Common Pitfalls: Empathy Failures & The Righting Reflex

Written by: Center for Body Trust

When someone shares the news of a life changing diagnosis with the people in their lives, they are often overwhelmed by the amount of advice they receive about supplements that could help, miracle cures, magic diets, personal stories about what worked for me, my cousin, my aunt. During a challenging and vulnerable time, instead of being met with what they really need—empathy, deep listening, and emotional support—they get bombarded by more things to sift through. This line from a poem by Oriah says it all:

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.
It would probably be more helpful for them to hear things like:

I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I’m here for you.
How can I support you? What would be helpful?
I can only imagine all the things that must be coming up for you during such a difficult time.
Thank you for sharing this with me.
I’m here.

Elizabeth Gilbert recently wrote about her partner’s life threatening cancer diagnosis. In the post, she said:

As for what I am asking from you, in response to my truth?
Let me begin by saying what I am not asking for. If any of you kind souls out there are tempted right now to send me information about treatments or cures for pancreatic or liver cancer…I gently and respectfully beg you to restrain yourselves. (One thing you discover when a loved one has cancer is that EVERYBODY has either a miracle story or a horror story about cancer that they are desperate to tell you. We are already drowning in all these stories of special diets, amazing clinics, terrible doctors, new trials, cautionary tales I understand that people only want to help, but please don’t overwhelm us with any more data, ok? Rayya has chosen her path through this illness, and she is strong in her choices. Thank you for caring, though!)
But here is what I will ask for: Because I believe in love, I will ask for love.
Whatever extra love you might be carrying around in your hearts right now, could you direct some this way? I would appreciate it so much, and — trust me — it will be felt. And it will help. We will resonate with it, and we will thank you for it. Because truth is the force that guides us to where we need to be in life, but love is the power that heals us once we arrive there.
We offer advice to move us away from the discomfort of sitting with someone who is in pain. This “righting reflex” is well intended; it is the reflex of the heart. However, to the person on the receiving end, it feels like an empathy failure. You may have read about the woman who created these empathy cards after being diagnosed with cancer and receiving her fair share of misplaced, but well meaning, wishes. We LOVE these cards and think we need more of this in the world!

The next time you are sitting with someone who is overwhelmed by news difficult to swallow, start with empathy. Start with love. Focus on connecting instead of fixing. Offer yourself compassion for all that you are feeling. You’ll likely be surprised by what it does for your relationship. And at the end of the day, the strength of the relationships you have with the people in your life is the most powerful gift you have to offer.


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