Like every emotion we have, empathy is complicated. We all show and receive it differently.
When I’m feeling physically lousy, I don’t want or expect anyone to tell me how sorry she feels for me. I don’t complain either, maybe because my mom and dad weren’t especially empathetic souls. No one is really going to make me feel better, anyway, except maybe a doctor.
Besides, can anyone else really feel our pain, figuratively, if not literally? I think not, except in extremely profound relationships, such as moms and their kids. So what does it matter, no matter how sorry they say they feel?
I guess most of us like to have a sympathetic ear or a few words when we’re under the weather, but doesn’t a visit, a gesture or a bowl of chicken soup mean much more.
My friend D, who recently had a round of operations and chemotherapy for breast cancer, told me her sisters weren’t overflowing with empathy. They three have great relationships with each other, but D didn’t expect more, she told me. “One sister would say, ‘It’ll be okay soon,’ and the other was on her cell phone in my hospital,” D laughed.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or how to act when someone has a serious illness or is terribly upset about something else. Do you act like everything is normal? Do you try to joke around? Do you try to be a psychologist? Do you just listen?
I used to make my friends and relatives crazy when I was upset about a boyfriend or a problem at work. I’d go round and round till I talked myself out. That didn’t work so well. I’d feel better for two minutes and then I’d start the process again.