It becomes a “thing” that simply rolls off of your tongue: I’m sorry for your loss; I’m sorry you don’t feel well; I’m sorry that you got hurt; I’m sorry… And even when you try to express genuine concern, often the words sound empty. Your words are usually appreciated, you’re being polite, but are your voiced sentiments really helping anyone? Too many people make polite conversation that they are never really engaged in.
There is a big difference about being polite and reaching out to offer comfort. Empathy is when you try to imagine what the person is feeling. It doesn’t matter if you never experienced what they are going through, we have all had times when we’ve been sad, scared, or under the weather. Even if you have experienced a similar situation your reactions are not going to be the same, but you should still understand and relate to the emotion your friend is feeling.
Don’t belittle or minimize someone’s emotions. Depending on the situation you may be tempted to take their feelings away, to discount them unintentionally. You tell someone who just lost a parent who lived to a ripe old age that he was old, he lived a long time, and wow you know people who never were so lucky to have their parents around for so long. Or you let your girlfriend know how much better she is without the bum that just walked out on her. Or you tell the woman who just miscarried that she should be relieved because it was nature’s way of fixing a mistake. (I’ve heard people saying these things to others). These kind of phrases demean the feelings and even though you may not try to hurt someone intentionally it does hurt.
It’s okay to say I understand you’re sad, you’re hurt, or I understand that this seems scary. It’s even okay to say “I’ve been there” so long as you don’t make it all about yourself. Letting someone know that they are not alone in what they are going through can be kind, but not if you ignore their needs.
Compassion is more than just putting yourself in their shoes and empathizing with their pain. Compassion is saying you’re sorry for whatever they are going through, letting them know you understand, and then being there for them to talk, to lend a shoulder, and to help them through the tough days wherever you can. When you can put it all together… words to understanding to being supportive, that is when you are being a true friend.
When you are able to show compassion you are putting someone else’s needs before your own and you can take pride in being able to help someone in pain.