Really? You think so? Somehow, unless you have been in this situation, I don’t think you could possibly understand!
I learned a lesson about empathy this week. Someone said these words to me. We therapists (yes, including me) frequently use this very statement with our patients. Unfortunately, not only is it an untruth, it is offensive and in some ways disrespectful. What I learned is that when you are going through something (or have gone through something) that is very painful or scary, others really cannot understand how you feel. They can understand your words and your behavior – with some effort; however, they cannot really know the feelings you are having.
Yes, we have all felt fear and pain; though thankfully most do not experience situations in which they fear losing their lives or sudden death of a loved one. Yet we, as therapists, often see the experience of fear as universal. I have learned that it is not.
I do empathize with my clients in that I make every attempt to be there with them and their feelings. I am sensitive to where they are and what they may be needing. And I try my best to call upon my experience of the type of pain they may be having in order to try to understand their feelings. And I have said those 11 words.
These days, I have a greater understanding of the fears some of my clients experience. Because I now understand the fear associated with potential heart surgery. I do now understand the unease and occasional fear when one starts to be aware of changes in heart beat, sensations in the chest, and fluctuations in blood pressure. I understand the often irrational, but nevertheless real, fear of death associated with these problems. I appreciate the sense of loss and sadness that comes with making significant life changes in service of one’s health. And, I understand the pain and concern I see in loved ones’ eyes. I even recognize my dog’s increased tension that has led to her feeling the need to be closer to me and may be contributing to an increase in her anxiety attacks.
Despite this new knowledge, despite my experiences, I will make every effort from this point forward, to avoid going down the arrogant path that in the past has led me to assume that I could possibly understand someone else’s pain or fear. The best I can do is listen, while respecting and honoring their experiences and then assist in any way they allow me to help.