I’ve recently had reason and opportunity to think about the concept of sympathy. The feeling of sympathy, that is, for somebody who is unwell or unhappy or in difficult circumstances.

It’s quite normal or natural or understandable to feel sadness or even unhappiness for somebody who is going through a difficult time. And, if this person is very close to us or is a relative, to almost feel as if we should not be happy because they are not…

But a question to consider is: even though feeling this way may be normal or natural is it appropriate?

Feeling unhappy for people

Much of our sympathising, including imagining or associating into the feelings of the unhappy or the unwell person, occurs automatically i.e it occurs outside of our conscious awareness.

So we experience it as “a feeling”. And because it’s “a feeling” we consider it very valid, real and powerful. We don’t question it nor think about it. We don’t analyse it. It’s just how we are and, after all, it’s how anybody would feel in our situation, isn’t it?

Putting ourselves in their shoe

So we feel for the unwell or the unhappy person. We imagine their distress – and we genuinely imagine that we are feeling what they are feeling or, to be more accurate, we think we know how they are feeling – because that is how WE would feel if the situation were reversed!

We are genuinely well-intentioned. We want to sympathise with them. We want to support and comfort them. We want to do things that will make them feel better so that (even though we may not recognise this) we can feel good.

And so that we can feel we are “doing something for this unfortunate person” and then get on with our lives without the uncomfortable uneasiness that we shouldn’t be happy when poor Jack or poor Jill is suffering. Because, yes, we ‘naturally’ feel guilty about being carefree or cheerful or happy or interested in other things when we know that they are feeling unhappy or unwell.

And this is a really tough one. Because it means it has the opposite effect. And this occurs because, when we next meet them, they intuitively recognise that we are quite unhappy but trying to appear happy! And fooling no one.

Me, me, me

The thing is all very selfish. Not intentionally so but, nevertheless, selfish. It’s all about me. It’s about my feelings. It’s not about the feelings or the wishes of the unwell or the unhappy person. In short, it’s very self-centred. Me, me, me.

What do they want??

What happens when we ask ourselves “What do they want? What’s best for them? If I were in their shoes how would I like the people around me to be?”

Our feelings show through

You see, it is important, to see through the myth that people respond intellectually to what others say and do.

They do not. People respond “emotionally” to our non-verbal behaviour/communication and this non-verbal communication becomes even more eloquent and even more important when we know one-another very well!

Let’s say, for example, that out of sincere feelings for you and your plight I have made myself unhappy. I am feeling sympathy for “poor you” but at the same time I am aiming to put on a “brave face”. Now emotionally, at an instinctual or gut feeling level, you will pick up that I am feeling sympathetic and unhappy. So in making myself unhappy I am now burdening you with guilt and responsibility for my unhappiness.

Instead of being able to get on with dealing with your situation you now have to also deal with mine!

Adding to the burden

You now have a double burden to bear! You have to manage your own situation – and manage your distress at the unhappiness that you are causing me. And this is where the situation becomes daft. “Daft” because we all are responding to how we think or imagine or hallucinate how the other person would like us to be.

Speaking personally…

Some years ago I, most uncharacteristically, felt very unwell indeed. Lots of distressing physical symptoms which were both disabling and apparent to others. Being neither an ardent fan nor a believer in conventional medicine (other than for physical injuries) I choose to explore and investigate and deal with it by myself.

I could not have done this if those close to me, at home and socially/professionally, had done other than stand back in a quietly supportive manner and let me do things my way!

I needed that space – that freedom to go inside and figure out what was happening and why it was happening and what I needed to do about it. Without this space I doubt I would have been able to have so successfully and effectively worked my way through the situation in a few days.

To this day, I am amazed at the faith they had in me to let me get on with things and do things my way. I would love to think that, if the situation were reversed, I would have had similar faith – and similar respect. But I’m not so sure I would…

Sympathy and respect

I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked with others who have, in different ways, said “It’s challenging enough having to deal with things without having to manage the emotions of others who have difficulty in coming to terms with what I am facing!”

In short, and in my personal view, sympathy is disrespectful – and self-centred.

When we feel sympathetic for somebody we are more interested in our emotions and our behaviour and our reactions than in considering what is best for them and what do they really want us to do or to feel.

If we truly believe in them and if we truly believe in their resourcefulness how can we possibly feel sympathy…?


  1. Caron on 1st November 2009 at 10:55 AM

    This is great Reg – fantastically thought provoking, and something that I know I struggle to implement well. I recently had a dear friend who was going through a really tough time. She was able to articulate clearly that she didn’t want sympathy, or people telling her how she ‘must be feeling’. I had a strong desire to respect and support her wishes – and also a strong desire to let her know that she was loved, supported and cared for. Giving her space felt like abandoning her at a difficult time, while asking her she was doing all the time felt intrusive and probing. So how do we actually implement these strategies, when getting it wrong left me feeling upset and guilty, which was all too clear for people to see. Is having positive intent enough at a time like this, or should we have some other strategies up our sleeves?

  2. sarah ross on 1st November 2009 at 4:18 PM

    Definitely a balancing game in being supportive but not smothering or aloof. I was off work for several months last year and found the support from my friends and work colleagues to be an important part of recovering, but there were moments when you just need to feel normal.

    How do you balance – “Take your time and get better” with “don’t hurry back”? Now the learning is reversed, as I try to be the suuport that Mum needs, hopefully I’ll get close to balance!

  3. Marian on 8th November 2009 at 9:27 PM

    The tale of the man who fell into a deep hole comes to mind. A passer-by was so full of sympathy that he climbed into the hole with the man but then neither of them could get out. Someone else came by and had real empathy for his situation, keeping their feet firmly on the ground they stooped down and offered a supporting hand whilst the guy managed to get a grip on the sides of the hole and heave himself up and out.

    During times of grief or loss there can still be a tendency for some to ‘keep their chin up’ for the sake of those around them. Time out of earshot – to rage, rant, sob and plumb the depths of their misery without alarming others or feeling the need to control their anguish can be really important; not just ‘space’ in the sense of not intruding and asking about their feelings.

  4. Katie Fisher on 8th November 2009 at 10:47 PM

    I can’t stand people feeling sorry for me – feels incredibly patronising, but sometimes I like the re-assuring love of friends. I think love & re-assurance without sympathy is the key for me.