Compassionate Relationship: Failed Sympathy

two hands reaching towards each other

In the last chapter on tests in relationships, we talked about the risks of hidden apathy. Today, I will cover the risks of sympathy.

If you remember my example story, I was very, very sad when a contract I had been working on for about 3 years was suddenly stopped 2 month after it started. I was so excited and happy when it started that I was extremely sad when I was told the organization will not continue the project. To manage my feelings, I shared the story with people I have a relationship with. Lucky for me, most of my relationships were very supportive and I made sure not to share with those who were not.

Here are more examples of getting things wrong and failing the relationship test.

  1. An example of failing the test is when the person experiencing pain is looking for sympathy, but the listener does not agree with their point of view or is in emotional turmoil themselves. Asking the listener to show sympathy, just because you asked them to, when they do not feel devastated/angry/sad is asking them to be dishonest. This relationship will fail the test of honesty because the listener can show empathy “I understand why you are sad” but still not agree “but I think they are not horrible people or very disorganized”. In this example, the person experiencing pain is the reason the test is failed. The expectation for sympathy is a formula for disaster.
  2. One way things can go wrong is when the person who is asked for support feels sad themselves (they are showing too much sympathy). This is when you hear things like “poor you” or “this is devastating” or they might even shed a tear with you. Sometimes the listener is so sympathetic that he/she feels they have been wronged themselves. “They cannot do this to you. They are so disrespectful” or they might offer to participate in exacting revenge. Sometimes, in extreme cases, you will have to support the listener instead of receiving support. “No, there is no need to sue them. I will be fine. Really, I am Ok. There is no need to send them a bomb in the mail. Yes, I am sad but I can understand why they did what they thought was best for them”. When my sister miscarried she did not want to talk about it with other people because some of them became so distraught in their sympathy that she had to comfort them for her loss. This coping mechanism is not successful because it shifts the focus from the person with the problem to the listener and their feelings. Test FAILED.
  3. Another way to fail the relationship test is when the listening is so sympathetic they start blaming others, “They cannot do such a thing to you. You signed a contract with them” or “What they did to you is completely unheard of” or “They are so useless. No wonder they could not start this project for such a long time”. In such interactions, the focus once again moves from the person seeking support to the opinion of the listener who is trying to comfort him/herself. The most challenging test is when the listener blames you for it. “You gave them the feeling they could do such things to you” or “You should have never signed with them in the first place”. This is a very typical test between parents and children, and many parents fail this test. My dad was just such “bad” supporter. Every problem I had in school, he would blame me for it. We thoroughly failed this test. From a certain point onwards, I could not share my pain with him or expect any emotional support. Parents, make sure you do not fail this test! Kids will always experience challenges. If they are not able to ask you to support them, they will try to go it alone and you will wonder why they did not ask for your help before it was too late.
  4. Be my shoulder to cry onA similar example is when the listener is so sympathetic they try to make you feel better at all costs. “Ronit, but you are awesome. You write amazing programs. I am sure it had nothing to do with you. You are fantastic”. The listener is speaking out of their own discomfort.
  5. A highly failed test in a relationship is the “one up” game. In his book, “Games People Play” Eric Berne wrote about this dysfunctional relationship. This is when the listener confuses between compassion and dismissing pain. Compassion is when the focus is on the person experiencing pain. Dismissing the pain is when the listener tries to make the problem seem insignificant by saying things like “Terminating the contract after two month is nothing. I worked for another organization and even moved to another state only to discover that I did not have a job”. Once again, the intentions are in the right place, but the method is not. It is better to say “Something similar happened to me when I started a new job, so I know how it feels” without focusing on your story. This gives the person space to deal with their own feelings. Note: generally, sharing similar stories, without adding too many details, can strengthen empathy and increase the depth of the relationship. The listener has gained some distance from their experience so they can offer their thoughts and ideas, if asked, without being emotionally overwhelmed.

Compassionate relationships are based on our ability to support each other and strike a balance between giving each other the stage to speak and the space to deal with our pain. Compassionate people respond without judgment or the need to blame someone for the pain. They do not try to fix the problem, the people involved in the situation and definitely not the person who is experiencing pain. They are encouraging and seek to help in the way the person experiencing the pain could benefit from most, without trying to analyze the situation and people’s motive.

In a good and companionate relationship people are confident and have the courage to share their vulnerabilities with others. They are in total of acceptance of themselves and others. And the more they accept of themselves, the more they accept and are able to support others.

Compassion is a very advanced quality and represents high emotional intelligence. If you want to pass the relationship test, focus on the most important relationships and examine your compassion. While some are born with a higher ability to show compassion than others, it is a learned skill and can be developed at any age or stage of our lives. Practice, it makes perfect!

Wishing you compassionate life,