On my first day in my casework class, back in
Narnia social work school, we got right down to business. (After introducing ourselves, and sharing one thing about ourselves that people would never guess. I thought it was too early for serial killer jokes, and that is an opportunity I will never get back.)
We were, for the most part, inexperienced in the field. There are plenty of people who go to social work school while working in what are essentially social work positions, but there didn’t happen to be any of them in this class. Any questions we were answering or thoughts we were sharing were those of unskilled, uneducated do-gooders.
Which, we all know, are the worst.
The professor posed a hypothetical situation–someone comes in to see you, depressed over the death of a relative. What can you say?
We all kind of froze. No one wants to be the idiot who gets the answer wrong, perfectly illustrating that they are in no way suited for the job that they are training for, on the first day of class.
Finally, someone spoke up. I think he called on, actually, because it got that bad, but that’s not the point. He said what was obviously the first thing to pop into his head. “Maybe you could tell them how you can relate? Like, tell them about a relative that you had that died?”
We spent the remaining hour of the class discussing why this should never happen.
Come on, you know you all jumped out of your seats and yelled, “WRONG!” just like Dana Carvey in the old SNL McLaughlin Group skits. (Do yourself a favor and YouTube that shit.)
I can understand why that guy said it, though. It’s what people do.
“I’m so depressed, my cat just died.”
“Oh, I know how you feel, I was a wreck when I lost my hamster.”
“I feel awful, my aunt has cancer.”
“Ugh, it’s the worst, my sister is just recovering from that.”
“My life is over. A hot air balloon landed in my neighbor’s yard, knocking over his fig tree and crushing my foot as I lounged in my hammock.”
Despite being the go-to response in non-therapeutic settings, “I know how you feel, listen to my story” has rarely made anyone feel better.
1.) You can’t relate to everything.
As shown in our foot-death-by-hot-air-balloon story, not everyone has every experience. You might not have lost a parent, or maybe you hate cats and can’t imagine someone getting so worked up other loss of a pet. (Who the hell are you, you monster?) That doesn’t mean you can’t be empathetic, and listen to someone when they’re in distress. But if, “Hey, me too!” is the only trick in your bag, you’re going to be scrambling when that situation presents itself.
2.) Oh, I’m sorry, let’s talk about you.
See, I thought I was sharing something that I was going through. Apparently, this brought up your need to talk about something that you’ve been dealing with, but had somehow forgotten about until I started talking.
In an effort to be sympathetic, and show that they understand, people often take over the conversation. Next think you know, you’re comforting the friend you called on for support.
“I know, you’ve had those Chucks forever, I can’t believe the sole finally wore through. But…remember when I said I got fired?”
3.) No, you don’t know how I feel.
This is a big one. When you are dealing with something, tragic, unfair, or just sad in your life, no one else understands. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been through the exact same thing. Your feelings are unique, no one has ever felt sadness the way you do.
I’m not saying this sarcastically. This is how people feel, and it’s fine. (For a while.)
When I was in college, a boy I had known for a long time overdosed and died. Not only was I devastated, I was living in a new city with people I hardly knew. Eventually I told them, and one of the people in my house suggested we pray for this boy. I explained that I wasn’t quite there. He smiled and said, “I know how you feel.”
He went on to tell me about his friend who had committed suicide, and how she was burning in hell, just like my friend who had overdosed, so we really ought to be praying for them.
I won’t get into exactly how it all ended, though there were tears, screaming, and locked doors involved. But the entire time he was talking, I just remember thinking,
“I wish you would fucking die” “You know how I feel? I don’t know how I feel.”
Keep it to yourself.
Sidenote: telling someone that the person they’re missing is being tortured by fire and pitchforks? Something else you should keep to yourself.
4.) There’s no award for oneupsmanship.
You don’t win for being the most miserable. Unless there was some kind of “Asshole Award,” and now that I think about it, there probably is. I don’t think most people are consciously trying to one up someone who is in distress, but it seems to turn into that.
“My boyfriend is back in rehab.”
“Been there. My dad was always in and out of rehab. When he wasn’t beating the shit out of me.”
You might have it worse than the person you’re talking to. Such things are difficult to quantify, but I think we can all agree that the Baudelaire children had it worse than Goldilocks. But let’s imagine Goldilocks came to them, saying, “Violet, this has been the worst day. I caught a cold from sampling porridge from strangers, my nap was interrupted, and I got chased out of a house by some grizzlies.” A response of, “Well, our parents are dead, everything we own was destroyed in a fire, we’re being chased by an evil madman, and everything we love turns to shit” would not make anyone feel better.
I don’t usually leave it to Craig Ferguson to wrap things up, but in this instance I will. Let’s all ask ourselves:
- Does this need to be said?
- Does this need to be said by me?
- Does this need to be said by me right now?
Happy empathy, everybody.