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“When I Try to Show Empathy, It Looks Like an Emotional Hijack”

“I wanted my friend to know that she wasn’t alone in her experience and that it would get better. So, I did what came naturally: I started talking about my past heartbreaks. This is where I made my mistake… My actions effectively said that her fresh pain wasn’t a big deal compared to my past pain.”

Psychologist, psychotherapist, psychotherapy symbol. Two abstract human profile. Vector
Psychologist, psychotherapist, psychotherapy symbol. Two abstract human profile. Vector

Talking is easy; real communication is much harder.

In my daily communication, I feel like I’m captaining the Titanic, hitting the iceberg and abandoning ship, only to return and raise the sunken boat from the icy, deep ocean with all my emotional strength… again… and again…. Despite my best efforts, I keep making similar mistakes, which drives me nuts!

ADHD isn’t just about forgetting things or losing track of time; it’s about struggling to connect with people in a meaningful way. It’s about managing the unseen pitfalls of our condition so that we don’t upset others and realize it too late, losing their trust or respect. For me, that means working on better communicating empathy. This, I have learned the hard way, is not the same thing as relating to someone or their story. It is harder, and often more important. I feel empathy very deeply, but it often comes out wrong.

How Not to Show Empathy

My friend recently had a breakup. I was there when she got the phone call. After I hugged her and poured her a glass of wine, she shared private things about her relationship and her feelings and insecurities. It was emotional. I listened and tried to empathize with her. I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone in her experience and that it would get better. So, I did what came naturally: I started talking about my past heartbreaks. This is where I made my mistake.

[Free Handout: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]

I talked myself into a spiral of my own emotionally charged memories. I intended to share my friend’s pain and assure her that she’ll be okay; instead, it appeared like I was hijacking her story and feelings. I rambled on about someone she didn’t know or care about. I made it about me, not her. This was no longer empathy but a weird co-depression.

It’s not that I was emotionally disconnected or wasn’t listening. I was just sharing my perspective (and didn’t realize that meant my friend couldn’t share hers). My actions effectively said that her fresh pain wasn’t a big deal compared to my past pain. She got frustrated, and I felt confused and anxious, as to how I had messed up this deep and intimate moment.

So, I did what I do best: I started power-digging my way out of it, nice and defensively, steadily making everything worse. Because now I’m telling more stories! I’m playing devil’s advocate and rationalizing her ex’s actions while also saying he’s an awful person! Dear god, please, make it stop!

I have to remember that neurotypical thoughts and feelings aren’t always as fleeting or intense as they are for people with ADHD. Neurotypicals don’t see time like us either — it’s not always “now” to them. They don’t vividly remember their feelings from 15 years ago, as if they had never left the room. They can let things go and appreciate how things fade away.

[Dash of Patience, Smidgen of Honesty: A Recipe for Friendship]

I am a perpetual work-in-progress. I now understand that I need to put forth extra effort to listen and give people space to express themselves. All I needed was to say, “My ex did something like that, too. I understand how tough it is, and I’m here for you.” Then shut up and let her talk. We could’ve hugged and poured some whiskey. As long as I didn’t let my friend drunk text anyone, I’d know I’d have done my job.

How to Show Empathy: Next Steps

 


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