How to Empathize When You Can’t Relate

How to Empathize When You Can’t Relate

Ashley Schmidt, Staff Reporter

To those who are mentally healthy, those with mental illness are sometimes seen as a mystery. It’s hard to understand how someone’s brain doesn’t quite work properly if your own brain is just fine. Not understanding what those with mental illness go through makes it really hard for those who are mentally healthy to empathize, because they just don’t get it. While it is okay to not understand, there are ways to empathize with someone who has mental illness. Here are the things not to say and to say when trying to empathize with someone who has a mental illness.


Things NOT to Do

  1. Saying “it could be worse.”

While saying “it could be worse” is usually an attempt to help the person with mental illness put things into perspective (and the help is usually needed and appreciated), that is not how it comes off to the person with mental illness. To them, it invalidates all of their feelings and what they’ve gone through. They process it as, “other people have it much worse than you, so you have no right to be upset and struggling.” While other people will always have it worse, you have every right to feel how you do and to be struggling. Pain is relative, so you cannot compare your own struggles with someone else.

  1. Telling them that they don’t actually have a mental illness.

Just because you don’t have mental illness, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Having an illness in the brain is just like any other illness. This would be like saying, “Well, I don’t have cancer so I don’t believe it actually exists.” While diagnosing mental illness is different than other illnesses, that doesn’t mean that is doesn’t exist.

  1. Pretending you can relate when you really can’t.

While this is done with good intentions to try to make the person with mental illness feel less alone, it usually doesn’t end up that way. You usually bring up an experience that allows you to relate just a little bit and pretend like it’s the same thing, which makes the person with mental illness feel like you don’t understand the depth of what they’re going through. It would be like telling someone who broke their legs and is in a wheelchair that you understand what they’re going through because you once twisted your ankle and had to wear a brace on it for a few days. While the experience allows you to relate a little, it is not the same, and it invalidates a lot of what the other person goes through.


Things to Help Empathize

  1. Being willing to try to understand.

Being willing to try to understand is half the battle. Often, people are not open to the idea that not everyone’s brain works the same way, and they are subconsciously preventing themselves from understanding. Trying to put yourself in the shoes of a person with mental illness is very difficult without accepting that their brain works differently, but once you accept that they think differently, it becomes a lot easier to empathize and to understand.

  1. Asking questions to help you understand.

Asking someone with mental illness about themselves is a great way to get a better idea of what having a mental illness is like. If you’re not sure how to word a question for fear of offending the person, you can always start by saying that they don’t have to answer or that you mean no offense and are just trying to understand. Asking questions in a non-judgmental way is best, but make sure the person with mental illness is okay with you asking questions. It is their life and they have every right to keep their mental illness private.

  1. Finding an experience of your own that allows you to partially relate.

While sharing an experience of your own that is sort of similar can help show the person with mental illness that you can somewhat relate, make sure you make it clear that you realize that the experiences are not the same and that you aren’t invalidating their mental illness. By showing that you can partially relate, it generally makes the person with mental illness feel more comfortable opening up because you’re more likely to understand.