Wednesday, 3 November 2010


I have been having rambling thoughts recently about sympathy and my difficulties with it!

I'll start by saying that I do know it is usually a well intentioned thing. (I have never seen ‘too sympathetic’ listed as a vice.) For me however sympathy usually causes a lot of discomfort and a little repulsion - especially and ironically at times when it is probably most warranted.

If I stub my toe and someone is sympathetic - that's fine. I can cope with that. I probably wouldn't call that sympathy. I'd call that an empathic reaction.

It's all the other kinds of sympathy I struggle with. I'll illustrate and explain.....

When my father died, at first people could be as sympathetic as they liked because I was in shock and unable to properly receive whatever people were aiming my way. But I remember there did come a point where I had to brace myself to receive inevitable sympathy (that would happen for example when I saw a friend for the first time since my father had died) as it was like enacting a whole mini emotional replay in a few minutes. I was made to revisit the whole thing through the other person's sympathy - whether I wanted to at that point in time or not.

And then there is sympathy for less tragic life occurrences - like not getting or achieving something you had hoped for or a forced change in life. I can't do sympathy there either. I prefer the person that tells me I, of all people, will be able to cope with whatever the knock back was to the person whose forehead screws up with sympathy. There's an assumption with sympathy that I don't like. The assumption being that you are feeling awful. You could well not be at that point in time - that needs to be respected.

Perhaps I simply have a strong dislike of being 'a victim', perhaps 'suffering' is a very private thing for me or perhaps it is simply that receiving sympathy is rarely what I am in the frame of mind to do - because of its negative connotations. Or perhaps I have an innate stiff upper lip passed down to me through generations of stoical Brits! Unlikely!

I also think there is a big difference between someone being truly empathic and being sympathetic. I prefer the former; it feels more genuine and ‘with’ me rather than ‘at’ me. I can cope with ‘I can imagine how you feel’ better than ‘you poor thing.’

Perhaps I am concluding that people could sometimes be a bit more careful with their sympathy! Or is that just my need? I guess I would like to know if my response to sympathy is personal to me (and others like me) or commonly felt by many. So over to you...what do you do with sympathy?


  1. Poor me and my sympathy disability!

  2. Yes, poor Molly. Even after that fantastic write-up on Google :)

    I have problems with sympathy too. I never had much of a relationship with my father and when he died I wasn't too put out, say 3 on a scale of 10. This made dealing with people who expected it to be 8,9 or 10, a little difficult.

    His death was quite quick, and about the only thing that was useful was a good friend who told me that, having lived through quick and slow, she could confirm that quick is better for all concerned.

    As for giving it? Useless. And combined with good intentions, that makes it worse than useless, so I tend to just shut up.

  3. Codgi - Ah see - I can give symapthy really readily because it's usually loaded with empathy. I am emotionally under-stifled!

    I have changed this comment because I now realise I hadn't thought properly about what I wrote in response to your comment. It wasn't right.

    I am reading a book called the 'Outcast' by Sadie someone. That's a really good illustration of what we used to do about's set in the 50s...not far enough away, sadly for it not to resonate.

  4. Well to say that my family was under-talented in dealing with emotional issues is a bit of an understatement. But I'm working on it!

  5. Good, I'm glad you raised this subject. I too, dislike the assumption of how I'm dealing with loss/sadness/change etc. Death is a good example. The death of my parents didn't really change things for me, we were living very seperate lives and the fact that they were gone made very little difference to my life. I did feel a bit 'wrung out' at first, but this was so blatently misunderstood at the funeral when hoards of strangers kept approaching me with 'words of condolence'. Yuck! Mostly, I was just trying to deal with being in 'her world' for longer than was comfortable, surrounded by people I normally would NEVER share a single feeling with. (She was a member of the local conservative club for christsakes!) Phew, thanks Molls.

  6. wow this is pretty awesome

  7. I just stumbled on this blog... but you made me think of one of my friends in particular, who tends to rebuff sympathy (or empathy or whatever)...I have known her for years and we are quite good friends so I can usually tell when she's haveing a reaction (to me sympathizing with this or that thing she's reporting) and I back off. I don't know if this applies to you, but in her case, I think what it comes down to is that she simply can't afford to feel sorry for herself. She would have plenty for which to feel sorry for herself if she chose to, but that would take time and much more importantly, a lot of emotional energy that I think she'd much rather expend on getting on with her life and enjoying it and living NOW. I think, when younger, she endured a disproportional share of misery...and her way out was to focus elsewhere, on other things. So it's like second-nature for her to focus elsewhere....

  8. I have also had some issues regarding sympathy....I have a problem giving it, because...I feel its kind of condescending. I am however empathetic with people's troubles....I think with empathy, you share and with sympathy there is a tip of the scale where one is strong and the other is weak and perceived to need help. I'm not suggesting that people don't need help, per se.....just that if they do and are of sound mind...they will ask for shouldn't be dumped on them (sometimes with the guise of making the other person feel better about themselves)'especially' when someone is already in a state of dealing with whatever difficulty....they don't need to be made feel opposed to perhaps being strengthened by an empathetic response?
    .....hope that made sense


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