Every year in the counseling world we get thrown new words like “mindfulness,” “connectedness,” and “metacognition.” To be honest, I get the same with my other site too. Except it’s the latest year long food trend buzz words like “quinoa,” “chia,” or “keto.”
This year, I’m adding “compassionately insensitive.”
What Does It Mean to Be Compassionately Insensitive?
Some of my college students sum it up best. “It’s when you try to come across as compassionate but instead come across as insensitive in the comfort you attempt to give.“
On a daily basis I find people who struggle with this a lot more than my own family has. Some of them are the youth who I work with or the adults I meet in my work. In the past five years my life has changed drastically. For (almost) fifteen years I was a wife and mother and had a traditional nuclear family setup. My husband had a lot of mental and physical issues lying under the surface though.
The picture above was so hard to take. In it you can tell I’m trying everything I can to hold it together. I’m struggling just to stand next to him. There was so much going on under the surface and behind the scenes with him and I. I thought I knew so much at that point, but was quietly holding in so much pain.
Can you tell that we had had an argument shortly before this picture? I had asked him to please get some help and do counseling. I thought it was his anxiety and anger at that point but there was so much more. I didn’t know then that our family picture would slowly disintegrate over the next several months and as more information surfaced I found I had only known the tip of the iceberg at that point. It breaks my heart to look at that family picture today. How we all miss our family. Leaving was one of the hardest decisions I ever made.
This was our new dynamic:
And then, six months ago our dynamics changed even more.
Death, Grief and Compassion
Behind our smiles were some of the deepest pains we could feel. Now in addition to the betrayal, hurt, PTSD, anxiety, depression, abuse, fear, worry, confusion, and a host of other emotions and words we had been suffering for several years…we were now suffering grief.
For me, being divorced and then having my ex husband pass away felt like it was the first time I got to say goodbye to the person I married. The person I said goodbye to during our divorce was the person I had discovered I had been married to.
Because of what happened (divorce, drama, death) I’ve been told our family is now probably considered a ‘high trauma’ family. We don’t feel that way, but I guess we are. We don’t ask for much of anything, and we hate having the spotlight on our family but we have really, really struggled over the years–and a lot is with the way people communicate with or to us.
Going from a wife in a traditional family to a divorced widow? My hours and days are not my own. Since he passed away I have spent a total of 3.75 days away from my children. .75 to relax at my mom’s insistence, 2 days to illness while my in laws had the kids and my mother tried to make me relive my childhood nightmare of drinking lemon and honey tea while I coughed my lungs up, and 1 day to the Thanksgiving holiday. I am exhausted most days and somehow am able to give 100%. Except for the two days I coughed up my lungs. But this statement pretty much sums up how I’ve felt off an on over the past years:
How Do You Know Who to Show Compassion to?
I’m pretty sure that the above statement might sum up many of your lives too. It always feels like we struggle so much and with so many different issues! I meet so many people struggling with LGBTQ+, suicidal thoughts, a loved one dying, anxiety, depression…the list goes on and on! It’s hard to know what to say or how to help others sometimes. Even some people I know admitted when they found out about our families recent tragedy admitted to googling what they should say to me. They had no idea!
And I’ll admit, even as a counselor sometimes I don’t even know what to say. It is so difficult and you feel like you have to be so careful as to what you say.
Example of Compassionate Insensitivity
I firmly believe and teach those that I work with that we cannot ever imagine what someone else goes through. We just can’t. Your friends divorce will look different than your own families divorce. Your neighbors passing of her husband far into their retirement will look different than the passing of your own husband who left you with four young children and no chance of ever making it into retirement and the plans you had made together for those golden years. Even in my own family, the way I grieve is different than the way my inlaws grieve and the way my kids grieve my ex husband’s death.
Empathy versus Compassion
“Empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does. While it may result in tremendous good, empathy can also be narrow, biased and surprisingly insensitive.” (Bloom, 2017)
Sometimes we are trying to show compassion in a way that may unintentionally harm that person more. We may be coming across as empathetic but it isn’t coming across that way at all!
Social Media and Compassion
I asked several of my students about their reaction to loosing someone and the correlation to people trying to be compassionate but coming across as insensitive. Some examples they gave:
“All of a sudden, people who NEVER talked to me started to reach out via Instagram to tell me how sorry they were (that my parent passed away). They never came and said anything to me when I returned to school, just reached out by Instagram. My close friends were the only ones that did reach out to me personally.”
Another student also mentioned that she lost a couple of her immediate family members several years ago. “I received nothing but text messages and comments off social media. There were very few friends who actually showed up to the door.”
Another student also commented on her close friend who had died of suicide. “Everyone was posting on social media like this person had been her best friend and they had known her personally. It was so difficult to watch people act like they were her best friends, yet hadn’t talked to her in years. She died of SUICIDE. There’s a reason behind that.”
And lest you think it’s JUST social media that’s the cause, oh it’s not.
“After my immediate family member committed suicide, I struggled so much. The pain was unbearable. People didn’t reach out…they didn’t know what to say. They saw me struggling, saw me leaving church each Sunday and going to his grave. But people didn’t say anything. They didn’t even let me know they were thinking about me.”
In my own situation, we’ve struggled with this for years. A week after my ex passed, a woman came over and tried striking up a conversation in front of the kids, asking how they were doing. My youngest was running around my feet and I was trying to precariously balance bags from the car to the house. After she quickly glanced at my situation without giving me a chance to respond she proceeded to give me a bookmark and sweetly encouraged me to finish reading the Bible by the end of the year like we had been challenged to do. “I think it would bring you a lot of peace right now.” She then walked away. I was holding back bursting into tears or lashing out unintentionally at her with a sarcastic remark. This person tried to be empathetic and compassionate but missed the mark and instead came across as insensitive. Insensitivity often results when we are trying to find that common ground and want to come across as empathetic but fail to really do our homework and find it.
Find the Deeper Intersects
Divorce doesn’t look the same for every family. Death doesn’t look the same for every family. Abuse doesn’t look the same for every family. But we often have the deeper things in common that intersect each other. The intersection of death is often grief, uncertainty, and pain. Those that haven’t experienced the depth of pain that a death brings probably won’t be able to connect.
“Compassion ‘motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another and themselves.”
Compassion is an important tool in our world. We need compassion. most of us who go through tragic situations or prolonged periods of grief understand that we would never wish it on anyone else for the world and are pretty glad that you don’t understand what we’ve been through. It’s nice to come across the occasional person who can truly empathize with us because they’ve gone through something as equally difficult as we have. But most haven’t and so compassion becomes the better tool for building empathy.
When my ex husband died, so many people came to his funeral. So many that the entire church was filled. It was amazing to see the outpouring of love for him and the concern for our family. So many people wanted to ‘help’ us right then. I do not even remember all the people that came forward asking if we needed anything. Most wanted to bring meals or would ask “do you need anything?” How the crap did I know at this point? We were zombies! We weren’t really eating and when we did it might be 9 o’clock at night that we finally got the energy up to whip up a smoothie. My stomach issues were in full force because of the incredible stress I was under. I couldn’t eat and really it would be awkward to ask people for a year or two supply of Pepto to get through this. Sleep was irregular and we were trying to tie up ends and just survive each day. We somehow woke up and put one foot forward but just went through the motions. What did we need? How in the world did we know at that point? We were numb, in shock and yet had a huge gash that started to grow bigger each day, filled with grief and pain and heartache. When people would reach out, I begged them to check back. To come back when we weren’t zombies anymore but life would be chaotic again and we would be back in a normal routine but have this underlying and overwhelming feeling of grief that was always present. I just thanked them but told them to put a reminder in the calendar to check on us in a few months when things had settled a little because I knew we would need help then. Even a visit to get our minds off the grief for a minute would help.
We are now several months out from my exes passing and we’ve learned a lot. The phone is mostly silent. Our Facebook and Instagram aren’t being bombarded anymore. And we’ve learned a lot about the compassionately insensitive world we live in. The kids and I have been able to truly decipher those who care and care about us. Several months out, most people are onto the next funeral, the next baby birth, the next divorce. But we are just starting to feel that horrific pain and loneliness and most people have all but stepped away.
Why are we falling short on showing compassion to others and instead unintentionally hurt them or coming across as insensitive?
This is a deep rooted question with many theories and answers. Psychologists have done many studies and come up with conclusions like social media is fueling social awkwardness because it causes us to become more disconnected with each other. Studies on people show that more and more people are choosing to be single, the amount of sex people are having is decreasing and this in turn is limiting our connectedness. I even recently read an experiment about the socialization of monkeys where monkeys were detached from being allowed to socialize. They ended up in the corner of their cage, cowering and became unable to fully socialize even after attempts to reintegrate them and resocialize them. Several monkeys couldn’t form attachments with their own young and one monkey sadly crushed his own child’s skull after not being able to connect with the child. One psychologist likened this experiment to what is happening in our world today and the reason for the increase in depression, anxiety, murder suicides and suicide. He felt it was a lack of socialization.
Where is connectedness? Where are our social skills and our ability to communicate? As I stated above, people are literally googling how to talk to someone. While I believe the root cause has still not been found, there is some validity to what is being said although further research is needed to prove some of the theories.
THREE WAYS TO DECREASE BEING COMPASSIONATELY INSENSITIVE
I am a realist and believe that people don’t necessarily want to hurt you by the things they say or do, they just don’t necessarily know how to help either through lack of experience or lack of knowledge of the situation. So while the intention may have been to show compassion, it may come across as insensitive to the person you are trying to do something nice for. The first way to combat that is to:
Be a Good Listener
I learned this the hard way. There is a fine line between people who want to listen and those who love to listen for the drama. Make sure you really want to listen and hear what the person has to say.
If the person you are reaching out to starts to talk…listen. Do not pry for information they may not be ready to give up yet or ask the person for your trust. You may be talking to someone who may have been through a high trauma situation. Part of building trust is not asking for it, but allowing conversations and situations in your relationship to build trust naturally. We all know that trust will be broken at times…people have all gone through it before. Those coming out of high trauma situations may have had someone who was abusing them say things like “trust me, it won’t happen again”–but it did. They may be coming out of a situation not trusting anyone. Asking for it may put that person’s guard up immediately with you. Refrain from asking for their trust with statements like “you can trust me to keep this confidential” and instead show it through your action statements like “Thank you so much for telling me this. I’m sure it was tough to talk about. I will keep what you said to me confidential.”
- Active listening. Active listening is the best tool for listening to someone going through a high trauma situation. It allows you to show the person you are listening but also responding appropriately. Active listening requires you to be natural in responses but also use phrases that encourage a person to feel comfortable and continue the conversation…opening themselves up to you instead of closing off. Inserting simple phrases like “I understand,” “I see,” and “thank you for telling me this.” More complex active listening statements like “That’s rough. i’m sorry you are going through that” and “this is what I’ve heard you tell me–A,B,C. Do you think that X,Y,Z would help you?” (Zantal, n.d.)
remember if someone is sharing something with you, especially in regards to tragedy or trauma, that is not your gift to share with others. They feel comfortable and safe…be that safe place for them. Obviously there are times when it is warranted to break that confidentiality however for the most part that person is asking to feel safe with you.
Compassion is heling….in their way, not yours.
Remember we talked about the definition of compassion being something that “motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another and themselves.”
I’m deeming February as Bipolar Feelings Month for myself. We were supposed to have been celebrating our 15th anniversary in February (a week before Valentine’s Day as my ex knew I hated the holiday), but instead I was rocked to my knees in tears as I watched my marriage disinegrate around me and the stories I had believed fall apart to reveal the truth I was hoping desperately wasn’t true. This year especially following my exes death I had paid a large chunk of money to the therapist hoping that he could somehow find a way to get our family out of our never ending funk that seemed to surround us, paid for a bunch of dental work for the kids, paid for doctors visits for sick kids and slowly watched the bank account take a nosedive. The stress was real and one minute i wanted to curse him for leaving me with this mess alone and then kick myself for thinking that. “Duh me, he’s probably looking down upset that he CAN’T help.” My feelings went up and down and up and down. I thought for a minute my poor boyfriend was going to enter the house in the equivalent of an emotional HAZMAT suit, not sure what mood he would be greeted with that day and if he should stand as far away as possible or if he should stand with outstretched arms to comfort me.
And people seemed to be very insincere. While we appreciated the random cookies being left at our door, it was also rough and it felt like people were hurting us. People would leave treats at the door with my name and their name on the card, nothing else, and I couldn’t even eat them. And I’m not talking random strangers or neighbors leaving cookies…I’m talking people who have known me since we moved into our neighborhood 14 years ago, follow this website and like photos and like my recipes on Facebook and Instagram kind of people. And I did appreciate the gesture and the effort they took to let us know they were thinking of us, just depending on the day it could seem like nails on a chalkboard when you come home to find someone left something on your door and couldn’t even follow up with a text to see how you were doing and make sure you got them.
On one of my grumpier “February Bipolar Month” nights when the door knock came at night, instead of being a nice surprise left at our door, a knife in the wound was left. We got heart attacked, but it didn’t feel sincere. At all.
Messages addressed to our family with things like “have a freakin’ awesome weekend in a couple of days,” “X family, you are fleek, pretty much GOAT”–um, I’m old and had to google that–and “UR totes adorbs” were plastered to our door. I couldn’t peel them off the door fast enough. It took everything in my power not to loose it. I was in tears. I left my feelings to myself but I was surprised most by the kids reactions. “That is so insincere!” my oldest daughter cried out. She then proceeded to talk about how hard it got to feel like there was nobody that really cared or reached out. Just a person here or there. The past few weeks had been filled with gifts that weren’t really applicable to our family and what we needed. Someone left me bath salts with no real note on it other than my name. Really??? Because I have totally taken 0 baths in the last 16 years and after the kids go to bed at night I do not collapse into bed and make it through 5 minutes of a 30 minute episode of Modern Family. It takes me an entire week to go through a 30 minute show so of COURSE I have time for a bath!
Bipolar Feelings Month was in full swing. Luckily I’m back to me now. But during that time it was pretty tough to see myself coming back anytime soon. Not ONE person, not ONE who dropped off cookies, plastered stupid hearts to our door or left some singles awareness hope you feel better Valentine’s Day gift at our door for all the singles and widows in the neighborhood EVER stopped to see US and what we needed. We needed people to reach out. We were several months in, reality was hitting and we were drowning. We just needed to know that someone cared and was thinking about us. I miss the days that I had more time (anytime!) to reach out to others because I love serving. But now from 5am to 11pm I don’t stop. That’s no exaggeration. I don’t.
During that month my clergy also awkwardly called (never visited) and asked if I needed any money. ???? He said that he had heard that so many people were reaching out to us and doing such nice things for us that he wanted to see if financially I needed anything. I was LIVID. Reaching out? What was the definition of that?? I know that it took a lot of effort for people to make cookies, decorate hearts and spend the time to put them on our door, but if you are ‘going out to fix the physical, mental and emotions pains of another’ by showing compassion towards someone else, than do it in their way, not yours.
- Show compassion in the way they need. YOU thought they needed cookies or thought they would love getting heart attacked. Did you know them well enough to know that they have food allergies? Do you know what activities they or their children are involved in so you can find ways to help? Do you know what they do for work? Do you know if they have any support in or out of their family? Do you know if gestures like this would be appreciated? If you can’t answer some of these questions, you should probably start very simply.
- Start with a message: If you don’t know the person very well, reach out to them via text, email, a phone call or direct message and let them know you were thinking about them. You can even be awkward and say you don’t know why but felt that you needed to reach out. Most people are not going to complain that you reached out to them because my guess is by the time you do, you’ll find your reason why.
A heartfelt text from a family member meant more on Valentine’s Day to me than any of the gifts left at my doorstep in two weeks. “T, I’m struggling today. I want you to know that I’m thinking of you and the kids today. Saw your post, I love you, stay strong and I’m okay–just trying to stay strong too. We are doing this!” Real messages with real sincerity behind them mean the most.
Another student mentioned that she was feeling very depressed after giving birth. She didn’t know it at the time, but felt very isolated and alone away from family and with a new baby. She started to become suicidal and one day a random direct message came “Hi, my name is X. I’m reaching out to you to say hi. I felt like I needed to. I heard you just had a baby. The first baby is TOUGH. I remember crying because I couldn’t just do a quick run to Target for toilet paper. And I really really needed it! Like bad! How are YOU truly feeling? ” From that simple text a friendship developed.
- Reach out because you care and feel a connectedness to them and their situation: YOU are thinking about them, care about them and are giving of your time while fulfilling a need for that person. That is what compassion is.
- Ask not what they need, but find the need.
Sending a message or statement like “I could tell by your posts and the kids on Facebook and Instagram that life has been busy. I saw E just started another play and T is staying late at Taekwondo now. I’ve got to go to Walmart for a kids project this week. I can plan on taking T home on the way back from the store so you can grab E and spend a few minutes with her. Would that work?”
My favorite was a good friend of mine who showed up at my door after my then husband had an overnight hospital stay and said “I don’t know how to help you. I thought I could do something nice like bake cookies, but that plan didn’t work. I couldn’t even make dinner tonight. The kids are probably at home starving and hopefully just figured out that we have cereal. I just wanted to stop by to let you know I have been thinking about you. If you don’t need anything tonight I’ll stop by again, even if it’s just to be awkward and tell you I can’t even make you cookies or I need to get home to my starving children. I love to chat. I never get to anymore as a Mom. I can’t imagine what you are going through and I’m sorry to hear about your husband. I haven’t stopped thinking about you and the kids.” AND THEN SHE CHECKED ON ME AGAIN!!
Don’t miss the mark when it comes to compassion. See their needs, not yours. If you do, you’ll find that you’re doing what compassion was made for to begin with–to help fulfill both your needs and both your suffering and pain and allow both of you to grow.
- Don’t NOT do anything!!
The quote from Anne Frank that states “I don’t dare do anything anymore, ’cause I’m afraid it’s not allowed” has so much meaning for our day. While we know and understand the context that she wrote it in when she penned these words, it also applies to us today.
As I stated earlier we continue to speculate the reasons why generally people are continuing to become less and less connected with each other. Why we spend less time with each other, why relationships are failing, why we are so much more easily connected by the marvels of technology yet feel more and more disconnected. Why people are reporting increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety and feelings of suicide more than ever before.
In the past couple of years, my attentions as a counselor have focused more and more on lessons involving connectedness. Teaching communication, how to connect and boundaries.
When I worked at the hospital, I can clearly remember one of my favorite nurses (I had a lot of them) talking about when she was younger and raising her kids. “After school we would plop the kids onto the sidewalks with their bikes, scooters, and chalk and we Mom’s would bring out our chairs and have a Pepsi break while the kids played. You don’t see that anymore.”
No you don’t.
But guess what? We still WANT that. We still want to have the kids play together after we get home from work in summer time. We still want to chat with the other moms at soccer practice. We still want to chat to that person next to us at the gym. So what holds us back?
I believe that a lot of things do. I think we become scared of rejection. What if I ask three people to dinner and they all say no? Is that something wrong with ME? I think our circumstances also place us in that rejection area. As a single mom, I’m in a different class than Mom’s who stay home while their husband’s work. I can be made to feel disconnected by others or I can disconnect myself because of my status. At the end of the day though, I still am a mom and connected to every other person.
- We need to reach out more. We need to allow ourselves to apologize and say “I’ve been thinking about you but I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry. I’ve seen you out running. How often do you run?” Start a conversation and see where it goes. Your gut is a great tool. When you’re standing next to someone at the gym and your gut is screaming at you to talk to that person, TALK TO THEM!
- Yes, you will probably initially screw it up. You may offend them with your cookies that they are allergic to. You might even screw it up and put your foot in your mouth with your words. But you will get it right soon enough and learn what to say, how to listen to someone and start to show compassion towards that person. It’s important that we continue to do so. The statistics on loneliness, connectedness and feeling suicidal can be combated by compassion and connectedness. Empathy can be built on those principles of compassion. Empathy for others comes from our experiences we go through.
Don’t ever be afraid to reach out to someone who needs our help because we’re afraid it’s not allowed. The statistics are telling us THAT IT IS!! People WANT to hear from you! But people want it to be genuine and not feel like a project or like they are just something on your to do list. Do not show compassion by intentionally hurting them more.
A week after someone dies is not the time to give a reminder to take the last two months of the year and finish reading the Bible because our clergy challenged us to. They are busy. They have a million other things they have to do and are doing right now because someone very close to them has DIED. Their head isn’t in that mindset. If they want to read the Bible, it’s going to be to find passages that will get them through their nightmare or bring comfort. Several of my family members had trouble even opening the Bible after one of our family members died tramatically. They just needed time to process. What happened was shocking and dramatic. Opening that book too early could’ve made it worse in the end. Once they were able to process and work through some of their emotions and anger, it brought comfort to them again. Use active listening. Simply put if you can’t think of anything to say just simply let them know you are thinking about them.
As a parting thought from Brene Brown:
*Talk given at UVU 2019
Bloom, P., & Bloom, P. (2017, September 14). Is empathy overrated? Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/is-empathy-overrated/
Zantal-Wiener, A. (n.d.). 6 Phrases That Demonstrate Active Listening. Retrieved from https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/phrases-for-active-listening