On Practicing Empathy

I wrote this blog post last week, before yesterday’s tragic event. However, I didn’t feel like it was complete and I wanted more time with it. After yesterday’s tragic event, I have gone back and edited it a little. Hopefully it helps someone.

Originally, this blog post was inspired by a few things. A blog post from Kerri. A blog from a newly diagnosed adult that Kim tweeted about. A couple of Twitter conversations I’ve had in recent weeks about people in the Diabetes Online Community who appear to be just too damn happy about their diabetes.

Each time this comes up, I cringe. My reaction is to say, “Wait. Are we talking about the same DOC?” Because I see plenty — PLENTY — of tweets, status updates and blog posts about things that are not awesome about diabetes. I also see a fair number of tweets, updates and posts when things are just dandy in the land of the Big D. It depends.

I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to lean more towards to the positivity. I can’t help it. I think it’s just my personality. Heck, I had a blog for awhile that was named after the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” It’s in my nature to be a little more happy, happy, joy, joy. But that’s not to say I’m always like this. I think it’s unfair to assume that people have a static emotional state about diabetes. I rarely have one type of emotion toward anything in my life.

Emotions are complicated. How we feel about something might be very different from how someone else feels. It is our right as humans to have our own unique emotional response to things. People do not have to feel the same way toward things. Sometimes they should, but they don’t have to. We are unique. We have our own ways of experiencing things.

When we don’t understand why someone feels the way they do, it can seem natural to persuade them to feel otherwise. We say that the person needs to cheer up, look on the bright side, it’ll be okay, it’s not that bad, and the mother of all unhelpful statements: it could be so much worse. But all this does is tell the person who already feels like complete and utter shit that they are wrong. They are wrong to be feeling how they feel and they should stop.

Whether you’re talking about someone who has severe clinical depression or someone who is simply upset about a diabetes diagnosis, invalidating their emotions by saying they should stop feeling them is not helpful and it won’t work.

A few years ago when I was talking to my therapist, something profound happened. I was telling her all these terrible things happening to me and how they were making me feel terrible. Maybe they weren’t that terrible, and maybe they were. But what is important was her response: “With everything that’s going on, it makes sense that this is how you feel.”

And it was like a light bulb went on.

My emotions were completely valid. I didn’t have to pretend that I was fine even though I felt depressed, frustrated and angry. And I wasn’t a broken or bad person because I felt this way either.

Likewise, I also want to encourage people who feel fine with their diabetes. There are those out there who don’t feel depressed or upset or angry about living with diabetes. That diabetes is what it is and that’s all that it is. I know that sometimes it can be difficult to empathize with people who have a different emotional state about something. But feeling differently doesn’t negate the validity of how someone else feels.

Before I went into therapy — I’ve been in therapy twice over the years — I couldn’t validate my own feelings. Even knowing the good therapy can do couldn’t motivate me into therapy the second time. I didn’t take my feelings seriously. I didn’t think there was anything that could be done. In the end, I got the help that I needed and things didn’t end tragically. But I had people in my life who recognized what was going on and kept pushing me to make the appointment I needed to make.

I often hear the comparison game made between diabetes and other conditions. Type 1 diabetes is worse than type 2 diabetes, but diabetes is not worse than cancer. The same game can be made with depression. Diabetes distress isn’t as bad as clinical depression. Episodic depression isn’t as bad as chronic depression. Yes, they are all different. But all of them can have a negative impact on your life, and all of them should be taken seriously. You don’t need to have clinical depression to have a mental health problem that needs attention. Feeling like my problems weren’t “bad enough” was one of the biggest reasons I held off getting the help I needed.

Who are we to judge what deserves concern and attention?

We all know that mental health is a serious issue. If emotions are starting to interfere with your ability to manage your health and your life, then you need help. But emotions don’t necessarily always need to be fixed. Sometimes how we feel about something like diabetes is how we cope, it’s how we do integrate it into our lives. If someone is angry or upset about having diabetes, that doesn’t necessarily need fixing unless it starts to affect their ability to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

What I would encourage all of us to do is practice more acceptance of emotions that are different from ours. Empathy is a lost art. At the same time, we need to be vigilant that these emotions do not overwhelm our ability to live our life, or the lives of those we care about. We need to do more real, honest talking. It is so easy to think that there is nothing we can do to feel better. If you want to feel different about a situation, it is possible with a lot of work. But it is possible. It’s something I wish I had learned a lot earlier than I did.

2 thoughts on “On Practicing Empathy

  1. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been struggling with this for a while. I suppose I’ve been guilty of writing a lot lately about how great everything is. That’s because it’s been mostly good lately. I’ve been smacked down by life and by diabetes many times, and I’ve learned to enjoy the good moments while they’re still good, and not to look over my shoulder. I know things won’t always be perfect.

    Anyway, I agree that I need to be sensitive to how others are feeling. We all have different lives, even though we’re bound by the same condition. It makes sense that we’re all feeling different at different times. Supporting each other all the time, no matter what, is what counts. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for the comment! (As always) I think one thing you said is really key: “We’re bound by the same condition.” I actually would argue that diabetes looks very different in each of us, even though we have the same diagnostic code. Some of us naturally have an easier or harder time managing things based on our bodies, which are all very unique. So I would also caution people from making that comparison. We not only have very different life circumstances, but even the disease itself can manifest itself differently.

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