Is an empathic act necessarily an action at all?

An empathic act is a form of reply to the other’s signal, a reply which is experienced as being right. Today I want to consider just how minimal such an act might be.

But before I illustrate empathy, what does an unempathic act look like?

Unempathic acts
Say one picks up the following overt or covert signal from another person: I am depressed.

There are any number of ways to behave unempathically. Indeed, no act is guaranteed to be empathic because it is the recipient’s experience that is the final determination. (It makes no sense to say “I empathised but he didn’t find it empathic.” The fact of the matter is more like this: “I tried to be empathic but wasn’t.”)

Some examples of unempathic responses made to depressed people can be found in a post from HBC Protocols (via Barbara at Abuse sanctuary):

“What’s your problem?”

“Will you stop that constant whining? What makes you think that anyone cares?”

“Have you gotten tired yet of all this me-me-me stuff?”

“You just need to give yourself a kick in the rear.”

“But it’s all in your mind.”

“I thought you were stronger than that.”

“No one ever said life was fair.”

“As you get stronger you won’t have to wallow in it as much.”

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“Do you feel better now?” (Usually said following a five minute conversation in which the speaker has asked me “what’s wrong?” and “would you like to talk about it?” with the best of intentions, but absolutely no understanding of depression as anything but an irrational sadness.)

Worse than useless
The title of the post from which these examples comes is illuminating: ‘The 99 worst things to say to someone who is depressed.’ The word ‘worst,’ I suggest, does not literally mean that this is a list of the worst things one could say; rather, it means that comments like these make things worse.

Something is experienced as unempathic when a person feels that another’s response is ‘wrong’. Wrong meaning misaligned, out of sync, on the wrong wavelength. The statements above, whether or not they emerge from empathy and are intended as empathic, are unempathic because the other person experienced them as mismatched – as worse than useless.

The effect of unempathy is is often one of insult being added to injury. In our example the person now not only still feels depressed, they feel misunderstood. But it can be worse than this. The depressed person now not only feels depressed and misunderstood, they may feel more hopeless about their prospects.

How minimal can an empathic response be?
It might be argued that a depressed person is so pessimistic that they are likely to find fault with anything one says. Less can be more here. Even something as simple as “That’s a tough place to be” might be experienced as empathic. This statement doesn’t capture the scope of the other’s experience, but it has the virtue of capturing something of it.

An empathic act might not involve words at all. Sometimes a physical gesture, a facial expression, a sigh, a nod or shake of the head might work very well (i.e. be experienced as empathic by the recipient).

Each of these is doing something small. One might, though, not say or do anything anything whatsoever. The very fact that one doesn’t mouth expected banalities may be what matters. (There is a book on Zen who’s title is apt here: Don’t just say something, sit there‘)

In this instance the receiver of the message, ‘I am depressed’ may through their silence communicate something along the lines of: “Anything I can think of to say would probably not capture how profound and hopeless this state seems for you; whatever I can think of saying would either trivialise your experience, come across as a criticism of you, or seem as though I was trying to jolly you out of it. I understand that much. Therefore I don’t make a knee-jerk platitude, but rather keep a respectful silence.”

How much more elegant and effective to imply this rather than say it.

Do you also find that sometimes not doing anything can be strong medicine?

Photo: Sessizlik / Silence, originally uploaded by B@ni


7 thoughts on “Is an empathic act necessarily an action at all?

  1. Hmm…I don’t know. If you know someone well, just your presence can be comforting and enough because you have history and conversation. But I once had a friend who just went quiet- that was what he meant- he felt it would be insulting to offerplatitudes. I appreciated that, but sometimes I felt like I was the only one talking. And as someone who is dealing with an out-of-the-ordianty health issue I felt like I was actually burdening him, and b/c of psycho experience I just don’t say anything. I remember psycho’s response….he told someone “he couldn’t handle it” (my issue) LOL…always their issue,always about them.
    Damn, those folks starving around teh world, psychos everywhere feel your pain.

  2. I think “depression” — the kind that can be treated with a drug — is probably organic, and so perhaps the most empathic response — just like one who has diabetes or high cholesterol or a broken arm — is to help the person get medical treatment.

    And then there are those who are reacting to a situation — like, a friend who’s son was murdered — the atrocity could not be imagined by anyone, and all we can do is be there and listen.

  3. holywatersalt – Excellent antidote to my example, thanks. This points to a crucial variable: it’s not enough for the intention to be right, unless the recipient experiences it as empathic it’s not an empathic act.

  4. swivelchair – If X has an organic depression and Y tries to help X get treatment that’s a good thing, but is it necessarily empathic? Take the extreme example of someone being dragged kicking and screaming to the funny farm… To me this concievably meets criterion 2, but not 3 and it would be useful if language could reflect this. Something like: “Although X experiences the intervention as grossly unempathic, Y’s response arose from an empathic intuition and was done with compassion.” Too long-winded, I know.

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