It’s Not About You

When our instinct to relate leads us astray
by Thomas Dutton

I think most of us have been there. You’ve shared about something difficult, whether it’s a situation at work or the loss of a loved one, and the person you’ve shared with tries to relate. You lost a close family member, and they start talking about when they lost a great-uncle back when they were a kid. You quickly realize that their experience was nothing like yours. You feel disappointed that they don’t understand. Or you feel frustrated that they didn’t try to understand. Or you feel angry that they seemed to just want to make it about them. Your friend has tried to relate, to show empathy, but has succeeded instead at taking the conversation away from your struggles and onto their own. How could they be so selfish?

But I think most of us have been there, too. Someone shares something heavy with you. You want them to know that they’re not alone, you want to be able to join them in their pain somehow. You want them to know that others have gone through similar or worse and come out okay. You try to relate. They’re struggling with a problem at work—you’ve had problems at work. You try to tell your tale of the most similar situation you can think of, but rather than offering comfort, it seems to bring the conversation to an end. So why is this? Why does trying to relate often fall so flat, and why is this our gut instinct?

Why does it fall so flat? We try to relate circumstance rather than experience.
We hear a story of a break-up, and we think about the break-ups we’ve been around. But we miss the point—our friend isn’t sharing about the break-up for its own sake, they are sharing about their pain. If we only comment on the external circumstances, we miss the meat of the conversation: what is this person going through? They feel betrayed. You’ve felt this way! Not in a break-up, but in a friendship. A simple and genuine “it’s really hard to feel so betrayed, isn’t it?” will go much farther than describing your own break-up. Why? Because you’ve heard them, and you’ve affirmed their feelings. Relating to only circumstance misses whatever is happening on the inside, and only affirms that other people have had break-ups. They already know that. Affirming that it’s okay to feel betrayed, and that it can be really difficult? Now that’s something with some power.

So why is this so often our gut instinct? We want to help, but we’re frantic.
We really do want to help. We’re not trying to make it about ourselves. Yet, we don’t always know what to say in response to hearing about something personal and heavy. We often feel flustered and want to say something. So we reach for the closest thing on the shelf. Of course hearing about a break-up reminds us of our own break-ups. But these experiences that come to mind immediately may not be what our friend needs to hear. This is one reason why we ought to be slow to speak—it takes time to listen for experience, not just circumstance. And I think that something deeper happens sometimes. When we’re reaching for something, anything to say, we are vulnerable. When we go with our first instinct, we may be giving the enemy a chance to prey on the selfish desires that lurk in our sinful hearts.

We have sin in our hearts that inclines us to make things about ourselves. We have an enemy who will push on this inclination, especially when we’re frantic or vulnerable. We often go astray by focussing on the external parts of someone’s story, rather than by listening carefully for what the internal experiences are. Let us be on guard against our selfish tendencies, seek to understand rather than relate, and above all, remember that it’s not about us.

by Thomas Dutton