“I am sorry that happened to you.”
“I am sorry this is happening to you”.
“I am sorry you are going through this”.
I am not sure these words can convey anything but pity.
(not to be confused with the social norm of expressing condolences “I am sorry”)
But in any other context, you cannot truly bond with an “I am sorry”.
You cannot relate to an “I am sorry”.
While sympathy (by definition “feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”) seems both appropriate and supportive, it is empathy that will generate that true connection to someone going through emotional pain.
Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Feeling sorry for a person is not helpful in situations where people are in pain. Empathy is what creates that space for true understanding and compassion needed to offer genuine support.
If you ever poured out your heart to someone and all you got was “I am sorry you are going through this,” you know exactly what I mean.
Don’t Even Put It in a Comment
Just the other day I was reading a post by someone struggling with obesity. It was a very informative article with a personal note that made it clear that the author had been working on this problem on and off for years. And that she has picked up a massive amount of knowledge, not just on diet topics, but also self-control, discipline, willpower and many other self-improvement taglines along the way.
It was a well-written piece with a universal takeaway.
I have never been obese, but I could relate on many different levels. I have been struggling (and failing!) to achieve an important goal on and off for years. Most of us have.
Several people thanked her for writing such a great piece, some offered advice, but what really stood out is the many comments that said: ‘I am sorry you are going through this’.
To say “I am sorry you are going through this” without qualifying it with anything else is dismissive. And absolutely not called for. It missed the whole point of the article.
A Compassionate Friend
Which friend do you want to talk to about your heartbreak, a health issue, a problem with a colleague?
The one who listens, nods, and says “I am sorry this is happening to you”, or the one who offers to understand, who knows what you are going through? Not because she has experienced it personally, but because she is a human being and knows what it is to struggle.
She doesn’t need to say “I am sorry”. She’s been there. We have all been there.
I once told a friend about a frequent argument I used to have with my husband, because she implied, in the same conversation, that she had a similar issue. I thought it would be great to talk about it.
Her answer to my outpour: “I am sorry you and your husband are going through this”.
Ok, I get it, maybe she didn’t want to share her story, that’s fine, but…
Just. Don’t. Be. Sorry.
So, I never tell her anything personal anymore.
No one deserves the story of my plight if they cannot share in a decent conversation about it.
I have plenty of friends who will say. “Oh, I know, it sucks. It’s like the time when I ….”
It doesn’t have to be the same story, just something that shows me that I have come to a safe place.
Or a friend who knows how to truly listen without saying anything at all.
I am usually the former friend, I will qualify with some kind of a personal story, although I am dabbling into the noblest of all skills “the art of active listening.” Personally, I have ways to go.
Friends aren’t our therapists, we go to them for bonding. We already know they are sorry. We also know that complete strangers can’t feel sorry at the same level. But they can appreciate a story. A story that sticks.
A Final Note
Years ago, I read a personal essay (I searched for it but could not find it to link, unfortunately) by someone whose child had been born with a congenital disability and required 24/7 care. He was lost, angry, confused, and exhausted. The life he was hoping for had disappeared.
But he painted an image of his wife for the reader.
She was still drinking a cup of tea each morning and reading the paper. Just like she had always done. He wondered how she could carry on doing something so seemingly normal when they were going through something so agonizing. The child needed constant care so she could not read the paper in one sitting or finish her cup of tea in one go. But, throughout the day, she constantly reheated that same cup of tea that she didn’t get time to finish in the morning. And she went back to reading that paper in her spare moments.
Now that is the takeaway for me as a reader, years after I read that story. Her husband is falling apart but he is holding onto that image of his wife and she constantly reheated cup of tea. I did not have to say (think) “I am sorry that happened to you”. Of course, I was sorry, but that wasn’t why he wrote the story.
The story stayed with me for years and that is why he wrote it. I thought about it as I carried my colicky baby throughout the night, often thinking that I would fall apart but, there was someone somewhere who should have fallen apart by most measures, but didn’t. She just went on and reheated her cup of tea. That is what we get from personal accounts. We can empathize on different levels.
Saying we are sorry is to diminish the value of them.
Be it your friends or perfect strangers.
And here is a broader, more detailed look at the concepts of sympathy vs. empathy