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Safe distances, not jumping in, and empathising

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

I grew up less than 2km from the beach. In summer, whether the sun came out or not, we would head for Dunmoran Strand and make the most of the long days. One week where we never went to the beach though was a during our Water Safety Camp. The camp took place at nearby Aughris Pier (pictured below) over five or six days and as kids we were enrolled in what felt like almost every single year.





Rather than bringing your kids 20km to the nearest pool every Saturday morning for 10 or 12 weeks for swimming lessons, the Water Safety Camp offered parents an attractive alternative. For 5 days in August, one could bring them down to the pier and literally throw them in at the deep end. As kids we learned how to swim in the freezing Atlantic waters and my abiding memory was being wrapped in a towel, shivering, holding a flask of tea, and watching an expert instructor prepare teenagers to be lifeguards. I was also extremely skinny and not a very strong swimmer; those details also stick with me.


I distinctly remember the training exercise for helping a swimmer in danger. Stay on the the pier, look for the lifebuoy, talk to them and calm them down, then throw the lifebuoy in and guide them to the safety of the shore. Never, ever jump in.


As a volunteer you are that person on the pier.


Keep in mind that the people that you encounter in your volunteering, in many cases, may have already lost many important people and things. It might be useful to remember that the closer your relationship with them becomes, the more painful it is going to be for both parties when you say goodbye. You will say "goodbye" and it will be tough and you need to try to remember this, in order not to become another person to whom it will be painful for them to say goodbye to.


In this regard, stating clearly your position and the length of your voluntary commitment will make things easier for both parties. Never let you or the person you're helping forget that you won't be here forever.


Working closely with vulnerable people means that you may often find yourself talking with people who have been through real hardships. They may be finding it very hard not to think about them. It may be best trying not to take the initiative in asking about those stories, trying to focus on the “good” things about the present instead.


Talk about today, this moment, the plan for the afternoon; not the past and not the distant future.


Conversely, it is a coping mechanism for many of us to talk about our hardships. Do you know anyone who has been through a really challenging life event? I can think of people in my life who have been through tragedies and it seems every time I meet them, they bring up their loved one's name. They seem to constantly want to talk about their heartbreak.


When listening to personal stories, be aware of your feelings and limits. It is not unusual for volunteers to suffer from “burn out” when we expose ourselves too frequently or intensively to very painful stories. Look after yourself first! If you feel that it is getting too much for you, consider suggesting that they talk to someone more competent and used to dealing with mental suffering (i.e. a psychologist or GP if possible) than yourself.


Remember, you are safe and dry standing on the pier and diving in their to make their challenge yours is never the best option.


Very often, those who we help are in a real period of uncertainty. Think about someone who is awaiting an asylum decision, or on a housing list. They may feel marked by this lasting feeling of uncertainty; very few things are stable and secure in their world. Keep this in mind and try not to make any promises. Imagine how damaging it must be to be in a tough situation, meet someone who is there to help, to be promised something, and then that promise doesn't come to fruition.


"I don't know what to say". Maybe after reading this blog post, you're feeling even more unsure about what to say when helping someone. Don't worry, you've made the decision to volunteer because you are empathetic to people and knowing that difference between sympathy and empathy will be key to how you handle those tough conversations.


There is a huge difference between showing empathy and sympathy.


When you do find yourself listening to people’s stories, be aware of the way you do it and show your support and participation. While showing sympathy can be easier, it is sometimes reductive towards the actual experience of the person who is telling the story, and it may actually undermine the person rather than be of any help to them.


I'll leave you with this superb video about the difference between sympathy and empathy as explained by Dr Brene Brown:




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