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.
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…?