Sorry I asked: My wildly presumptive theory that empathy isn’t an affront

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You are not unique. Let me rephrase that: There is no other person on earth exactly like you, but your human feelings and experiences are generally pretty common. Crazy as it might actually be, your feelings are not as insane and out of the ordinary as you might think.

Though there is a lot of joy to be found in life, it is by no means an endless parade of sunshine and rainbows. We all have crap to deal with, and it’s up to us, with help from others, to make the best of it. The “help from others” part of that statement is important, not just because it reminds us that we need to help our fellow man, but because it reminds us that we need to accept help from others when it is offered.

As a child of the internet age, I’ve spent my share of time on message boards and discussion websites. I enjoy the candidness and straightforward conversation that exists in certain online communities. A handful of the communities that I have visited were centered around shared experiences, such as the loss of a loved one, mental illness or other issues for which one might seek advice and validation.

Though the participants of these communities are usually pretty gentle and understanding of one another, there’s occasionally that one person who seems intent on being misunderstood. The words, “I know how you feel” come off as a challenge, and a personal attack on the validity and uniqueness of their experience. Any attempt to empathize with their situation or offer an anecdote of what others did in similar situations will be met with a dose of “righteous” contempt. “How dare you compare your pain to mine?” they seem to say, “You can’t possibly presume to know how I’m feeling!”

While it is true that everyone has a different story to tell, I don’t think that being a different person with a different consciousness necessarily invalidates the insights they might have regarding your situation. Sure, I don’t know with certainty exactly how you feel, but I can look at how I feel about my own experiences and extrapolate from there.

Of course I’m not going to know exactly what your life is like, but commiseration doesn’t have to be that precise. Though each situation has its own contributing factors, its own cast of characters, and its own texture, that doesn’t change the fact that pain is pain, and my attempt to empathize with you is not just lip service. I’m not trying to feed you a one-sentence platitude to get you out of my hair so later I can tell all my friends what a kind and charitable person I am.

Granted, some people don’t have great advice and need to work on their empathy skills. Everyone knows that the phrase, “Just get over it,” is about the least helpful thing that can be said to someone who is struggling. It constitutes a lack of understanding and a lack of effort to even try to understand. But I’ll be bold here and say that at a certain point, people who struggle (which is to say, all of us) need to recognize that “You just don’t understand!” is just as an unhelpful. If I don’t understand, please, help me understand.