TL:DR: The words “at least” can act as a sympathetic silver lining instead of as an empathetic effort to understand each other. Try to see things as others see them, preferably without judgment.
“I had another miscarriage.”
“At least you can get pregnant.”
“My marriage is falling apart.”
“At least you have a marriage.”
“I’m so sick of my job.”
“At least you have a job.”
How much does the above dialogue sting for you like a pinched heart string?
If it stings, it might be because of two words: “at least.”
This video from a Brené Brown talk (more specifically at about 01:15) changed my view of those words forever (at least in this context), almost like how accidentally seeing your uncle naked can, well, change things. Brown aligns the words “at least” with “sympathy” and “silver linings.”
But what’s “wrong” with sympathy and silver linings?
I tend to see sympathy as empathy’s ugly step-child or evil twin. When a friend or loved one is stuck in a deep emotional well, empathy brings you down with them to feel what they feel. Sympathy avoids that and shouts “oh, bummer” from the top of the well. To me, sympathy is half-baked empathy, a way to be a part of the conversation without really trying. In my view, the video shows that perfectly.
What about silver linings? Same thing. They outline the dark cloud instead of filling it in. They might not necessarily make you feel better about the problem, and the person offering the silver lining doesn’t always seem to be understanding (or trying to understand) what you’re going through.
With that said, using the words “at least” can cheapen conversations in your relationships and loosen the tight weave of your bond. Here’s what I offer instead.
To begin with, as the confidant, it’s not necessarily your job to fix the person’s problems like a car mechanic or a doctor, so let’s get that out of our heads. We certified life coaches (as opposed to consultants) know this. We help the client arrive at her own answers. (But it helps to ask for permission to offer advice if you can’t help yourself–and be okay with only listening if he or she declines to receive that advice.)
Second, even if you don’t know what to say, Brown says it’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m really glad you told me.” How much better does that sound than “Well, even if your grandmother has Alheimer’s, at least she’s still alive”? Wow.
Next, let’s look at empathy, the ultimate glue for strong love. Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman says four empathy attributes are:
- To see the world as others see it. A recent example is when I watched the women’s gymnastics documentary At the Heart of Gold. While I’m fortunate to not have been a victim of serious sexual abuse (if any sexual abuse), I could imagine and feel the gymnasts’ pain–the pain of being abused, of not being taken seriously for years, and sometimes of severing familial relationships as a result. Of disconnecting from your father, who can’t bring himself to understand the abuse and eventually commits suicide. Of undergoing years of therapy after being a predator’s target. Anyone with a soul can feel that pain on some level without having experienced it firsthand.
- To be nonjudgmental. It’s hard to be completely nonjudgmental, given we’re only human. But to judge is to lessen the impact of someone else’s experience and to protect ourselves from the pain. If you find yourself judging another, at least be aware of it.
- To understand another person’s feelings. Tap into #1 to tap into this one. Explore this other person’s world and identify and swim in the related feelings. Avoid labeling the feelings “right” or “wrong.”
- To communicate your understanding of those feelings. I call this the “playback.” This Psychology Today article says, “Rather than saying, ‘At least you…’ or ‘It could be worse…’ try, ‘I’ve been there, and that really hurts,’ or (to quote an example from Brown) ‘It sounds like you are in a hard place right now. Tell me more about it.’” Feel free to ask questions to better understand the person’s situation. If you’re coming from a place of ignorance, own it and then try to catch up.
Finally, instead of looking for silver linings, you can help your friend or loved one find opportunities. Instead of reminding your “marriage is falling apart” friend that she’s “at least” still married, maybe there’s an opportunity to have a ladies’ night out or to help her get counseling. Instead of reminding your job-hating significant other that “at least” he still has a job, maybe there’s an opportunity in helping him update his resume and look for a new job.
Kick the words “at least” (in this context) to the curb and start flexing your empathy muscles like a bodybuilder!
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