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The Positive Power of Empathy and the Phrase, "Wow, that sucks."

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Positive thinking is the mindset of winners. Right? Don't get mired in self-defeating, negative thoughts that only keep you from reaching your goals. Getting ourselves and others to avoid negative thoughts – any thoughts that would make us feel bad – is the goal. Right? Because, feeling bad is… bad. (Sorry to be so negative.)

Is this our mindset when we try to talk someone out of feeling hurt, sad, or depressed? Do we really believe we can convince someone that they shouldn't have a broken heart?

Reflecting on Empathy: When Technicalities Overshadow Pain

I once had a conversation with a friend. I found out my girlfriend had been cheating on me and it was devastating. His response at hearing my story? “Well, technically you guys aren't married, so there really isn't anything wrong with what she did.”

That was his way of trying to make me feel better. In his mind there wasn't technically a reason for me to feel bad – so I shouldn't feel bad.

Ultimately, his comment made me feel even worse:

  1. He invalidated my pain because of a simple technicality.

  2. His response told me that he couldn't really be supportive if I wasn't going to be my usual, affable self.

Not only did I have a cheating girlfriend, I also had a friend who technically didn't want (or didn’t know how) to be my friend. I have to wonder, if my girlfriend had poured gasoline on my hand and set it on fire would my friend have empathized with me then? Or would he show some consistency by saying, “Well, technically you have another hand you can use while that one heals up. So, why is it such a big deal?”

I'm guessing that my seared flesh would not have been disregarded on a technicality. He may have even driven me to the hospital. So why was it easy for him to disregard the broken heart that felt like it had been lit on fire with gasoline?

Someone else's emotional pain

can have a way of making us very uncomfortable.

Because emotions are invisible, we only see their symptoms. This makes the actual emotional pain easier to ignore. If you'll just stop crying, my pain will go away... Also, emotional pain can be faked compared to something like a compound fracture. Some people manipulate us by displaying fake emotional symptoms. When this happens we also become desensitized. In these moments we sometimes wonder to ourselves, do they really feel that bad, or are they just trying to get my sympathy?

Understanding Emotional Pain: Beyond Visibility and Positivity

Sometimes I do think we've let the culture of positive thinking get the best of us. The power of positive thought is a good tool, but it won't fix everything. Think of using a screwdriver to pound a nail. That's similar to the idea of using positive thinking to circumvent the grieving process. Both a hammer and a screwdriver are essential tools to have in a toolbox, but they are not interchangeable.

Perhaps the most desensitizing aspect of all… others' emotional pain mirrors our own pain back to us. It can trigger us and remind us of the times we've felt just as bad. Times we don't like to be reminded of. This causes us to interact with someone based on our needs, not theirs. A trait that I believe is becoming more and more prevalent in our culture. I hope I'm wrong about this.

As a result, we grope for any tool we can find that helps us push away our discomfort. The easiest thing we try is to convince someone who is down that, “It's not that bad.” In other words, “It doesn't matter to me, so it shouldn't matter to you.”

Empathy in Pain: The Struggle to Hear and Be Heard

What the hurt person tends to hear in this moment is, “You don't matter to me.”

In my life, I've been on both sides of this equation. Regretfully, I've marginalized people's pain, but have also had my pain marginalized. I would bet that most of us identify with both of these positions if we're honest with ourselves.

I don't think my friend was evil or had bad intentions. I think my pain made him uncomfortable. He simply wanted me and my problem to go someplace else until I cheered up. It felt like he expected me to say, “Hey, you're right! I guess, technically my heart hasn't been broken and I don't feel betrayed. Thanks!”

You've probably heard the dentist's slogan, “Ignore your teeth and they'll go away!” The same applies to our important relationships. We can ignore our relationships to death, especially when those relationships require more of us than gossiping and shopping, or drinking beer and watching the game. It's in those moments when more is required of us that real relationships are tested, and born.

Two women sharing a moment of empathy, with one offering a comforting arm around her friend.

So what do I wish my friend had said? I would have settled for some version of, “Wow, that sucks.”

With this, he would have acknowledged that my pain was valid. He would have also displayed a willingness to be my friend at a time when I was a little messy.

When someone hurting wants to confide in you, they are indirectly telling you that they trust you, and that they see you as someone they can lean on. Don't take that lightly. Even if you don't really understand their pain, don't try to talk them out of feeling bad. Just accept that their situation is painful for them.

“Wow, that sucks,” can be a good first step.

Jeff Walz, MA

Voyages Counseling


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