While empathy is primarily intellectual, compassion is based in a desire to help.
I think what my boyfriend was trying to communicate to me was his support. I think what we humans are actually trying to do when we use that statement is bridge the separation between us. We are trying to find a way to connect to the griever and let them know we are emotionally available to them, or at least I hope that is what our intent is.
I believe we are all doing our best at any given moment with what we know to support another person, but I throw the challenge out there that we can learn to use better language to effect our support. I promote the idea that saying “I understand” may widen the gap you are trying to close and may actually isolate the person you are trying to comfort. I encourage you and I to instead be more vague in our claims of understanding, and validate the other persons feelings instead. I don’t believe it matters to the other person whether or not you understand what they are thinking or feeling.
I think what matters when someone is in any crisis is that they are heard and accepted for who they are, what they are thinking, what they are feeling, and where they are at that moment in their minds and heart. I think what I am trying to champion is that expressing compassion in addition to empathy would go farther with someone like me, and maybe you too.
Originally appeared at the Good Men Project