Does sympathy hamstring you, too?

by Annie Kaszina on November 18, 2014

The tears started, almost before my client spoke.  Her situation was A-W-F-U-L.  Her emotionally abusive partner was, seemingly, practising a scorched earth policy.  My client was well aware of just how awful that was.  So was I.  But I also know this:

When a situation is really tough  sympathy is the last thing anyone needs.

As an emotionally abused woman, you want – and are absolutely entitled to – acknowledgement, support, and compassion.  But sympathy is a complete and utter no-no.

Why?

Because sympathy is all about mirroring back to another person how awful their situation really is.

Now, that person is not stupid; they  already know their situation is awful.  Chances are, they feel it in every fibre of their being.  But when someone else pitches in and reflects back to them the perceived awfulness of their situation, it is not helpful.  After the brief moment of gratification that someone is actually listening to what they are going through, that sympathy just drags them even further down.

Knowing that, I acknowledged to my client that her situation was very, very difficult.  I then offered her a choice: would she prefer me to focus, with her, on the sheer awfulness of the situation, or would she prefer to explore what she could do to dig herself out of that hole.

Tough love, perhaps  –  but with the emphasis on the love.

She gulped and agreed that focusing what would actually help to move her forward made a lot more sense.

The problem with the people who visit their sympathy on you is that, when they walk away, they probably feel better for having been nice, kind people, but you feel even more crushed by the weight of your misfortunes.

It happened to me a while back, after my wonderful partner had been rushed into hospital; a dear friend looked at me, very sadly, and said: “How unlucky can you get!  It’s so, so tough for you.”

Do you think that helped?

Strange to say, it didn’t, at all.  Much as I love this friend, I made a mental note to keep my distance when I was feeling low – because I just don’t like whizzing deep into the Slough of Despond at 100 miles an hour.  The harder and faster you crash-land at the bottom of a black hole, the harder it is to get out again.  Hence my preference for doing everything in my power to avoid them.  My friend truly meant well.  But when she had completed her sympathy duty, she could trot about her day fairly happily, while I had to put myself back together again.

Sympathy takes too much out of the person on the receiving for my taste.

Compassion, on the other hand, is all about being aware of the suffering of others, and wanting to help them find a viable way of moving beyond it.

“Pull yourself up by your big girl knickers” is not compassionate; it’s just plain callous.  Telling you how you should be doing, and what you should be feeling is most likely either insensitive, or callous.  But helping someone to see how they can use the emotional and personal resources they have to  get themselves back on track – FAST – is another thing entirely.

It all hinges on the way you feel.  When you’re facing a difficult situation – and which emotionally abused woman has not ? – the more distressed and disempowered you feel, the harder it is to drag yourself into action.  Although taking some action is the most constructive thing you can do.  Unsurprisingly enough, the opposite is also true.  The better you feel, the more strength and energy you have to bring to the situation and the easier it is to start taking constructive steps forward.

Besides, your feelings are well within your own grasp.  These are things you have the most power to transform, at will.

A couple of months ago, this client might have disagreed with that.  Like most people, she thought her feelings  had total power over her, but she had none over them.

Having worked with me, she’s revised that point of view – and is all the better for doing so.

By the time our session finished, she was laughing.  Not because we’d been able to wave a magic wand and resolve all her problems – that, unfortunately, is way beyond my pay-grade.  However, she knew she had all the strength and the drive she needed to work through those problems and come out, whole and happy, the other side.

She’s emailed since to say that ‘tough love’ works for her.  She found it ‘bracing and reassuring’.  And she has a new mantra:  ‘feelings need managing not wallowing in’.

Too true.

Feelings can be a cesspool.  You wouldn’t want to wallow in a physical cesspool, and you really don’t want to wallow in an emotional and/or metaphorical one either.

Especially when times are tough, you need to be around people who will lift you, not people who leave you feeling worse.  And don’t be fooled by the ones who will jump into the cesspool with you.  Misery may love company, but why would you love the company of miseries when you ALWAYS have a choice?

Don’t let sympathy take you down.

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