Have you been in situations where your loved one is hurt, you feel bad, you try to change, but nothing seems to be good enough, and you cannot help but wonder if the problem is you or them?
When someone is in pain, empathy is feeling bad FOR them. Guilt is feeling bad ABOUT MYself for possibly being the cause of their pain.
Both emotions feel bad. Both feel painful. So much so that we cannot tell the difference.
Guilt is anger directed at ourselves for ‘being bad’. Or out of the fear of possibly being bad. Now imagine the consequences.
The more hurt the other person feels, the more bad you ‘become’. This is a losing game. Because the more bad you accept you are, the more you will hate yourself.
Now you are stuck. To avoid hating yourself, you will have to minimize their pain(“Don’t be over sensitive!”) or invalidate their pain(“Who feels pained for this!”) or make them look even worse(“YOU are in pain? How dare you! Have you ever thought about ME? I should be the one complaining!!!!!”) or make yourself look better(“I do so many things!! But nobody cares! Nothing works!! “)
Notice that no matter what we do, it is all meant to make US feel better.
There is an under-current of anger, a feeling of being unjustly blamed. Lot of pain. But nothing changes. WE are the victim! How can it change?
The core question in guilt is not “Are they feeling bad?” The core question is: “Are they feeling bad about ME?”
We don’t care about the pain, only about the blame.
And avoiding the IMMENSE fear of ‘Yes, it is my fault’. Even addressing their pain is a MEANS of relieving OUR feeling of guilt: “What will it take for THEM TO NOT BLAME ME ANY LONGER?”
A ‘sorry’ might be the ‘right’ solution to stop the blame – but not the shame.
We start collecting evidences of injustice to even the scales later. To say “And you used to call ME bad!!!! Look at YOURSELF!!!!” The other person will now shrink away even more and stop sharing.
But even this lack of sharing can be taken as a blame…
“How dare you not share!!! How can you blame ME for not sharing??!!!” Others might just shut down at this point. And things seem to get better.
Guilt can burn relationships and hollow them out.
If asked for empathy, guilt will scream “You call ME unempathetic???!!! Look at YOU!!!”
Everything is a blame. Nothing registers. And we truly wonder why people are calling us insensitive.
Empathy on the other hand is feeling the others pain. For this our attention has to move from us to them. Of course, nobody likes to look bad. We are afraid of looking bad. But our love for the other person exceeds this fear. Our walls melt…our circle of concern expands and we feel THEIR pain.
There is no my pain or your pain – only pain. Regardless of whose fault it is.
You hear them. They feel heard. Connected. Now whatever follows can only lead to something better. Sometimes its a smile, a hug, an apology, a straight response or a firm stand. But we are already on the same side.
But if our fear of looking bad is too high – then empathising can be difficult. We have to wear our oxygen masks before helping others. Just that we never seem to get enough oxygen. We are always running out of breath, while people ‘blame’ even more for not running, not trying! This can truly feel extremely suffocating and very painful.
The question to ask then is not “How do I make the other person feel better?” It’s too early for that. Its to ask “How do I heal my fear of looking bad?”