A few weeks ago, my dear friend’s mom committed suicide. Shock to me? Yes. Shock to everyone else? I think so but I don’t know how they feel or what they think.

A few days later, we were all sitting around the dinner table. I was uncharacteristically silent while friends expressed condolences in their own way. It was ALL WRONG!

Many of us have been subconsciously trained to say “I can relate” or “I know how you feel.” The reality is that I can’t relate and I don’t know how you feel. Even if we were identical twins that lost a parent, we wouldn’t be able to say these things. Even if we are soul mates, best friends, or brothers from a different mother, we are all unique.

Empathy is a myth

As a “man”, I have a tendency to want to fix things. I want to have the answers. As humans, we want to provide comfort. We want to believe that we can relate. We want to share what “worked for us.” The horrible truth is that there isn’t a Google Map. Everyone has to navigate their own trails.

Empathy is a myth. Yep I said it. Here is the definition from Merriam-Webster: “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings”

We can believe that we can share someone else’s feelings but that’s our ego talking. We can’t know and we can’t mirror someone’s pain.

It is also irresponsible to say:
“This is the solution.”
“This is what I did when I lost my dad.”
“I feel your pain. I had the same experience.”
“Some ‘being/god/fate’ will fix it.”
“It’ll be OK.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
Even if we believe these things, it may not be what they believe. It may not be true.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that we can provide is a shoulder and an ear.  Maybe it’s presence. Maybe it’s a ‘load off’ like taking care of the kids or dogs. Maybe it’s a meal. Maybe it’s just sitting there and listening. Maybe it’s asking questions. Maybe it’s just staying away. Maybe there is no answer, anywhere.

I am not a psychologist or a medical doctor. There is evidence that people contain mirror neurons which allow us to “feel” the same feelings of something we observe. The issue with this feeling is it is framed in our own experiences. If you feel pain by licking a 9 volt battery, and I kind of like it, I may “mirror” a different feeling by watching you do it.

It doesn’t have to be a tragic loss. It can be her boss yelling at her. It can be his blog failing. It can be a car crash.

Our context is different than theirs. It always will be.

As I sat there, listening to the condolences, one made me snap. I said “Stop. That’s what worked for you. Everyone is different.” Silence fell over the table. We don’t know how she feels, and we never will.

Listen for cues and clues of ways to help, or ask questions. Have the courage to just listen. Sometimes silence is golden.

You might think that this doesn’t belong on LinkedIn. Rest assured, “I know how you feel.” Please eliminate “I know how you feel” from your lexicon.

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