What surprised me was my therapist's response to these tirades. She never said, "Leave that rotten bastard." Or "Your roommate is a big baby." Instead she said, "Gosh, that sounds really hard." And, "That must have felt terrible." And, "How did you feel after that happened?" My reaction to those spectacularly bland comments was even more astonishing. I loved them.
"These very simple responses make you feel understood," says New York psychologist Frank M. Lachmann, PhD, author of Transforming Narcissism: Reflections on Empathy, Humor, and Expectations. He points out that many of the common responses—"It could be worse"; "You should do X"; "Let's talk about something else"—appear to be kind and aimed at soothing. But no matter how well-intentioned, Lachmann says, these remarks are a rejection, a denial, of what the other person is going through. "They are code for 'Don't confront me with things that are unpleasant,'" he says. "Or 'Don't bother me with your pain.'"
About six months into psychotherapy, I started using what I thought of as my therapist's "lines." When Lisa was offered a job at an organization she did not want to work at, I said, "Oh, that's a tough spot to be in." When my boyfriend was invited to study abroad, I said, "How do you feel about that?" What I really felt was: "Lisa, that job pays a ton of money, but I guess you can turn it down because your parents are loaded." And, "You selfish bastard, I'll kill you if you go to Europe without me."
Still, Lachmann says, I had taken the first step to becoming empathetic—which is faking it. If you want to act more empathetic, you follow certain steps: Instead of telling people what they ought to do, or becoming tyrannically optimistic, you offer sympathy, inquire about feelings, and validate those feelings. You'll be giving comfort to the other person, even if you yourself can't feel what they're going through.
We Hear You!