Building Empathy in These Tough TImes

by Kerri Connor

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

When I first came up with the idea of writing the book Spells for Tough Times, I did so because I knew people out there needed help. They may need help with their finances, they may need help with their families, they may need help with their health; whatever the topic, there are people in this world in need, and it seems we often tend to forget about them.

In our society, especially for those in United States, we aren't supposed to have problems. We hide our problems from our family and friends, and oftentimes even from our self—hoping that if we ignore them they will just go away. Unfortunately, they usually don't go away, and often grow when ignored.

If you get depressed about your problems, we have pills for that.

If you are anxious about your bills, your job, your relationships, we have pills for that.

If you need help getting motivated for your day, we have pills for that.

If you need help getting to sleep at night, we have pills for that.

So often these days our problems are expected to be solved with a pill. While sometimes medications can help you cope and deal with your situation, it very seldom changes the actual situation that you have to deal with.

People need more than just a pill to help them get through their day. They need compassion. They need empathy. They need sympathy. They need support. They need help.

I wrote Spells for Tough Times to try to help people who are suffering from problems in their life.

After the book was completed, I noticed there was more need for it than what I had originally realized. This realization actually came through Facebook. I had seen several friends, and sometimes myself included, posting about things that had happened in their life that upset them. Some of the responses people received on their postings really shocked me.

Often the comments showed a complete and utter lack of empathy. Yes, sometimes people complain about things and they don't realize what they are saying. Sometimes they are complaining about something that they should be very grateful they have. However, when somebody is complaining about a true problem in their life, the proper response should not be, "Lighten up," "Find a silver lining," or any other comment that is less than supportive.

Life is made up of good and bad. Without the bad times, we wouldn't know how to appreciate the good times. Obviously no one wants to have a lot of bad times in their life, and when you're going through a difficult time, you do not want to hear, "Lighten up." You would like to hear some empathy, some sympathy, some support. People don't seem to realize that when they say things that they assume will cheer somebody up that what they are really doing is dismissing the person's feelings. People need to be allowed to grieve.

There seems to be a trend in the air, one of positive thinking and choosing to accept the positive into our lives. But, we can't simply choose to have a 100% positive life. Wow—wouldn't that be nice? Wouldn't it be great if we could stop those we love from dying? Wouldn't it be awesome if we could just wish for all the money we needed to pay our bills and it would suddenly appear? Wouldn't it be great to go into work and think, "I'm going to get a raise and a promotion today," and have it actually happen with just one thought? Sure it would be wonderful if we could just have positive thoughts all the time and have them come into reality. But we do not control outside forces, and they do have an effect on us.

I'm sure there are people who think life is 100% positive and fun all the time; to them, I'd like to say that it's not. If you truly believe that it is, you are missing out on a large portion of life. You are missing out on opportunities to learn, to feel, to share, to empathize with others. When you tell others all they have to do is be positive, you are dismissing their feelings, their thoughts, their ideas, their very selves, all in one breath. You aren't making that person feel better, you're making that person feel worse. You are making that person feel as if there is something wrong with them. This is not supportive, this is not showing empathy. This is attempting to push your own ideas onto someone else who is not ready/willing/able to accept them.

After seeing so many comments on Facebook, it became even more clear to me why Spells for Tough Times was needed. When people have problems they feel alone (especially when they try to gain support from their friends and instead are given what is supposed to be a pep talk). When did we decide as a society that it is not okay to be unhappy, ever? That it is not okay to grieve for a loved one or a lost relationship? When did we decide we have to put on a happy mask all the time to please others? It seems like these days that when it comes to family and friends we are living in a make believe world and hiding the reality so nobody really knows what is going on in our lives. We pretend we are okay just so we can fit in. This is wrong for so many reasons. When you have problems you often feel depression, pain, anger, grief, or some other negative feeling that you need to work through. Pretending it isn't there doesn't let you work through your feelings.

In today's world, you can go online any time of day or night and post your thoughts, and within moments have comments relating to what you have posted. Sometimes you will find people are very supportive, they offer help, they commiserate with you. Other times you get exactly the opposite of what you were looking for. When this happens it often makes you feel even worse.

This trend to disregard the feelings of others, to not empathize with others, must stop if we are to survive as a society. We need to show support for one another, compassion, empathy, and love if this society is to thrive. We have to stop telling people that their feelings do not matter simply because their feelings are negative. When someone is down and out we need to extend a hand and help them back up, not kick them while they are down.

Think about it. The last time one of your friends complained about something in their life, or told you about a hard time they were having, did you just say, "It will be okay?" Did you tell them to cheer up and smile? Did you tell them there must be something good that will come out of this? I hope not. I hope you put your arms around them and let them cry if they wanted to. I hope you told them that while you don't know exactly what they are going through, you can see how much it upsets them. I hope you validated their feelings, allowed them to have their feelings, and did not try to make them feel bad about the feelings they were having.

When I first started writing Spells for Tough Times, I wrote down a list of problems I had gone through in my life. I asked my friends about the problems they had in their lives. I asked them what they needed help with, what bugged them slightly, and what drove them completely batty. I knew there was a need for this book, I just didn't realize how large that need was. Writing Spells for Tough Times opened my eyes wider. We all handle problems in a different way; something that might be a big deal to me might not be a big deal to you, but that does not mean I am not justified in being upset about it. How we handle our problems is what defines us. When we ignore them and just wish them away, that actually says a lot about us. When we stand and fight for what we believe in, that says a lot about us too.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we treat each other with respect for each other's feelings. The judging of the size of other people's problems must stop. Telling other people to ignore their problems must stop. Dismissing other people's feelings must stop. Expecting people to be happy all the time, even when they are having serious issues in their life, must stop.

The next time you hear somebody griping or groaning about something in their life, think before you react. Is what you are about to say helpful? Or will it be hurtful? Will it validate their feelings? Or will it dismiss them? Will it make the person to whom you are responding feel better or feel more alone? Ask yourself these questions. Ask how you would feel if you were in their shoes. Would you want somebody telling you, "It's all right?" Or would you rather they lend a supportive ear? Just taking a moment, trying to feel what that other person is feeling, could indeed be what changes their world.

Empathy is in short supply these days. Please help bring it back.


Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2012. All rights reserved.