How You Might Be Harming Someone with Your Empathy

How You Might Be Harming Someone with Your Empathy

I’ve just revealed something about my life to someone I’m getting to know.

“That must be so amazing for you!” she replies.

The truth is I feel really complicated about it. Yep, parts of it are amazing. And parts of it are really hard. It’s caused joy and it’s caused pain. It’s not so straightforward as her reply makes it seem.

I get that she’s trying to connect with me, but her assumption of how this part of my life “must be” has the opposite effect.

I can feel the gate on my heart slide closed, my walls slowly ascending.

The phrase, “That must be so _______ for you” can distance us instead of bring us closer if, in fact, the experience we’re assuming a person is having or has had is not accurate.

I’ve felt it from the other side where someone shares something about their life, and without thinking I match it up with my own experience and respond, assuming that their experience of this thing is exactly like my experience of it.

Let’s say my friend has a new baby and her mother-in-law lives in town and has offered to help her take care of the baby. My experiences up to this point and my worldview might automatically see this as a good thing. But when I say, “Wow! That must be so great for you to have all that help!” my friend feels immediately misunderstood because her relationship with her mother-in-law, an alcoholic who she’s never felt safe around, is far from straightforward.

She might go the full-on honest route and say, “Actually, it’s not that great. She’s an alcoholic and our relationship is hard,” which I would, of course, completely respect and honor.

Or, more likely, she’ll feel the disconnect between her lived experience and my assumption of her lived experience and just let the chasm between us sit there and simply nod and smile.

If your aim is to truly empathize and connect, replace, “That must be so _____ for you” with, “What is that like for you?”

This works in all scenarios.

Someone tells you they’re an astrophysicist. Instead of saying, “Wow! That must be so intense and require so much brain power all the time!” you could ask, “What’s being an astrophysicist like?” I bet they’ve almost never been asked that question, and they’ll likely be invited into a deeper level of inquiry about their vocation than they’ve experienced in a good long time.

A friend tells you that one of their blog posts has just gone viral and now their inbox is flooded with media requests and their visibility has just gone off the charts. Instead of saying, “You must be so excited!” ask, “What’s that like for you? How are you feeling?”

Assumptions alienate. Questions paired with genuine listening connect. 

Assumptions alienate. Questions paired with genuine listening connect.

The world is divided enough. We don’t need to casually, unintentionally divide it more by making assumptions about what other people’s lives are like and shutting down the chance of genuine connection by stating how other people must be feeling before giving them a chance to tell us.

People surprise me every day and it’s delightful, heartwarming, and astounding. But when I decide I already know what’s going on with them, I throw out the chance to be surprised.

Let people surprise you. Stop telling them how they must feel and instead, just ask them what it’s like to be them.

OVER TO YOU:

Has someone ever made you feel alienated by assuming what it must be like to be you? What could they have said instead? Tell me about it in the comments!

  • Julie says:

    I love this and it think it is so true!! I have a feeling I assume more often than I get curious, so I’m excited to work on this!

  • Melissa Edwards says:

    I struggle with feeling defeated and complain that I’m stuck often. When I tell a positive person something I’m going to through, and they see the part I’m blind to, I feel like their insight on a tricky situation keeps me in check. So when I complain about a job or living at home with my grandparents and someone says that’s so great you’re able to save money! The truth is : I’m not saving any money because I’m not making enough and am just broke !! but it reminds me that I have a great oppprtunity for free room and board instead of feeling so stuck.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Such a good point! Sometimes other people’s perspective on our situation can be helpful!

  • Gina says:

    Once again your writing moves me. I LOVE and appreciate, “what is that like for you!??!?!?” Going to start using that. This happens often with not having bio children. People project their freedom or stress assuming “how nice that must be,” “how spacious” life probably is for you, or “how much free time that must leave for my marriage.” And if that is greeted with “what is that like for you,” then authentic connection would happen where someone would quickly learn their projections are just that … theirs. Thank you for this reminder Kate!

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Oh yes – what a great point. I have a tendency to assume what it’s like for people who don’t have kids based on what my life was like before kids but that assumption is actually really dismissive to their lived experience. Thank you for that reminder!

  • Judith Uhl says:

    When I have had this same type of interaction and depending on my “receptors” at the time, it can give me a new perspective on my situation. A chance to look at my life, so to speak, without my personal prejudices affecting the viewpoint.
    Just a look at the other side of the same coin.

  • Ryan says:

    Such a great post to start a conversation that is so needed right now. Yes! I love that approach if ask a question upfront. Never assume you know anything! Wow. How much confusion and hurt we could all avoid if we took this approach. Thank you.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Exactly. I think more than ever we need to reach out and ask other people what’s going on for them because so many of the problems we have in the world right now are based on assumptions which, when blown up bigger, become prejudice. Thanks for reading!

  • Tiffany says:

    So good, Kate! Thank you, Tiffany

  • Dearest Kate:
    Thank you so much for this clear direction as to how to be an opening for deeper relating. The struggles we humans have with each other are bound up in our assumptions about each other. Avoiding assumptive language and asking instead “how is that for you?” is a form of internal housekeeping that leaves me feeling fresh and clear after interactions and leaves the other person without a residue of my judgement on them. How healing, how merciful, how skillful. Thank you, Beloved, xoxoxo, k

  • Amanda says:

    Thank you, Kate! I really appreciate this post from both sides. Every experience lived is different and I try to remind myself of that. Assumptions are almost always hurtful, even when assuming positive things. Thanks for sharing this. It feels both helpful and connecting!

  • Dearest Kate:
    I just posted a comment about your excellent blog, and I feel called to submit another comment. I trust you and I want to be more honest and transparent with you and your readers.
    I am a black woman, and buried at the heart of all the fear that I have ever had of white people is the idea that ” being white must be so amazing for you”.
    The internalized and unconscious feeling behind that thought is that white people have this amazing life that I as a black woman cannot have.
    I have spent decades challenging my own assumptions of how good “they” have it, and as a result of thorough and relentless self-investigation, I am aware of those thoughts when they arise and I choose to let them go. I rarely, if ever, use the words “white people”, nor do I refer to myself as a black woman very often. I have found the ideas of white people and black people to be limitations, not actually representative of my or anyone else’s truth. That is just another assumption!
    The deep and often uncomfortable inner work I have done around the idea of race has yielded enormous value for me and, I believe, for those I serve, and those in my community and family. I am so grateful for your presentation of skillful and simple ideas that benefit us all in a time on our planet when we must first and foremost, overcome ourselves.
    Peace, love and blessings to you and your family, xoxoxo, k

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Wow. Thank you for your transparency. I actually wrote this post with race in mind, believe it or not, because in wanting to understand the different experiences other people have I have found myself assuming things that may not actually be true (and obviously have had others assume things about me, too.) Thanks for your clear, honest example here of assuming what it must be like for white people. I’m sure I’ve assumed what it must be like to be a black woman at times and I know that’s harmful as it centers me instead of centering her. Thanks for engaging in this conversation in such an open hearted way. Blessings to you. xoxo

  • Shealagh says:

    Curiosity really does create greater possibility & truly connects people.

    There is something to be said for making a guess about someone elses experience, because when someone ‘gets’ us, it can mean deeper trust & a closer relationship. Without the ‘must’ in the sentence, saying something like ‘that’s tricky’ or ‘hard to figure out’ [for example] acknowledges what someone might be experiencing with plenty of room for them to refine & share further about what’s really happening.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Yes – there’s definitely a way to be sympathetic and empathetic while still making a guess at what their experience is as long as we leave space for them to fill in the blanks!

  • Danielle says:

    I so resonate with this post, thank you Kate. So often I have caught myself literally in the split second after responding to someone else’s share and realised “Hang on a sec, I wouldn’t want to hear that in response”. Assumptions let us put our map of the world over someone else’s which just means we’re lost in OUR world instead of truly connecting and hearing them out. Equally anytime anyone assumes something about me I feel agitated and immediately shutdown (although they’d unlikely notice, similarly to how you describe the door to your heart closing). If they had switched it to a Question that would have made me feel welcomed, at ease, ready to share more. I love this simple switch. Thank you. I’m going to be way more conscious of this now.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      I’m so glad this was useful for you. It’s so true – our assumptions center ourselves versus asking questions which centers someone else and we need a heck of a lot more of centering other people!

  • Ashleigh says:

    Hi Kate, I really love this post! I’m a commercial interior designer and have been since I graduated college in 1990. Whenever I meet someone new and they ask what I do for a living and I tell them inevitably and without fail they say “oh my gosh that must be amazing!” or “That must be so fun!”. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these phrases. Sometimes it is amazing and sometimes it’s debilitatingly life draining, sometimes I have joyful clients, sometimes we have very difficult ones. I feel as if people want me to be a version of what they think it means to do my job. I blame HGTV! LOL
    Generally if I’m interested in continuing the conversation I will be brutally honest and tell them what my job might be like at that moment and how it is very joyful and sometimes very difficult. And sometimes if I’m not that interested in continuing the conversation I’ll nod and agree.

    Upon reflection however I have heard myself say the same things to people when I talk to them. It’s interesting how when the tables were turned you see it so differently. Thank you so much for your insight, your wisdom and your candor it’s always awesome to see your posts and share in this process!
    Sending love,
    Ashleigh

    • Kate Northrup says:

      I’m so glad this resonated with you and that’s such a great point about if we respond honestly based on whether or not we want to continue the conversation…I totally do the same thing! (and P.S. I’m obsessed with HGTV :)

  • Meredith Jordan says:

    This is a thought-provoking post. I’m sure there are many times I’ve said something like this, intending to support without knowing it may not be received that way. I’ll be more aware in the future. At the same time, this also seems to be one of those “small matters” that we could also view as something not to be taken personally (a la Don Miguel Ruiz), that could be viewed as someone doing the best they can in the moment and let it go without easing a good-hearted person out of or hearts, maybe as an opportunity for us to grow spiritually in honoring the imperfections all of us have to greater or lesser degrees. My guess is we’re (most of us) doing the best we can at any given time. For me, I find it good practice to consider all my options and pick the one that best helps me be the person I truly want to be. That being true, I also like your “replacement” ideas. They all work. Nice to have the widest possible range of choices.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      I totally agree. It’s a small matter but worth considering while at the same time not taking things too personally. Excellent point!

  • Bethany says:

    I love this advice! But I do have evidence for the opposite experience. Whenever I go through a really difficult experience, I’m the type of person who tends to downplay it in order not to look vulnerable, so sometimes I appreciate when someone is able to speak to the difficult experience without me having to say so. I’m currently going through a divorce, so when someone says to me, “Wow, that’s a lot to go through. Or that must be so hard.” I really appreciate them opening the door for me to not HAVE to feel great all the time.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      That is SUCH a good point. I also have a tendency to downplay how hard things are so I can see how the opposite of this can be true, too. Thanks for sharing that with me!

  • Lisa says:

    I love this! What a little talked about, yet eye-opening, concept.

  • Lu (bemelu) says:

    I would love to point out that this conversation is actually about Simpathy vs. Empathy (and not to confuse the two of them). This video with Brené Brown’s voice might be helpful to clear the difference.

    https://youtu.be/1Evwgu369Jw

    When I was in your situation, I considered the other person as well. It sounds to me that she was just trying to be nice, maybe to make you like her, in a way that was not exactly what you wanted to hear in that moment. I don’t know the specific details of your relationship with this person, how did you two meet, but keep in mind that people on Instagram see you as a celebrity. (Yeah, really! You can read it in the comments.) And she might be very nervous to getting to know you, or if she’s insecure about this, she might even tend to over do it because she wants you to like her so much.

    Also think about the fact that she might read this very post and feel somehow betrayed or used, that you wrote about your private conversation on your online public blog. [Yes, you kept her name and details private, but you did give away some specifics (that she’s a woman, for example.) And I feel that you wanted to open a conversation based on what you experienced, but in my opinion, you ended up targeting her with this post, and that’s not ethical.]

    I love the comments above and I would also add my vision here. I live my life always learning from every situation, focusing on learning about myself, rather than what the other person should have said or done differently for me to feel accepted, or to feel good about myself in a given situation.

    So in this situation, I would recommend asking yourself a couple of questions about yourself, to dig deeper into yourself and find what this interaction came into your life to teach you.

    Do I feel guilt or shame around this situation, and because it’s not entirely amazing for me to live it?

    Do I often find myself replaying a situation/a conversation in my mind, wishing it to be different than what it was?

    Do I like to think about myself that I educate people? But instead subconsciously wishing to control them, or to avoid being hurt again?

    Do I want people to almost always know exactly what to say to me, in the exact way I want them to talk to me? And if so, in what circumstances am I this controlling and critical with myself?

    Do I often feel rejected and not seen, not understood by others? And if so, what parts of myself am I rejecting in myself? What wounds, what past or present pains do I not understand in myself?

    Who do I feel is not receiving me from a place of Empathy and understanding? Could it be me, at times? And what would it take, what would I need to feel from myself, in order to keep the gate on my heart open to myself and others?

    All our interactions with others are but mirrors of our own inner conflicts. These interactions bring Light on yet unhealed wounds, most of the times with ourselves, with our Mama, or with our Papa, from this life (early childhood), or baggage from past lives.

    I almost felt your Anger reading your post, and I saw little Kate (4 yrs old Kate) writing this from a place of anger and pain.

    After digesting what happened with this woman and taking some time with these questions, you’ll see it was all about you in the first place. She was just the messenger, the vessel. She facilitated this learning opportunity for you.

    Much Love to you, dear Kate (little and grown-up)!

    P.S. Also, see the beautiful perfect timing of this. Today, July 12, is the first eclipse of three that will follow in the next six weeks. Jennifer Racioppi wrote so beautifully about this on her Instagram: “Eclipses hold at least THREE times the power of a regular new or full moon. (…) It’s likely you’ll experience a revelation around how you’re hiding your feelings. Take this opportunity to rest.”

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Thanks for pointing out the difference between sympathy and empathy – great point! I can see that this post was a bit triggering for you. The particular example that I used here was a theoretical one and wasn’t based on a specific conversation I’ve had lately. I made it up as an amalgamation of things I’ve said and things that have been said to me. If I’m using a particular conversation as the basis for a blog I always ask permission before I write it whether or not I’m using the person’s name. (Like next week’s post is about a specific conversation and I’ve already cleared using it as an example with the person I had the conversation with.” Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

  • tebogo says:

    My mentor called me in the Morning. She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was reading a book. My business is in the start-up phase start-up, I felt as though I was doing nothing to push based on the assumption i have about her being busy. She simply said “enjoy where you are don’t assume that because i am busy I am leaving the life. I wish I had time to read a book. The will come a time where u wish you heard time to just be”. and here I was assuming that She was leaving the “grand life”. Thank you for the post.

  • Sarah says:

    Thank you for offering this perspective! I’m cringing bcs I suspect I do this a lot (bcs I’m super empathetic and a natural cheerleader). I’m def gonna ask more questions!

  • Chantal says:

    Hi, Kate, I love this post! The standard reaction of “that must be so …” is actually a very superficial reply and a rather inconsiderate way of shoving a person’s reaction in a certain direction just because “this must be so”. I’m sure I’ve said it multiple times myself – but thinking it was a caring response. Had I really wanted to know how the other person was feeling , I would have asked. So, thank you for this! I will definitely be more mindful from now on! Assuming is actually the opposite of empathizing, if you think about it. It’s about the ego, right? „Oh, look, how empathic I am!”😂. Great post! Love, Chantal

    • Kate Northrup says:

      I’m so glad this resonated with you! I only realized how that phrase could be harmful when I used it recently and it felt off and then this post came out!

  • Kate, I can understand your empathy, having been there myself, my mother had visited and held my first newborn 33 yrs ago, and held all three of her grandchildren, even when she was terrified that my youngest was going to die at 980 grams and compassion and faith taught me that if I hold out on faith that over time, as both would grow to love each other and they did. Her addictions got the best of her, not her love of her grandchildren. That does not mean one uses boundaries, you do use boundaries.

  • Cristina Cho says:

    All the feels for this post. I have been on the giving and receiving end of the “must be ____” statement and it feels less empathetic and more like a need to say something. This is a great reminder that I can take a breath, see what visual or audio cues from whomever I am talking to and go from there.

  • Kristin says:

    Hi Kate! Thank you for this. I am finding this to be so true in my life. I am definitely an empath, which is great but it has also caused wrenches in relationships. I am learning to stay in my own deep feelings and ask genuine, open ended questions rather than always trying to relate to another’s story. There is beauty in diversity and difference. We don’t always need to relate with similarities. We can connect through diversity.

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