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"You don’t know how I feel": Lessons for Living, by Dr Neil Thompson

Life is never without its challenge, but there is always the opportunity to learn and grow from those demands made on us. Dr Neil Thompson offers advice to tackle these problems and help social workers and care professionals to realise their potential.

15/05/22

"You don’t know how I feel": Lessons for Living, by Dr Neil Thompson

Many people confuse sympathy (sharing the same feelings as someone else) and empathy (being able to recognize someone else’s feelings and being able to respond appropriately, but without necessarily having those feelings ourselves), while others settle for apathy, in a state of semi-burnout.

But clearly empathy is what we need to aim for: being able to be supportive of others who are wrestling with emotional issues, but without facing the same emotional challenges ourselves.

However, what is very clear is that this is not simply a matter of saying: ‘I know how you feel’.

This is a very unhelpful and potentially quite counterproductive way to respond, partly because: (i) we do not know how someone else feels (for example, if I am helping someone who has just lost their father, the fact that I have lost my father does not mean that I know how they feel, as our respective experiences of losing a father may have evoked very different feelings); and (ii) making such a comment means we are focusing on our own feelings, rather than those of the person we are trying to help.

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser and a visiting professor at the Open University. His books include How to Survive in Social Work (with John McGowan) and The Managing Stress Practice Manual. He is also the Vice President of Vigoroom UK, a sophisticated employee wellness platform designed to help create happier and healthier workplaces: www.vigoroom.co.uk.

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