Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Gap Between Tough Love and Sympathy

Lately I’ve found myself thinking about how I relate to others…and I how I seem to be lacking a sympathy gene. I read this very poignant blog post the other day and felt guilty that I could not be as understanding and enlightened as its writer, Mandy.

I am the person who doles out tough love like I have an endless supply. I will tell you to quit crying and find a solution. Figure out how to make your life better. Figure out how to get to the place you want to be. Stop going down the same path again and again and expecting a different result. I don’t think I’m good at comforting…

A friend of mine was telling me yesterday about her broken ex-husband and how he isn’t over her and how she feels sorry for him. Why would anyone feel sorry for him, I thought. He made a series of choices that led him to where he is. He chose to not take responsibility for his life. He chooses to play the victim. No sympathy from me.

And he’s not the only one who doesn’t get it.

Because of this great thing called choice, it’s hard for me to feel sorry for people who—even in the most difficult circumstances—cannot make better choices for themselves. Does it take hard work? Yes. Is it easier to whine and focus on being stuck and unhappy? Yes. But there’s always a new path to be blazed. And unless you’ve exhausted every option and have held yourself fully accountable, I just don’t really feel sorry for you.

But then I flip over to the liberal, bleeding heart side…

I attended a portion of The Women’s Conference of California in Long Beach this week and found myself yearning to be like the remarkable women who received Minerva Awards. This honor is given for work done to improve individual communities and the world. One of this year’s recipients set up a tutoring program for homeless children. Another created a rehab facility for native Americans. Another built a hospice center for dying children and their families. And the last was environmentalist and defender/researcher of the chimpanzee population, Jane Goodall.

Watching these women’s stories made me feel so inspired. What could I be doing to make my world better? How could I reach out and help people? I felt so strongly that I wanted to do something like they had. That I needed to do something.

Why doesn’t this feeling strike me when it comes to the people I know personally? Maybe I hold them to a higher standard? It seems like a big disconnect.

Anyone else out there experience anything similar? Or are you all great sympathizers? And if so, what advice can you give me to be more understanding of the people around me?


Jane Monepenny said...

What's funny is I am also the queen of tough love, but I have the opposite problem where I empathize TOO much. It's actually caused me more problems than not b/c I forget to think about myself. I don't think it's "sympathy" people are looking for, but "empathy."

There's isn't really an easy way to just gain empathy, especially when you've never been through anything similar to what the other person has. So at that point, the only thing to do is listen and try to remember something you were sure about and no one else understood. That's the same feeling.

One of my best friends NEVER understood all my issues with guys not calling (she married her first bf). She would get snippy and make comments that made my emotions seem trivial. Then one of her best roommates moved out and disappeared from contact and she was angry and hurt. "Now imagine if it was a guy you liked and had slept with. That's how it feels." And she finally understood.

SoMi's Nilsa said...

I don't have any answers for this right now. But, Jane Gooddall wrote the forward/introduction to a children's book penned by a childhood friend of mine. Isn't that cool!?

Anonymous said...

Choice is relative. Everyone makes individual choices, but those individual choices are constantly running into, and often in conflict with, the choices being made by others.

Do you think that, perhaps, you hold those you know to a higher standard because they are your peers and equals in your mind, perhaps?

Mandy's Kidding said...

I'm not paragon of compassion, believe me. I have had difficulty being sympathetic to friends who make the same poor choices over and over again, and then cry about how men treat them, or finances plague them, or whatever situation they have created.

It's just been my experience that no amount of tough love ever helped me. The only thing that helped me to change, was simple unconditional love, that taught me how to love myself.

And when I truly learned to love myself, I found I didn't make choices that hurt me anymore.

This usually means I advise my friends to seek therapy. My ten-year relationship with a therapist changed my life.

But to come full circle again, it doesn't mean I'm not human, and that I don't get frustrated with my friends. I just have to remind myself that they need my unconditional love and my wisdom. Not my judgement or anger. I can love them and point them in the right direction, but I cannot make them walk there.

That's the part where patience comes in. And sometimes I don't have it. Sometimes I do. I'm a work in progress and so are you.

The fact that you ruminate over it confirms that.

Dingo said...

I think I'm like Mandy's Kidding. I have sympathy and even empathy to a point. Making a dumb decision? Lordy, who hasn't?! Making it over and over again? Nope. Especially since I tend to be too compassionate and end up draining my emotional/mental/physical resources on people. At some point I have to say, "Enough!"

Scribe said...

I used to be a big supporter of the shoulder - my shoulder for others to find comfort and vice versa.

I've just had the "shit or get off the pot" epiphany for myself - learning to give others tough love and me even tougher love - to hold myself accountable. It's hard and you're right, it's so much easier to whine and do nothing but with no results. It's also easier to empathize with people when they're not coming to you with their issues all the time. You can afford to show your softer, more sympathic side to someone you don't see often.