Katelyn Sander

Let's #GetReal with our Empathy

Living Well

By: Meg Sharp, Fitness & Health Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs

This year’s Canadian Mental Health Week is focusing on Empathy. Encouraging everyone to #GetReal and to “tune in before we weigh in.”

This specific focus is so relevant. In a world that could use every measure of additional kindness we can mete out – it’s important to recognize that the way in which we extend a helping hand is vitally important.

For starters, what even is “empathy”? Definitions are only useful when they help us understand. As depression – and how to help – is incredibly difficult to understand, perhaps in lieu of a specific definition I will try to describe what I have come to understand can be helpful.

People who struggle with depression feel painfully alone. They are often ashamed of their feelings and their inability to get better. They know you would feel better if they felt better. But “feeling better” seems often an impossible, completely overwhelming task. They lack the mental and physical strength to change and embrace or even recognize the small steps that could be powerfully helpful. This leaves them feeling powerless, useless, ashamed, and utterly alone. 

If someone you care about is struggling with depression, ask yourself one question: is there anything I can do to make them feel less ashamed and less alone? 

People who struggle openly with depression and the amazing mental health experts who try to help them often describe being depressed as being stuck down a dark hole. Brene Brown exerts that a truly empathetic – and helpful – response is to crawl into the hole to be with that person. While a much less helpful response is to call down from above with the offer of a sandwich.

Brene’s point – I believe – is spot on. To crawl into the hole demonstrates a willingness to try and be on the same level as the person suffering. The courage to experience the darkness they are experiencing. The patience to sit quietly in a very uncomfortable place. The hope that the simple presence of your calm, accepting will at the very least – and this is huge – make the person you care about feel less alone.

What if you don’t know how to climb down the hole? (What if you’re honest enough to admit you don’t have the courage to do so?) That’s okay too. You can still show empathy. (But for goodness sake don’t offer them a sandwich. Unless it’s a really good one. Curated with their specific tastes in mind.  Authentic generosity and empathy make for a strong combination.)

Despite my longing to simply make positive suggestions – navigating this piece is tricky. And I think it will be useful to use analogies of what to potentially AVOID doing. 

But first, the vital segue that everyone is unique. Helpful strategies will be different for everyone. One empathetic shoe does not fit all. That said there is solid evidence that certain kinds of helping – while extremely well-intentioned CAN be detrimental. And so, I seek to shed some light on those today. 

Here are some metaphorical niceties to avoid:

Avoid throwing down flowers so they can plant them and brighten their space. What if the person you care about doesn’t have the energy to plant the flowers? To properly care for them? And there is no light so the flowers will ultimately die? Depression and other mental afflictions can be physically exhausting. It’s not all in their head. So, this may leave them feeling guilty and inept. Throwing flowers in the “real” world may be akin to painting silver linings in an attempt to cheer the person up. Avoid all sentences that begin with “At least…” And as tempting as it is – avoid simply trying to cheer them up.

Avoid tossing down a rope ladder so they can climb out. What if they don’t have the energy to climb? What if it’s so dark they can’t see the lowest rung? The person you care about may be left feeling weak and useless. In the “real” world this might be akin to inviting the person to join you… at the gym, to a dinner party, at a networking event. No question the social/movement opportunity would make them feel better… but they may be too overwhelmed to take advantage of your kind offer.

Avoid telling them how to climb out. Just because you can see the footholds, doesn’t mean they can. Once again, it’s very dark from their perspective. So, climbing out may be terrifying. Not to mention: why bother? It’s a lot of work to climb out. What if they discover that, despite all that effort, things are no better in the light? In the real world, do your best to avoid sentences that begin with “You should…”. No one enjoys being judged and told what to do. When you are depressed, it can feel like a punch in the gut. The pain that already overwhelmed them is now even worse. Sometimes empathy means never underestimating how strong somebody’s pain really is.

Do your best to think carefully before you offer help or try to fix things. Remember that the wrong words may make a person feel pitied, ashamed, and – worst of all – alone.

Is there anything you can do to make them feel less so?

Climb into the hole with them. Right. 

But what if you can’t?

Get down on your belly and try to reach your hand down. This is different from the rope ladder. When your eyes adjust and you can see them in the dark – let them know you’re glad they called out to you. “I’m so glad you let me know how you’re feeling.” If you can reach down far enough to touch them, you can hold their hand. That may be enough for that particular day. If THEY are strong enough, they might use your warm, caring hand to pull themselves up. 

Our need to help them - fix them - can sometimes come from being fearful or uncomfortable ourselves.  It’s not a nice feeling. We want to feel powerful and useful. We want our own discomfort to go away.  And, sometimes, we do this at the expense of the person we care about. Be honest with yourself. Feel uncomfortable and powerless. Remember, they feel helpless and awful too. So now you share that with them. They aren’t as alone anymore.

Sit at the edge of their abyss. Let them know you are there. And if they can talk, LISTEN. Avoid placating.  Avoid cheering them up. Avoid fixing. Just LISTEN.

Let them know that you don’t know how to - or simply can’t - climb down. What does that look like? “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now.” “I wish there was something I could do to help.”

Finally, you can find someone who CAN climb down. It’s okay to admit you’re out of your depth. 

Author’s note: My heartfelt thanks to my dear friend Jason. He works in talent enablement in the financial industry and is open about his own struggles with mental health. He was brave and generous enough to help me in my attempt to #GetReal and create today’s piece.

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