I can’t say this as a licensed clinical psychologist, but I am in graduate school to be a clinical psychologist so I do have some insight on this. Also, I am personally going through a breakup right now and I have mulled this one over.
A fellow classmate explained the difference between empathy and sympathy in the best way possible. He said: “Imagine that you are stuck in a muddy ditch. Sympathy is when a person goes up to the tip of the ditch, peers in, and says, ‘That sucks.’ Empathy is when the person actually jumps into the ditch with you and really GOES THERE with you! That is the true essence of empathy.”
Going through my own breakup, I find that there are very few people who are willing to truly become that vulnerable. They are either afraid of emotion, don’t want to bring themselves down, or believe that because they have never experienced a breakup of that magnitude or are not in the same place currently that they are unable to actually help.
As a psychologist in training, I can tell you that I empathize with people from all walks of life every day. I certainly do not need to be an older adult to understand the pain of loss. I also don’t need to be a prisoner of war to understand a veteran.
Heartbreak is a universal emotion and the majority of people can dip into their toolbox to find a time where they experienced something that hurt them badly… a death in the family, the loss of a child, a broken friendship, not getting into the college of your choice, a bad grade, and even losing a job.
Nothing on that list that you can relate to? Have you ever broken a limb or experienced any physical pain? Scientific research has found strong correlations between physical and emotional pain. We feel them very similarly!
So now that we have clearly discussed that you can properly empathize (not just sympathize) even if you are not in the same place/have never experienced your friend’s situation, here are the dos and don’ts for empathizing with a friend who is going through a breakup and needs some support:
1. Allow them to feel what they are feeling and remind them to not judge themselves. In fact, encourage them to feel their feelings! This is healthy and will help them process the breakup properly.
2. Let them know that you are there for them whenever they need to talk, and if you are not there you will make yourself available as soon as possible. Give them some times to give them something to look forward to.
3. Let them know that you will support them through the rollercoaster of all of their feelings. You will laugh with them when they want to laugh, you will cry with them when they need to cry, and you will listen when they just need to rant.
4. Understand that a part of the healing process may consist of repetitions of the same thoughts and feelings for months. If you know within yourself that you are not the most patient person and that someone else might be better to take on the supportive role of listening to a lot of negativity, do your friend a favor and kindly let them know. It will make them feel less alone.
5. Send them motivational and inspirational quotes whenever you talk to them.
6. Offer to help your friend set goals and organize their life/space.
7. Go with them to do things they no longer have a steady partner to do them with.
8. If you are in a serious relationship, engaged, married, etc. remember your friend and make sure to be sensitive around them (eg. no PDA’s please)!
9. Give them the benefit of the doubt if they become irritable. They are going through hell right now and need some discounts.
10. Tell them that you know they are going through a rough time and if at any point during your hangout they need to cry or vent that they should feel free to do so with you.
1. Tell your friend to be happy and positive when they are not in that mood.
2. Assume that they are feeling OK if they are not talking about the breakup.
3. Ask about their ex or try to get them to talk about the breakup if they do not bring it up first. (Refer to #10 of the DO section in order to learn a more empathic way to broach the topic).
4. Things that you should not say: “That sucks,” “I’m sorry,” and “He is a horrible person” (especially if your friend adored him).
5. Become offended if your friend feels that you are not empathizing in the way they need empathy. Ask your friend how you can be of help to them and try not to take it too personally.
6. Also, married/engaged/and not single people, please do not take it personally if your friend is afraid that you may not be able to fully understand how they are feeling because you are in a different place. Respond in a loving way and let them know that you understand why they would feel that way but that you would like to do everything in your power to be there for them in the way they need and remind them that heartbreak is a universal emotion.
I hope you enjoy these tips. If a close friend of yours is going through a breakup, this should arm you with some helpful empathy tools.
Now go out there and be an amazing, loving, caring, compassionate friend.
Trust me, you will feel good about yourself for being able to truly be there for another person in the way that they need and in their time.
Also, practicing truly being there for another person on an emotional level will strengthen your role in your own relationships.