Notice your reaction
How did your body react to this?

If you are like me and many others you may have found yourself thinking, how could you possibly know exactly how I feel? You might have even felt a rigidity in your body as you braced for what usually comes next... let me tell you about what happens to me...

For most people hearing another person say I know exactly how you feel serves to make the interaction one where we move away. simply because no one can ever know our exact experience, even it is the same event we have faced.

It's not that "I know exactly how you feel" is the wrong statement to make when demonstrating empathy, I believe its context specific. I've also been guilty of saying this myself! I do think its interesting to explore what it means to show empathy with someone

Perhaps you had a similar reaction to the second statement, or perhaps it felt better for you. Statement 2 isn't necessarily right or wrong either, but interesting to note. What's clear for me is that it's important to understand what gets in the way of us way of being truly empathic with someone. Our words and interactions can be powerful.

If we examine how we react and what we say when someone comes to us with their pain and distress we can see what might get in the way of empathy. Sometimes it is our discomfort with the pain a person presents, our own triggers, our need to fix or be the expert (this is something those in healing professionals need to be mindful of - myself included).

How do we show someone that we are with them, alongside them and able to imagine what they might be experiencing but never moving them away but saying we know what they are feeling? 

I think the answer is in the quote above. 

We need to witness people as they are. 

Not having to fix it or give advice when it isn't asked for. (and even when advice is asked for there is a way to keep it about the person in front of us). We need to be with the person and be with what is.

Instead of just trying to fix pain or saying it's irrational or something we need to "get over" or have taken away, what if we said “Tell me about your story.... What happened, tell me more about that...

What if we asked about their feelings...
What's that like for you and how have you managed that

What if we owned it when sometimes there are no words or we feel helpless... I can't imagine your pain and I have no words. Sometimes, the power of witnessing another person is to hold them where they are and let them know they are not alone. We first need to listen to the pain and distress so we can understand the person.

Have you had an experience of being witnessed, deeply seen or heard? Id love to hear about it.

Natajsa Wagner is a Clinical Psychotherapist in Private Practice working with individuals, couples and groups. Natajsa is an advocate for authentic conversations that connect us. Natajsa believes that the relationship we have with ourselves and others is the essential ingredient to our emotional health, happiness and wellbeing.

Natajsa is a Gestalt therapist in Brisbane. She is passionate about speaking and teaching on the topic of moving from loneliness to belonging and the importance of human relationships. Her focus is on helping people develop self-awareness and understanding of our challenges, so we can create change that leads to more fulfilling and meaningful lives. Natajsa has been featured as an expert both locally and internationally and has contributed to a number of print and online media outlets including Women's Health and Fitness Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine & ABC Online.

You can find her:

Natajsa Wagner