“That Sucks”: Practicing the Language of Compassion

About a year ago, I was complaining to my boyfriend on gchat about a series of unfortunate events I’d experienced.  After unloading, perhaps melodramatically, he replied to me with two words – “that sucks.”  Suddenly, gone was all the self-pity I’d been wallowing in, evaporated by the blood that was now boiling in my veins. Attempting to convey my frustration, I sent back: “That is the least possible empathetic response.”

Since then, I’ve caught myself more than once, about to give the same automatic response back to others. Each time, I’ve tried to sort out exactly what it is about the phrase that irks me so much.  Part of it is the lack of thought, the way the phrase it almost too easy a response, suggesting that the responder is at best uncreative and at worst not even listening.  Part of it is the crude etiology, pointed out by a high school teacher years ago.  And part of it is the way it closes the conversation, leaving both parties unsure of what to say next.

Today, during an elective course on group facilitation, I finally put together why “that sucks” is the worst possible reply to another person’s suffering.  We were discussing empathy in the context of motivational interviewing, and we watched this funny little video about empathy vs. sympathy.  It’s comical, but also strikingly accurate. To be empathetic, you must meet someone where they are, not immediately offering salves but first acknowledging whatever level of suffering they’re experiencing.  Responding to pain with “that sucks” or “at least…” is easy, not empathetic.  Such phrases protect us from the possibility of experiencing the pain of others by maintaining distance from the problem, rather then stepping down into whatever dark hole a patient, friend, or stranger may have fallen into.

Arguments for empathy aside, the fact is it’s difficult to muster up during times of necessity if it’s not practiced.  Empathy is conveyed during language, and too often I fail to choose empathetic words, resorting instead to easy phrases devoid of thought or meaning.  So today, I begin an effort to practice the language of compassion, to choose words carefully rather than toss out the first ones that come to mind.  It’s difficult, but I want to show genuine empathy to patients, and that will only come from practice.


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