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When worrying about “saying the right thing” gets in the way

“Have you ever seen ‘Terms of Endearment?’”

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This question stopped Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., social worker, author, and founder of Help Each Other Out, in her tracks while on a morning run with a friend. Yes, she had seen the movie—the one where a young mother dies of breast cancer. A week prior, Crowe had shared her own breast cancer diagnosis with this friend. During their jog, Crowe had hoped her friend would simply listen as she talked about this scary diagnosis. Crowe’s friend didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. But, because she was so worried about saying the right thing to comfort Crowe, she accidentally upset her by mentioning a movie where a young mother, like Crowe, dies of her illness. It’s easy to get tongue-tied when friends or family disclose news about their medical diagnoses or other heartaches. As a social worker and cancer survivor, Crowe became so intrigued with this phenomenon that she conducted research to identify exactly why we might shy away from helping our loved ones during times of need. "I had conversations with people and I asked them, ‘What gets in the way of being empathic?’" says Crowe.

Based on the feedback, she identified four “empathy roadblocks.” In her 2017 book, “There Is No Good Card for This,” (co-authored with Emily McDowell), she describes these roadblocks and offers some concrete ways we can navigate these barriers with ease.

Fear of doing the wrong thing

When friends and family members disclose their life tragedies, Crowe says we often feel pressure to fix the situation with the perfect gesture. In fact, she says, we often put so much pressure on ourselves to say and do something ideal that we begin to experience “empathy paralysis.” “It’s common to worry that whatever we do, we will embarrass ourselves, or even worse, destroy the friendship. Because of this, we don’t do anything at all,” Crowe says.

Fear of saying the wrong thing

Sometimes we worry so much about saying the “right” thing that we end up saying something less than ideal instead. "People fear that they will make their friends or family members feel worse by mentioning [cancer] or by asking them how they are feeling after a loved one’s death,” says Crowe. Rest assured, your friend or relative hasn't forgotten about their emotional pain so mentioning it won’t make things worse—they don't expect you to stitch them back together.

Fear of not having enough time

In her research, Crowe discovered that time can be an empathy roadblock as well. She says it’s common for people to worry that they might overcommit to helping and supporting their friends. Because of this, showing compassion may start feeling like a mountain to climb, and as a result, we might shy away from offering any support at all.

Breaking down these barriers

We all bump into these empathy barriers from time to time. Yet these roadblocks shouldn’t deter us from learning how to become more compassionate to our loved ones during these times. Crowe recommends these three touchstones to help us move past these barriers:


It might sound simple, but Crowe says it’s important to remember that extending kindness to others begins with being kind to ourselves. She adds that when we feel like we are not enough or that we won’t do enough to alleviate a loved one’s suffering, we’re more likely to shy away from action; we can get caught in a messy dance of shame and guilt, which can make us feel like we’re failing. “Kindness and compassion require us to notice and feel our friend’s suffering and to respond in a way that lets them know that we see their pain,” Crowe says. Practicing kindness doesn’t mean that we have to become problem solvers. It’s not about what we _d_o, but instead how we can become more present with our loved ones.

Empathic listening

Crowe says that it’s easy to confuse listening with giving advice: “Listening is hearing someone else’s experience without judgment.” Crowe adds that listening is a great antidote for our fears of saying or doing the “wrong” thing. In fact, research shows that empathic listening is the most valuable form of listening and it requires virtually no talking on our part. "Empathic listening is tuning into how someone is feeling. It's rooted in presence, which is an enormous gift because it gives our loved ones the space to share their narrative,” she says.

Small gestures matter

From her own life experience and research, Crowe discovered that small gestures can make a huge difference when others are in a crisis. She says that this realization can mitigate our fears about not having enough time to help out a loved one. Small gestures might mean sending a card, a basket of fruit, or a thoughtful text. "Gestures don't need to be grand to be meaningful," says Crowe. Empathy is a simple act of compassion, Crowe says, and there are many ways to express it. Once we lower the expectations to act perfectly in the face of difficult situations, we can move past our empathy roadblocks.

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