Helping a friend in a dark place: Empathy and Sympathy

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One day, not too long ago I had a challenging but helpful conversation with a good friend of mine about empathy. It started from my phone call. I had been feeling a bit sad that evening, listening to the rain and to an old wound that came throbbing again, and so I rang her. We had a little chat, made sure that both of us were cozy with a nice cup of tea and had space to catch up properly. She told me about some highlights of her week and asked how I was. Encouraged by her invitation I reached out from my sad place and attempted to tell her about what was on my mind. Before I’d even finished my first sentence she interrupted me with a big sigh:

– Ok, we’ve been there before… I thought you’ve moved on.
– I thought you wanted to know how I felt…
– Sure, I am here, do talk…
– I am trying to talk but then it sounds like you are judging me and you don’t really want to listen.
– I am not judging you. I love you and I want you to be happy.

Have you ever had a similar dialogue with a friend? I am sure we all have at some point, and have experienced both sides of it. We are probably also in agreement that one of the most valuable things one can offer a friend is what we call ‘moral support’ in a time of emotional turbulence. Yet being there for a friend in need, in the way that is actually helpful, often proves rather tricky. When a friend starts talking to us about something painful for him or her, our immediate responses are usually of two kinds:

  • They contain evaluation/judgment (i.e. a statement that suggests that we know exactly where our friend is and – moreover – where they should be);
  • They contain advice (i.e. a ‘roadmap’ or rather a ‘shortcut’ for getting out of the place where he or she is and to the place where we think they should be).

These responses are not in the least helpful – we all know it from our own experience. Yet we keep offering them and, if challenged, say that they come from a place of love.

Now… are we being hypocritical? Do we only pretend that we care for our friends? And if not, then where indeed are our responses coming from?

More often than not they originate from our own discomfort. We don’t want to be dragged into and re-experience a dark place of helplessness, confusion, pain or uncertainty. So our system sends us a warning: ‘Don’t go there!’ And, responding to this warning, we try to pull or push our friends out of that place so that we wouldn’t need to stay there. The result is that our friends feel judged, misunderstood and left alone in their struggle.

What then can we do to help a friend in a dark place? Below I share a few pointers, which I hope you may find useful.


Our mind/psyche as well as our body has natural ability to heal. However, in order to heal they require environment conducive to healing. Thus if you are down with a flu you need to stay in bed for some time. If a bone is broken it is put in a cast that holds it, while still allowing the broken parts to re-grow. The same is with emotional malaise: a safe holding space creates an environment where the fragmented pieces of meaning can gradually begin to come together and rearrange themselves in a way that makes sense.

Understanding these processes helps to relieve our urgent panicky impulse to find a ‘solution’ here and now. It is a matter of trust. We need to trust a person’s ability to heal, which is their natural capacity. We also need to understand that healing process may take a while and that what makes sense to another person may be different from our own meanings.

Broken record

We often get frustrated hearing a friend going over the same thing again and again, which seems like a broken record. But more often than not it only seems so. What is really happening is that through repetition our mind is trying to come to grips with something that is difficult to grasp. It tries and slips and tries again. Eventually it will succeed, but this may take multiple attempts over a long period of time. When we understand that we can be more patient with our friends. We can relax and, by relaxing and letting go of our own anxiety, provide a firm hold for them in the midst of their raging storm.

A dark place is not a bad place

To a great extent, our difficulty with helping ourselves or helping a friend in a dark place stems from us associating difficult emotions with ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ emotions. And so we try to get away from them as quickly as possible by pushing them down, rationalizing them or finding a distraction. This is the most common and most gross misconception. A dark place is not necessarily a bad place. In fact, it may be well a ‘good’ place, if we think in terms of our personal growth. Yes, it may be difficult and uncomfortable, painful and scary. But there are hidden treasures to be found there, however improbable it may sometimes sound. And if a person seems to linger in that dark place it means they have a sense that there is something to find there. And we need to trust them. What they need from us is our reliable presence and our reassurance that they are not alone. Then they can feel safer and bolder in their exploration and find what they need more quickly.

Building up your resilience

You may agree intellectually with all that I have said above, but this knowledge is not enough if it is not substantiated by our own experience of navigating through the dark caverns and tunnels of our psyche. Indeed, how can we help a drowning person if we don’t know how to swim? And so, learning to be comfortable with our own discomfort, learning to stay with our difficult feelings and having an experience of receiving a right kind of support makes us more prepared for helping a friend.

If you feel that you cannot be there for your friend in the right way you may gently suggest that they seek help from a professional therapist. Not because something is wrong with them and they need to be fixed, but because a therapist may be better equipped to provide them with the safe holding space that they need.

Sympathy and Empathy

These two notions may seem very close and indeed they overlap to the extent that both presuppose an ability to feel for another person. Yet sympathy often entails over-identification, when we get swamped by the other person’s emotion and begin to feel as helpless and as desperate to get out as they are. Even as a therapist, it sometimes happens to me. I then find myself slipping into a ‘fix-it’ mode, trying to ‘rescue’ a person from what I perceive as a place of danger. Such a response from my side is usually felt as unhelpful.

Empathy has two main ingredients to it: an ability to imagine what it may be like for another person and an ability to keep a certain distance from what is going on for them. This detachment doesn’t mean coldness or indifference. What it means is that we can hold a wider perspective and can trust in our friend’s ability to find their own way. Empathy allows us to step into our friend’s dark place without being overwhelmed by it.

I started this blog post by telling you about an interaction I had with a friend of mine. Following our conversation she sent me a link to this video. It is a very good illustration to the things I spoke about. Hope you enjoy it and find it helpful!

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