When empathy is not enough

Although people want a doctor to fix their broken bones, when it comes to problems in their heads, they often want sympathy rather than solutions.” Adam Grant

Hurt and pain come in many forms. Physical pain is the most obvious. Mental and emotional pain is harder to diagnose but can be just as debilitating. Feelings such as sorrow, embarrassment, frustration, shame, aloneness, sadness, anxiety, depression (the list is lengthy) are painful.

When someone is hurting — for any reason or in any way (physical, emotional, mental) — our first response should be to empathize. Identify with their pain and speak comforting words. [Here’s a post I wrote on Don’t Say This to Someone Who Is Hurting.]

But sometimes empathy is not enough. It’s certainly necessary but it may not be sufficient. Sometimes our compassion should cause us to go beyond empathy. We see this demonstrated throughout the life of Jesus.

One of the mainstays in Jesus’ life was his profound compassion. The travails and anguish of others touched him deeply. For instance, In Mark 6:34 we read, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” In Matthew 14:14 his compassion prompted him to heal. In Matthew 15:32 compassion led Jesus to feed the multitudes.

Notice the connection between compassion and other actions.  His empathy led to instruction, or kind deeds, or the meeting of practical needs.

There are times when hurting people just need empathy. But sometimes, in addition to empathy, they need something else. Often a person who is hurting would benefit from being taught, coached, instructed, or even admonished.

Sometimes the hurt someone feels is the product of his own doing. Perhaps he’s unaware that he is the cause of his pain, or though he’s been told, he refuses to change. Consider these scenarios.

  • A friend continually mourns and complains because his acquaintances avoid him (which they do). But the reason is, he’s difficult to be around. He doesn’t need more empathy as much as he needs honest feedback. His pain will not go away until he changes.
  • A family member continually complains and expresses frustration about her dead-end job. But she dropped out of high school, hasn’t developed any new job skills, and spends most of her free time watching TV. Does she need more empathy?
  • A colleague often expresses sadness because he feels alone and disconnected from others. But he takes no initiative to reach out to other people; he lives like a hermit.

In these cases, I’m not suggesting that the feelings expressed aren’t real. (Feelings are usually real, though they’re not always true or reliable.) The problem is, the feelings will persist until the cause of the pain is addressed and remedied.

Sometimes, people don’t need just a shoulder to cry on, they also need an honest assessment of why they’re locked into a never-ending predicament. Honesty can be a gift, just like empathy. And often they need us to become involved in providing a solution.

Twenty-one million people have seen the following video. I understand the video is a spoof on a common communication challenge; it’s an exaggeration trying to offer some comic relief. The first time I saw it I laughed. But the more I think about it, I’m frustrated at the lady with the nail in her head. Her thinking and behavior are illogical and she places her partner in a no-win, difficult position.

My recommendation is: when responding to someone who is hurting, always start with genuine empathy. But when necessary, take the next step and help them understand the situation and how it could be ameliorated and offer to be a part of the solution. If we never take these extra steps we’re not being as helpful as we could and should be. 

10 Replies to “When empathy is not enough”

  1. I do have empathy for others very much, but I don’t always need empathy in my struggles, sadness, or frustrations because I have solid faith in our Lord! I know that everything happens for a reason, and I constantly pray unceasingly that people everywhere will be able to see the light in the darkness. AMEN. i really want to come to hear you minister at some point in time. But I live pretty far away in north east Texas.

    1. Hi Katrina. You bring up an interesting point: each individual has a different need for empathy. For some, it is paramount, for others it is auxiliary. I do hope you can visit us soon. Don

  2. “Empathy first” is a good reminder, Don. Often, I tend to go quickly (in my own mind) to the area where the person is at fault. These relationship issues require true listening (hearing the person’s heart), patience, asking God’s wisdom and discernment, and listening to the very present Holy Spirit for specific guidance necessary for appropriate and helpful interaction.

    1. Sharon, I continually remind myself of the “empathy first” principle. I often go directly to the second or third step. Thanks for taking the time to write.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *