One Of These Things Is NOT Like The Other

The following pairs of statements are drawn from conversations I’ve either witnessed or directly participated in. The first statement in each pair is a summary of a situation, edited for succinctness and factuality; the reply is as close to verbatim as I can make it.

1. “I have chronic nausea. It’s directly related to a disease called endometriosis, which I’ve confirmed that I have via surgery. This nausea often gets in the way of me participating in everyday activities and limits what I can do. Some days, literally all I can do is cope as best I can with feeling overwhelmingly, violently ill.”

“Oh, I know what you mean. When I saw the footage of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, I felt sick to my stomach.”

2. “I suffer from migraines. They’re overwhelming and often unpredictable. Some days, literally all I can do is hide in a dark room and hope no one makes any noise anywhere. This has had a serious, negative impact on my personal and professional life.”

“I know what you mean. I had a really annoying headache the other day.”

3. “I have twins.”

“Oh, I know what it’s like to have twins! I have a two-year-old and a six-month old.”

4. “Okay, I know some here have food allergies, so please let me know what those are so I can plan a meal that will be safe for everyone.”

“I hate dark meat.”

5. “I’m a black woman.”

“Oh, I know what it’s like to experience racism! I’m a white woman, but my child is black.”

6. “I just realized why I’ve been getting so tired so early in the day. I spend so much time in pain – not a lot of pain, but it’s constant. And I think it’s taking a lot of my energy just to cope with that. No wonder I start feeling ready for bed by eight o’clock.”

“I know exactly what you mean. I got up at five this morning!”

7. “I’m gay.”

“I get it. Once, I had a big crush on another woman.”

We have all – every single one of us – tried to be supportive and completely flubbed up.  

We all know how much grief there is to go around. We all know – or are in a position to know – how unavoidable pain is.

And yet many of us live our lives as if maybe, just maybe, if we planned things perfectly and did everything just right, we could circumvent sadness.

I can’t see any other explanation for why we tend to treat times of trouble as a surprise. Or as a curable illness and/or treatable lapse of judgment rather than a natural consequence of being alive.

Trying to cure someone of their own personal sadness usually works about as well as saying “Calm down!” to someone who’s visibly agitated. But most of us give it a try anyway.

And the first thing we do – which is also, not coincidentally, the first mistake we make – is try to empathize rather than sympathize.

Sympathy is a kindness. Sympathy is encapsulated in a simple, loving statement: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

Empathy can be valuable, which is why many people join support groups made up of people dealing with similar issues.

But empathy can’t be purchased. It has to come of its own accord. 

That doesn’t stop plenty of people from trying to mangle their own experiences into the desired shape, often to disastrous effect.

“I know what that’s like!” they say. When they don’t. They can’t.

And the sad part is, no one wants them to. 

Insisting you can empathize with something you’ve never been through is condescending, dismissive, and damaging. 

A migraine isn’t just an ordinary headache, only bigger. Migraine is a neurological disease. Being prone to migraines means figuring out how to live your life without triggering not just pain but other, often incapacitating symptoms. 

I could go through the entire list of examples I gave above. I’ll go ahead and quickly say that the only way you can know what it’s like to have twins is to have twins, and that piping up with food preferences when an allergy discussion is on the table wins you a special prize in hell. 

The bigger point is: forcing fake empathy where empathy is impossible is cruel, though not at all unusual. It does damage. 

In the exchanges above, the #1s wind up feeling a little more angry, sad, misunderstood, and alone than they already were.

I’ll be talking more about ersatz empathy and the damage it does and why it’s on my mind in my next post.

Until then: please don’t be a #2. There’s enough of that in this world already.

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