Illustration by Harshita Jha: https://harshitajha1.wixsite.com/website
The word “empathy” comes up a lot when talking about mental health and supporting others, and Dr. Brené Brown has become a leading expert in this area. She emphasizes how empathy – putting ourselves in others’ shoes and appreciating their perspectives and feelings – drives connection and is key to having non-judgmental conversations. She also cautions us about using two little words, saying, “Rarely does an empathic response begin with ‘at least’.”
First of all, “at least” is likely well-intentioned. We may feel that it would be helpful and take someone’s mind off the negative, but what we see as reassurance and distraction could easily be perceived as minimizing and dismissing.
Take something like “I know work is stressful right now, but at least you have a job” as an example. What we would probably be trying to do by saying this is switch the focus to something positive and hope they feel better – a nice idea. But, pause and think about what’s implied by this “at least” statement:
- Because they have a job, they shouldn’t feel stressed.
- The fact that they have a job is more important than the fact that they feel stressed.
- Feeling stressed isn’t OK.
- You don’t want to talk about their stress.
- They must like having their job, which may or may not be the case.
In other words, gratitude for having a job should negate anything else they are feeling. But, it’s not an either-or situation. They don’t have to choose between feeling stressed and being thankful they have a job – they can feel both, and it’s up to us to recognize that whatever combination of feelings they are having is valid. If they hear the “at least”, they may feel like we aren’t getting it, don’t respect their feelings, or only want to talk about what we want to talk about rather than what they may need to talk about.
So, what to do with the “at least” temptation? First of all, be on the lookout for it – you don’t need to say it just because it comes into your mind. Then, take a pause and remind yourself to focus on what others are experiencing, not what you wish they were experiencing. And choose to give an accepting, supportive response, something like, “It sounds like you’re stressed. Tell me more about it”, “You’re going through a lot. Do you want to talk about it?”, or “It’s understandable that you’re stressed”.
Remember that saying “at least” won’t make anything magically go away. As Dr. Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”