Ninety-nine percent of the time when I tell someone I can’t smell (anosmia) they will react with surprise and then jump to an “at least you can’t smell (insert foul odour)” statement. For those of you who are reading this and remembering a time where you described something really unpleasant to me, please, don’t feel bad. 99% of the time, I will totally agree with you. I am very privileged and able, and yes, if I really had to “choose” a sense to live without (I get this a lot too), I’d probably pick smell. But that’s not the point.
Sometimes I do wish I could smell. Sometimes I feel sad that, because of my brain trauma, I will never be able to smell roses or cinnamon buns or a fresh page of parchment (used to be my fav smell) or my new-born baby. When I do think this way, I instantly feel guilty for not focusing on how privileged I am. It can be difficult to acknowledge both our privileges and our hardships. I often have to remind myself that I am allowed to wish that I could smell and not feel guilty for it.
I want to emphasize that I am not saying that I blame others for feeling guilty (I don’t at all). I can very easily self-sympathize with “at least” statements of my own because, when we get down to it, empathy is hard.
Empathy means being okay with the fact that your response can’t make it better. It means accepting that, as much as you want to, often there is nothing you can do. It means that for a few moments the conversation will be uncomfortable and awkward. But it is worth it.
The biggest “aha” moment for me was after watching Brené Brown’s video on “Empathy”. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend you spent 2 minutes and 53 seconds watching this awesome animated video now.
Like mentioned in the video, empathy is a vulnerable choice. It’s the choice to accept that usually, we can’t make someone’s problems better but we can acknowledge that it sucks. As much as I agree that washrooms, garbage, rotting foods, skunks, and marijuana smell bad, I would much rather if someone said to me, “wow, that really sucks”.
That’s it. Just four words and pause.
I’d probably respond with a “Ah, it’s no big deal, at least I can…” because I am just as guilty.
Getting rid of the “at least” response is incredibly difficult and exactly why I decided to write this post. If I can make someone (myself included) even a little more conscious of when and why we are using “at least”, then I’ll be satisfied. By taking a moment to pause and reflect on how someone may be feeling instead, you acknowledge that their feelings are valid. Which goes back to my point that you are allowed to feel sad for your loss and acknowledge your hardships.
Since watching Brené Brown’s video, I have actively tried to use empathy in my interactions with others. I’ve learned that, after we get over the initial discomfort, it does get easier! You don’t have to imagine an “at least something else is better” situation and you can probably use fewer words. In fact, you can say nothing at all. If it’s appropriate, you can hug. You can thank them for sharing something so painful and vulnerable. You can say, “wow, I really don’t know what to say right now, I’m just glad you told me”. Whatever your response is, let it be genuine.
At the end of the day, most of us are good people who just want to make things better for those around us. Unfortunately, empathy is realizing we often can’t and being there anyway.