With the demand for mental-health providers far exceeding the supply, not least in Maine where COVID-19 cases continue to surge, I’ve thought about how friends and family might help those who wait for professional help — or at least not make matters worse.

When I practiced psychotherapy in Brunswick, patients often surprised me about what they found most helpful in treatment. Therapists typically think treatment methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy are all important. Yet research demonstrates that the therapeutic relationship, especially conveying caring with empathic listening, is foundational to successful therapy, regardless of treatment method.

Most people think having empathy means feeling what another feels — experiencing what they’re experiencing. Yet philosopher Paul Bloom maintains that believing we can know another person’s experiences of life can distort our judgment, and even cause harm. As philosopher Thomas Nagle famously put the problem of conscious experience, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Bloom maintains that caring derives more from our rational faculties than our gut emotions. This means that we can learn how to be more caring, without knowing just what it’s like to be another person (human or otherwise).

Our 1.4-ounce parakeet Gus drove home the point. When I was upset, Gus flew to my husband David and said, “Pers (Gus’s name for me) is scared.” “Scared” was Gus’s word for distress. Gus would then sit with me — actually on me: His empathic birdie presence was reassuring. Emily Dickinson was right: “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

A friend battling breast cancer taught me much about empathy. On the second anniversary of her remaining cancer-free, she said I had helped her greatly, whereas others made her feel worse. “How so?” I asked.

“People told me how horrible this was, how sorry they were. I already felt this way, and hearing it from others demoralized me more. They thought they were being empathic, but they seemed to be thinking more of themselves, of how cancer scares them, not what might help me.” In Bloom’s terms, this exemplifies the dangers of presuming we know what another person is experiencing.


I myself have always recoiled from the dismissive “I’m-sure-you’ll-be-fine” response to scary diagnoses. “How can you be sure, when the docs aren’t?” I’d think. People may assume they’re expressing empathy when they offer such optimism, but they’re actually avoiding dealing with someone’s pain. This is not being with the person in pain—like Gus was with me. But what my friend reported wasn’t dismissive optimism. How did I help her?

“You said, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this.’ Then you asked questions to make sure you understood: Did I have good docs? What did they say about my prognosis? What scared me most? You helped me feel less emotionally overwhelmed. You said you believed in my ability to get through the ordeal. And that I could call when I needed to talk, whether about cancer or something else. You didn’t dismiss my distress, but neither did you exacerbate it with hyperbolic horror.”

Reflecting on my friend’s experience, I realized I had managed to avoid the Charybdis of the “I’m-sure-you’ll-be-fine” form of dismissiveness, and the Scylla of the “that’s-just-horrible” form of dismissiveness. This led me to reconsider how people heal, and what does and doesn’t help. I remembered what clinical psychologist Art Bohart wrote about self-healing and “self-organizing wisdom.”

Self-organizing wisdom entails our innate ability to “move toward wiser ways of being in the world, ” especially if given the right conditions. Most important is “staying with” the person in their pain by listening to them nonjudgmentally, as a person, not seeing them as a problem to be solved.

Neither my friend nor I cast my help in these terms, but they fit. The good news is, you don’t have to be a therapist to listen empathically. If you ask someone in distress how you can help, they may not know (and/or they may be afraid to say). So after asking what you can do to help, ask if they’d like for you to hang out with them now and then, in person or electronically, to whatever extent you can. Resist giving advice, unless it’s requested. Expressions of empathy don’t require words.

Never dismiss the power of “just” being there for those on professional-help waiting lists or not. Although a nonjudgmental, empathic presence produces no rabbit-out-of-a-hat freedom from suffering, it’s hardly trivial. As Gus the bird understood, healing of any sort surely begins with this.

Barbara S. Held, PhD, is a Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College.

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