When you think you’re helping but you’re not

I used to write from a place I thought was vulnerable but in truth I wasn’t. It wasn’t until I was through the storm, had seen the silver lining, learnt my lesson and could now make sense of it all, that I would share my experiences.

And my closest friends knew that. They were even brave enough to call me out in it. 

It wasn’t until recently that I began writing from a truly vulnerable place and let me tell you it isn’t easy. It’s felt more akin to laying on an operating table, unzipping my skin and exposing every nerve ending to the elements.

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It takes me hours, sometimes the day, to come back from writing something difficult and yet, I want to. I’ve come to crave it.

Writing in the thick of struggle – when the waters feel deep and murky – helps me process and recognize whats going on inside me and then acknowledge it. It helps me own where I’m at, give voice to the wounded soldier in me and move on, rather than stuff my emotions down and will myself to keep going- saving me unrest, anxiety and stress internally. 

I move quicker to a place of acceptance and then ultimately, joy because It’s healing and freeing to simply be with myself – to sit in whatever it is I’m experiencing without running away, judging and blaming anyone, even myself. 

I’ve learnt that’s called empathy. 

But I used to confuse empathy with sympathy. 

Empathy drives connection. It bolsters feelings of acceptance and being heard. Without saying anything, empathy tells the recipient “It’s ok and they’re ok.”

Sympathy, on the flip side, drives disconnection. It leaves people feeling unheard, rejected, and many times, experiencing shame, like theres something wrong with them or what they’re feeling. It isolates and without saying it, sympathy tells the recipient they are “less than”.

And the two – empathy vs sympathy- can many times hinge on a few small words.

The other day I posted something on social media. It was difficult for me to admit, but I knew there were others out there who felt the same way I did and I wanted to open it up for conversation. One response instantly got my back up.

I knew my pride was hurt and initially I told myself to smarten up. But then I sat in it and asked myself why. Why did what she said bother me so much and it wasn’t so much what she said, but how she said it. It was the words she chose. 

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It included the words “everybody (we all)“, said multiple times over and followed up with her advice for dealing with and getting over it. 

I felt completely shut down, like I was a pion/weird/stupid for feeling insecure in this area and all together below and less than her.

And while my guess is that she’s learnt from personal experience and can all together relate, I did not feel connected to her one bit. I felt pushed aside or worse, mocked; like I was a dumb child and some adult had just patted me on the head and said “there, there.”

In reality, I know what she said came from the right place but what I discovered is that the words she chose, rather than making me feel validated, not alone and normal, made me feel small and stupid; like my feelings and struggles (ultimately, me) were not worthy of being said or felt.

Two words could have changed that: me too.

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Rather than sitting with me and relating – by saying “me too” – I felt like she was standing in a different circle overhearing my conversation and scolding me in front of others; like she was too good or too wise to even entertain my heart. 

Honestly, this isn’t about her at all, because I too have used these exact words when trying to console or encourage people! I’ve caught myself trying to relate but failing, as I choose words that isolate rather than connect. But if I look closer, I’ve I’m painfully honest with myself, I can see this usually happens when deep down, I’m trying to protect myself.

Perhaps I all too much relate and hate that I do; I’m not ready to admit it out loud and by lumping myself in that category, I’ll be found out. Or maybe it’s because I can’t relate and I really don’t want to. In getting too close and trying to relate, I’ll have to admit I’m susceptible to experiencing whatever it is that person is experiencing. And that may be painful. 

When I keep people at bay (consciously or subconsciously) – when I offer sympathy rather than empathy it tends to be where I myself have or am experiencing shame, guilt or fear.

I pray that next time I’ll be more self aware and will be granted the courage to respond in love; to respond with empathy.

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Lord, we confess that on many occasions we have missed opportunities to be there for people- to offer a loving word when it’s needed most. Forgive us. Help us connect with one another; to offer empathy rather than sympathy, even when it’s difficult. Help us to recognize when we’re isolating people rather than welcoming them in and show us what, if anything, is keeping us from meaningful interactions. Your word tell us that there is power in our words; life or death in them. Guard our mouths and help us speak words that will lift up and encourage rather than strip down. Thank you that you are at work in us, refining us into our best selves and will carry it through to completion. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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One thought on “When you think you’re helping but you’re not

  1. Pingback: New Name, Old Problem | Hope in depression | Seeking Grace

For a long time I felt unnoticed and longed for community- to find “my people.” You are it! Please know your presence here means something to me, so don’t be a stranger. I read every comment both on the blog and on social media and do my absolute best to respond to every one!

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