If you see someone go through a hard time, don’t feel sorry for them. It deprives them of agency. If you say you’re sorry, you’re saying they’re unable to deal with what is happening.
People are much wiser and stronger than we think. They have the power to use whatever challenge they’re facing as a tool for growth. The best you can do is to be their cheerleader. Say, I know it is hard, but I know you can make it.
I heard these words on the Apotheosis retreat 2 weeks ago, and keep thinking about them a lot. I used to feel sorry in many situations and for many people, including myself. I thought those who didn’t were aloof and indifferent.
I’m highly empathetic, for better or worse. Other people’s emotions flood me naturally. Whenever there’s excitement, tension, anger, or disappointment, I’ll know it before everyone else, and feel the urge to bring relief to whomever is experiencing them.
On one hand, this gives me a ridiculously unfair advantage in customer-facing work. On the other, it sometimes makes me too paralysed to actually help. Being the emotional sponge that I am, I tended to absorb all the frustration, anger, and disappointment, to the point where I’d become upset and disappointed myself.
These few sentences completely reframed my view on empathy.
In Coddling of the American Mind, Jon Haidt & Greg Lukianoff explained how we’re raising an entire generation on the false premise of “What doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.” I unconsciously rooted my empathy in the same false belief. I felt like I had to protect people from their pain, or at least have my share in it. This deprived both me and everyone else of a chance to grow.
If I suffer because someone else suffers, I’m not doing him a favour. I’m framing him as a helpless victim, hurt by external circumstance and fully dependent. He’d be much better off knowing he has the power to overcome the challenge instead of hearing pity and condolence.
If I take someone’s suffering as my own and alleviate it, I deprive her of the power to face it herself. The next time she’s in trouble, which will be plenty, she’ll depend on me to shield her from the pain and tension. This only creates more problems for both of us in the long term.
If I feel overwhelmed by other people’s feelings, I deprive myself of the space to process my own. The urge to solve other people’s problems is often a smart runaway strategy to avoid all the scary shit in my life.
Becoming a cheerleader doesn’t make me indifferent to other people’s feelings. It means I can understand and acknowledge the suffering without taking it as my own. I can create space where they’ll have a chance to own it, take responsibility, and grow stronger than before.
It also means I can acknowledge and respect someone’s choice not to engage with their problems. While everyone would be better off facing their demons, it’s their choice to make. You can’t help someone against their will, and you shouldn’t try to. Whenever they’re ready, they’ll know where to find you for some empowerment.
If you see someone suffering, don’t feel sorry. Give them space and support so they can grow into something beautiful.