43. Let’s Re-brand the Sympathy Card

March 29, 2022
Barbara Cook

Dear blog followers, Here’s Part 2 of my series “From Rescuing to Compassion”

2 people sitting by a lake. Support. Empathy. Compassion, Barbara Cook blog.
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The sympathy card for my bereaved friend was just gorgeous — a gentle sunset, with loving words of comfort inside. I added my own personalised message to show my support and love. All the sympathy cards I’ve ever received have been a balm to my soul.

In this little series, I’m musing about my journey from Rescuing to Compassion. Here’s part 1 if you missed it. The recent sympathy card got me thinking about the many nuanced words we use for the support we offer others in their suffering. Here are some dictionary definitions but I feel they fall a bit short:

Sympathy:- “feeling of pity or tenderness towards one suffering pain or trouble.” Empathy:- “ability to identify oneself with a person and so understand his feelings or meaning.” Compassion:- “feeling of pity that makes one want to help or show mercy.”

Now I don’t know about you but when I feel into the word ‘pity’ it seems a bit hierarchical, as if I’m up here on the ladder of OK’ness and you’re down there in pain. Pity looks downwards and says, “You poor thing.” Pity can even be a way of scrambling up and away from an emotion that’s too painful to identify within oneself.

What does Empathy do? It feels like there’s no ladder here. Instead I’m in the soup of pain with you, feeling it too. It takes a willingness to be open to the whole range of my own emotional life. Empathy looks sideways and says, “I get that. I have felt my version of that too.” Nowadays there are so many people in the world who are open to the feelings of others that they’ve become a noun. There are whole Facebook pages, websites and podcasts dedicated to the life of Empaths.

Given the depth of feeling and the intent behind sending a card to someone who is grieving, I wonder if we should re-brand those cards “Empathy cards”.

What about everyday situations?

How does this wonderful empathy play out? It can be so very reassuring when someone can be there with me and resonate with how I feel instead of pitying me. Perhaps you can sense the subtle difference in this example:

I woke up one day recently and for the first time in ages I was feeling a little lonely. I actually have a rich and varied life, simultaneously grateful for wonderful friends and family and delighted by my own company. I hadn’t had a visit from the ‘Loneliness Fairy’ for a very long time. Interestingly it didn’t have much of a hold on me as it might have in the past. I didn’t get stuck in the despondency of it. I didn’t make up any overlaying stories about my worth or lovableness. Instead I gently sat in this space for a little while, witnessing instead of being taken over by this energy.

It didn’t last long. Something flipped inside as I suggested to myself, “Let’s go on a date. Where do I want to spend the day?” This self-dating story is coming soon.

What’s this got to do with sympathy/empathy?

Hang on, I’m getting to that. A couple of days later I was sharing this ‘visit from the Loneliness Fairy’ with a couple of different people. The reaction from the first one was sudden and kind of embarrassed for me.

She said, “Awww, you poor thing.”

Can you feel the energy in that? For me, I feel a subtle diminishment when pity is offered. Although well-meaning and definitely kind, it’s as if, secretly, from up on the ladder she’s saying, “Gawd, I’m glad I’M not down there in loneliness.”

The second person listened calmly to my story and then said,

Yeah, I get that. I think I know how you feel. I have lonely days sometimes too.

In that moment she’s there in her version of that feeling with me, neither alarmed nor disowning. There’s nothing more that’s required. Someone gets it. I feel heard. Aaaahhh.

My empath — perhaps a little muddied?

I was always a sensitive child, feeling things deeply and also highly attuned to the emotions of others. I was an empath before the noun was ever invented. That’s gotta be good, right?

Well, yes and no. There was no-one able to offer today’s enlightened version of helping process my own emotions, so the clever strategy was to swallow those down and focus on seeing them projected in others. My younger self would read situations and lovingly want to help. (hey, that’s part of the dictionary definition of Compassion, see above.) Somewhere along the line, a large part of my identity became tied up with a kind of ‘helping’ that was more an attempt at ‘rescuing’.

This ‘helper’ part has actually been trying to save or rescue others from their pain, as a convenient distraction for the unhealed younger part within that didn’t receive the comfort she needed when in pain.

The trouble is, for the young child, all these attempts at helping often adult situations that were beyond her expertise would, of course, lead to a feeling of overwhelm. If you’re on a path of personal and spiritual growth, you’ll probably know what’s coming next. Oh yes, my adult interactions would trigger me back into that same overwhelm, inviting me to release the stored charge of those unprocessed, unheard emotions and come to a clearer space of empathy without those ill-advised rescue attempts.

Today I am so in love with that sensitive and caring younger self, who did her very best to remain true to her loving nature.

But wait! There’s more.

There’s a subtle muddied energy behind some other nuanced words I was using. When I started repeatedly hearing myself say that innocuous phrase,

“I feel for you”

I realised I was actually trying to do just that! Thus began my journey from Emotional Surrogacy towards Compassionate Holding. Stay tuned for next week’s instalment.

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