The Limits of Empathy

Whenever there was a crisis in my life, the younger me would talk fairly openly about it, but experience has taught me the limits of empathy.  Now I limit my crisis circle.   Sometimes that makes me feel like I’m carrying an invisible weight around my neck, but it’s better than fending off well-intentioned clichés or trying to explain a painful, complicated situation.

I’ve been reading blog posts by someone I know about her fertility treatments.  I sympathize and not just because I once had similar experiences (although not as serious).  People try to minimize her pain by pointing out that there are people with more serious problems.  Others just don’t want to hear about what she’s going through.  She, too, has discovered the limits of empathy.

Your problems are a problem for others, and sometimes they wish there was an expiration date for your pain.  If some of what I write sounds harsh, it might be because you’ve never faced a crisis, you’ve lived a charmed life or you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by truly compassionate souls.  For many, life is not so simple.

Whether your crisis involves health (mental, physical or psychological), finances, career or some personal disaster, you will find that people might try but, for the most part, do not know how to respond.  Some will say, “I know things will work out.”  Others offer encouragement based on superficial appearance: “But you/your child/spouse looks so good/healthy/happy.  You’d never know he was sick/depressed/troubled/addicted/broke.”   They’ll tell you to, “Look on the bright side” or assure you that, “One day you’ll look back and laugh about this.”  There are those who can’t wait to insert themselves into the conversation:  “You think you have it bad, I….”  (Fill in the blank.)  None of these statements are cruel; they can seem to be — even if unintentionally — dismissive.

People with no expertise offer solutions.  For fertility, “Just relax.”  Or, “Adopt and you’ll get pregnant.”  For depression, “He’s just going through a phase.”  For problem teens:  “Just put your foot down.”  If a child undergoes a trauma, “Kids are resilient.”  And so on.

Then there’s, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” whereby the person puts the onus on you to contact him.  Translation:  “See you later.”

One response that mystifies me is the parable about people sitting around a table and piling their troubles in front of them.  “No one,” intones the teller, “would trade their troubles for anyone else’s.”  I’m not sure how she knows this to be true and, if so, why this matters.  But I do know it doesn’t help.

I have no problem with finding comfort in religion.  But the oft-repeated, “God gives us just as much as we can handle” is, I think, cruel.  “Everything happens for a reason,” I put in the same category.  These statements seem to imply that you should look on the plus side of your crisis, perhaps feel privileged for having been chosen for this “honor.”  And maybe something great will come of it!

The stark reality is that few people will really listen too long when you’re having a tough time, and few are capable of going beyond clichés.   Some will stop calling.  Others will float around the margins.  You still might want to see them, so avoid discussing these issues.  Go to the movies.

Of course there are people who do care, don’t know what to say and want to avoid making things worse.  I have a few suggestions.  Empathy can simply take the form of, “That stinks.  I’m sorry you’re going through this.”  This can be followed by, “Can I let you bitch for a while?  Shop for you?  Tell you a joke?  Take you to dinner?”  Avoid “I’ll give you a call” or “We should get together.”   Even, “I’m not sure what to say” is better than something you don’t mean.

I certainly don’t get it right every time.  I like to think that I at least try to listen respectfully and not throw in my own story.  My shtick is, well, shtick; I do my best to make a friend laugh, if it feels appropriate.  If I’m sharing, I try to be aware of wearing out my welcome.

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion,” wrote Henry Nouwen in The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, “who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”   It really doesn’t take all that much to be a true friend to a friend in need.  Censor the first thing that comes to mind.  Take a deep breath.  Remind yourself why this person is your friend.  The right words just might come.

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Ann Green

I write feature stories and personal essays in addition to my work in business/PR writing. I also tutor students of all ages to enhance their writing skills. My passions, besides writing, are my family, reading, walking, religious humor (on which I speak publically) and anything feline. 

  5 comments for “The Limits of Empathy

  1. October 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    “Look on the bright side”,” stay positive”, I heard all the time when I was going through cancer and at times I thought I would snap! You make some great points and tips!

    • Dorrie
      October 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

      As a cancer survivor and then caregiver I know this situation from both sides. In one word I can sum up the best thing anyone can do…”listen”. Don’t give advice, don’t start sharing your own horror stories. Just “be”. Hold someone’s hand if they are willing-touch is SO important!

      Let them talk, let them know that someone in the world loves them enough to share their pain…. not minimize it, explain it, compare it to their own or cure it.

      Tell them you will be there no matter what happens, that you will support their decisions… because you love them, you are their friend, you are their partner. They are still in this world, on this planet and you are there with them. All the way :-).

  2. October 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    There was a time when people didn’t share as much, either. I always think that’s a viable option. Maybe because at one time we valued privacy more than we do now? Oprah and her ilk have opened the doors to “sharing”…which I think brought us to the TMI (too much information) world we live in now.

    There is value to sharing, of course, but I think we have a responsibility to be discerning about what we share and with whom.

  3. October 22, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    Having gone through a major illness and losing my mom at the same time, I found out about the limits of empathy. When people ask how you are, you better say, “Great!” That’s what they really want to hear, otherwise they might actually have to do something. “Brightsidedness” (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s book) is epidemic. More on that subject at

  4. Joe in midwest
    September 22, 2015 at 4:18 am

    Whenever I hear that trite saying, “everything happens for a reason,” I think to myself, so the Holocaust ended 70 years ago after six million people were murdered, and now, what is the reason that six million people died instead of three million or perhaps only six people again?? After all, it was so horrific and there have been so many books, movies, and TV shows related to that time that we would know the reason for six million murders.

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