What Is Sympathy? How Does It Help?

sympathy paintingMy husband told me he tries to avoid putting people in a situation where they had to feel sympathetic. He thinks it’s a waste of time in both directions. This correlates with my experience.

I have some hard core problems. If I tell people about them they will feel sympathetic, and consequently they will feel obligated to try to help. Typically they suggest I try things I have already tried many times over which gives me the burden of explaining that I have already tried the thing, why it didn’t work and so forth.

In the process, I have just told the sympathetic person that their offer of help is of no use. Not only a waste of time but a it causes of pain in both directions.

I’ve learned this lesson well. Consequently I almost never discuss my problems as they are all exceedingly complicated. Further if they are resolvable at all, I’m looking at a process that will take years if not a decade or more.  It’s exhausting!

There’s another type person who loves sympathy and tries to garner it at every turn. I am not sure what benefit it brings and I wonder if you know.

I do contact people about my problems but only for practical advice that I feel they will have available.

I also dump emotion / pain onto people at times but I only do this with people who I know have the capacity to shrug it off on go on with their day.

Update – I wrote this 11 years ago. Nothing has changed!

Do you try to get people to feel sorry for you? Why? Also where is your Neptune?

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What Is Sympathy? How Does It Help? — 49 Comments

  1. I don’t like people feeling sorry for me, mainly because it stings my pride I think — I know I’ve had stuff to deal with, and feel that for the most part I’ve come out a lot better than many would under the same conditions. That’s not a position that takes kindly to pity.

    However, I think there’s a difference between sympathy and pity as well. I may sympathize with you, Elsa, for the pain and difficulty that you experience in spades, but I do not pity you. You are an exceptional woman, and there’s simply nothing to pity about that. 🙂

    Empathy is a bit harder because in order for someone to put themselves in your shoes and really know what you’re feeling, they’d have to get a good measure of what’s going on, and as you’ve stated, that’s something you don’t share on a public basis or with people who can’t absorb it and then let it go.

    My Neptune is in Sag (ninth house), sextile Pluto.

  2. Grew up getting zero sympathy (actually very antagonistic towards it really) so I feel uncomfortable sharing pain etc & rarely have – but I think I’m supposed to?

    I have been more visible with it in the past year.

    Sympathy and compassion and empathy are 3 different things to me but that is flavored by some Buddhist teachings where the Rinpoche picked apart each one.

  3. NO–I avoid it for years! People who do it excessively just identify with their pain so much that without it they wouldn’t feel human.

  4. I’m gonna have to cop to trying to get people to feel sorry for me. It’s not something I’m proud of… in fact I actually hate that I do this and have been working on this tendency a lot lately. I am getting better!

    I realized that this was an unhealthy behavior for all the reasons you outlined in your post. I decline the suggestions sympathetic people give me, but it makes both people feel worse.

    As for why I do this – I think it’s because I feel like I’m incapable of solving my own problems. The more I discover my own power to help myself, the less I participate in this sympathy-getting behavior. It’s harder but it feels SO much better in the end. And I have healthier friendships!

  5. got neptune in my 4th, trine saturn in my 7th.

    i do not look for sympathy; in fact, unless someone knows me quite well, they have no idea of how much anything impacts me. i’m highly emotional, but keep my own struggles very controlled and many times don’t even talk to close friends until i’ve gotten some kind of handle already. and even when i do talk, it’s not uncommon for folks to still not have a clue how big a deal something is to me.

    i did learn from crisis counseling training to avoid offering suggestions and keep it to reflecting/validating feelings. most people with significant problems are very familiar with potential solutions already.

    as far as the folks who seek sympathy out, i’ve always thought sometimes they are looking for confirmation they have a “right” to be upset, or that the problem is “unsolvable,” or that it’s not their fault. and some i think are just another brand of attention ho.

    while i’m open to get help from others when i need it, in general I don’t trust anyone else to be smarter or more insightful than I am in solving my own problems. whether I’m right or wrong, who could say? 🙂

  6. Another thing just occurred to me – speaking only for myself, I don’t know that I have (or ever had had) time to sit or stand there with someone feeling sorry for me.

    It’s more like being constantly under the gun…

  7. sitara i like your honesty.

    i don’t like people to feel sorry for me. it makes me feel weakened somehow. sharing my experiences is always a tricky thing for me…i want to share because it’s important for me to ‘let people in’ (as opposed to shutting down/off).
    but i don’t want someone to think i am angling for something, as i have been accused of in the past. repeatedly! it makes me so stressed out.

    12H neptune, trine 8H saturn and 4H mars/venus conjunction.

  8. well, the other thing is, if you’ve got somebody sitting there feeling sorry for you, it’s a way of being more bound to your problems. they check up on you. they ask about it. you spend more energy talking about them and thinking about them and, in general, amping up the impact in your life. they are bigger and more real that way.

    Sitara, I think you’re very smart to look at the reason behind the issue, and address the real cause. And it leaves you more powerful in the process. What’s not to love about that?

    Thanks, Kashmiri. It is indeed a learned skill! I won’t say I never offer advice to friends ’cause I do, but not the way I did before.

  9. I admire Sitara as well and agree with goddess. In fact I try to explain that to people all the time – Talking about it makes it worse!!

    “I already had to live it, I’d just as soon not rehash…”

  10. OMG so many posts since I first read this!

    I totally agree. Some challenges are better kept private and only shared with people you know will be able to deal.

    As for this “There is another type person who loves sympathy and tries to garner it at every turn. I am not sure what benefit it brings and I wonder if you know.”

    The benefit is external validation is what and this does not work, never fills the glass and so that’s why it’s an addiction seriously. I feel qualified to speak about this because it’s a recursive theme in my family.

    Falling in victim mode, regardless of whatever horrible things have happened, culprits will be invented when necessary. Add passive/aggressive undertone and manipulation, deep insecurities & emotional exhaustion, confusion about (amongst various things) what’s really going on & one’s actual resources to deal with whatever, not knowing one’s effectiveness. Phew. (I also blame my Judeo-Catholic background! LOL, how dare you be happy when the world suffers? so find something to be pitied for. Especially strong amongst my elders & this is still around)

    Anyway I think that deep down they/we-the-victims ;P are looking for compassion not sympathy.
    Responding with sympathy or pity enables ‘victims’ to pursue that game & guarantees staying stuck there.
    But If they meet with real compassion (not pity!) which I define as: accepting, respecting and not judging the person’s situation, attitude, choices, behavior or feelings, and not trying to fix anything — they are not enabled in pursuing this poor little me game. If no one plays the game, omg reality can happen! btw Enablers are as offensive here.

    Natal Neptune opposes Sun/Merc & they are all squared by Saturn.

  11. I like feeling the compassion/empathy of others. Even if someone gives me “pity,” i don’t mind, especially if it comes with a hot fudge sundae 🙂

  12. i’m with you, moon pluto — grew up in a family that would never acknowledge pain of any kind — you could be falling on the floor with 105 degree fever and be told to stop whining. at this point i’m a sucker for anyone who has my back and ‘feels my pain’.leo pluto exactly on the descendant, libra neptune in the 8th…

  13. When my first hubby passed away leaving myself and four children – The sympathy was, as you can imagine – overwhelming – The only way I got through that is to feel for everybody else and reassure them – Quite bizarre actually. Venus Pisces and Neptune Sadge –

    It is more therapeutic for me to work on my own stuff by helping others – I believe I was born to give of myself.

  14. Thank you everyone! 🙂

    Lots of food for thought here! Goddess, I agree that enabling sympathy-seekers is counterproductive, and I can definitely relate to wanting to know that I have the right to be upset/not know how to fix things.

    Kashmiri, you bring up a great point about shutting down/off… interesting because it feels better to share/let people in when I feel like my problems are under control, not when I’m stuck or floundering.

  15. I just like people around me to feel, feel something hate ,greed,sympathy whatever it be there’s nothing like staring at a human being. In other words I can give a damn what you feel about or towards me it’s not helping me one damn bit! I’d rather walk in a room and not get any reaction, it’s better than someone judging you off of what they don’t know. They know what someone told them but I have the original script. I will play the movie and tell the truth when and how I see fit. As far as my trust goes to no one at all too many people have already betrayed that but I’m changing my name to Judas!

  16. I’ll take compassion and empathy, but sympathy? No way. Sympathy bruises my pride. Compassion and empathy build me up.

    I’d give you the astrology, but no clue as to what makes me tick that way.

  17. when offered sympathy that is not wanted, a quick hug or a squeeze of the hand and a whispered thank you, returns that energy back to the giver. I believe most people have kindness within and especially women want to heal, mend, help.

    Sometimes I like a bit of empathy/sympathy mixed with love and undertanding. Sometimes it’s okay to cry with someone.

  18. As others have said, compassion and empathy yes, sympathy, absolutely not.

    I have found more often than not over the years that those who are always ready with the sympathy are vampires who get a big feed up from being ‘helpful’. Their idea of helpful though, is to to nod knowingly, and make lots of talk, but if you ask for practical help they disappear.

  19. I’m stuck in the don’t tell my problems and shut everyone out / how much do I let people in trap.

    I don’t want sympathy.
    Sometimes I want do want validation, though, that I’m handling things, that things really are kinda crap, that I actually have a reason to be upset and aren’t just flying off the handle. I’ve been twisted up and around so often lately that I can’t judge reliably anymore, my internal compass is shot to hell. Sometimes I really need to check in with someone else to bounce ideas off of and get a quick reflection, see if it’s accurate.

    Freakin’ Neptooon! God, I’ll be happy once he clears 2 Pisces. In, like, 2013. *lol*

  20. I always come across as needy and I can tell too much or too little about my problems. But I want nurturing, more than sympathy. It’s weird that I can get hurt if there’s no sense of nurturing and acceptance. I have a cap moon there has always been this wall but I am tired of that though love (which is not even love, just criticism) present in my exchange with other closer people, as cancer rules my 7th. But I agree, the oh poor you,pat on the head, comes like useless and a tad fake. The saccharine sweet kind of thing. Practical help if even possible and active listening are far more valuable. My pisces sun/pisces moon aunt with proeminent sag, listened to me, paid attention to the overall picture and was never pitying or babying, just how one should listen to another. That’s the kind of healthy interraction I want in my life.

    • Right now my progressed ascendant is conjunct neptune at 29 degrees sagittarius. It is quintile my natal pisces sun and biquintile my chiron. Progressed Venus conjunct chiron and transiting chiron going over my venus in aries. My husband survived cancer and chemo but now has to have a double hip replacement, at 41 years old. Chemo destroyed his bones. His sun is at 25 degrees aries so all those capricorn placements are squaring his sun. Whether I let people know or not I seem to get sympathy lately. My husband is well known in town. I’m learning construction because I’m taking over my husbands duties for our business. I see this time as finally getting a chance to learn what everyone considered a man thing. I was tired of being benched because I had a vagina. So people may feel bad for me but I feel like I’m coming into my power. Don’t do things for me! Show me how to do them! I just hope my husband will recover and we can be stronger together. We have children who are living with all this and I hope I set a good example of stepping up.

      • Wishing a healthy recovery for your husband> The children will remember these times all to well but they will also see how strong their mother can be. It will mold their reaction to future events. Even if on some days you’ll don’t feel as strong as in other days, because it can happen, it doesn’t mean you aren’t.

  21. No, I hate being pitied. If I need to confide, I will, but never to get sympathy. It’s done more in friendship and sharing.

    Maybe it’s my Mars-Saturn conjunction; I hate weakness, especially deliberate weakness. It’s easy to prey upon my sympathies, but if I can tell it’s just a “woe is me” type thing, I stop listening.

    On the flipside, if it’s a genuine show of emotion, I’ll do anything I can to help if asked.

    Neptune 8th house, sq. Saturn, opp. Venus.

  22. As a psychotherapist of 40 years, empathy is my calling card yet I have had to learn real skills in communication so I don’t get trapped by my clients.
    1. Problem ownership- my clients own their own problems which were caused many years ago and i can’t fix their problems. I am up front about that
    2. I reflect, as a mirror reflects, that I understand their feelings behind their problems by paraphrasing and not offering a solution.
    Most people just want to have their feelings understood and the skill of reflective listening puts the problem back in thier hands.Source: Thomas Gordon, Phd. on Reflective listening.

  23. Oh yes. I learned a long time ago to just keep it to myself. People want to help, they do, but more often than not we both wish I’d never even brought it up.

    I have a co-worker who has to talk at length about everything she goes through, every little thing! I..oh boy…I am trying to cultivate patience but I have Virgo. And Sadge! She’s gonna get a “look, honey…” at some point in all our conversations.

  24. I hve Neptune in the 10 house oppose my moon. If that is not a recipe for a rescue complex , I don’t know what is. With that opposition the emotional need to reach out for love is occluded by the needs of others to have you take care of them. This is where sympathy or even empathy can be deadly. You can ignore your own needs in favor of someone else and be deceived (Neptune) that you are meeting your own needs. False! You have to learn to take care of your own emotional needs with this aspect as with most developmental issues…learn to be your own best friend , delay gratification for hearing how others see you. Have the center of gravity be in your own Self, not in others. Love yourself for who you are and forgive yourself over and over!

  25. I almost never share my problems and therefore do not seek sympathy. It’s a bit of a time waster as like you said, people just offer solutions that you’ve already tried. I also cringe at the thought of being pitied…yuck, don’t want/need that.
    Conversely, I am forever called upon to console others and give sympathy/support. I suppose I am more comfortable in this role and I’m certainly, happy to help. Neptune in 10th.

  26. This post raises so many old ‘habits’ for me. Re-hashing the same story, the same pain mostly is what strikes me most right now. It may be that Uranus churning up Taurus (in my house of ‘Home’) that’s adding to my new awareness. For years I have been writing my way through unfelt or unexpressed emotions. The process is good. The expectation that others would ‘understand’ is the insatiable appetite of a Leo thing.
    Today, the question: “Where is your Neptune?” gives me more clues. Mine is natally a Libra 9th House (of philosophy/view of the world) and it trines both my Leo stellium and Jupiter-Venus conjunction in Sagittarius. Empathy and sympathy aren’t the same quality; I would like to get to a point where I care enough for my old woman self so others don’t get the message they are being asked to sympathize (to appease). Empathy? That’s a road of a different kind, and there is plenty of room for that capacity.

  27. Thank you to John for your sharing I very much resonate. 10th house Neptune Scorpio opposed Mercury. It’s exceptionally rare to be met with sympathy and feel better so I don’t ask. I was born an empath and had to learn how to put my own oxygen mask on first. Usually I just want to be heard if I’m struggling with something I go to a trusted professional or the one or two friends who can actually hold it without judgment or advice. I can’t just bitch or vent because it’s proven to be more destructive than helpful. Whatever my problem is I have to work it out and it usually takes more self love and forgiveness than comes naturally. I have a family full of maudlin types who compete in their pain and suffering- they have been good teachers of what NOT to do. One of my biggest resources has been poetry- the words point to the feeling but let me find my own way.

  28. I am on the same page as X-rayed, at the moment. It’s not sympathy or “feeling sorry” that I looked for.

    I always think of this peep show quote..

    Mark: Am I sacked? Should I go? I bet I’m sacked. Dobbie will definitely dump me now.
    Jeremy: No she won’t.
    Mark: She’s got a special look of pity for unemployed people. Like this.
    Jeremy: I’d say that was more sympathy or empathy. One of the pathies, the pathies are nice.

    The post brings up an interesting idea, but I think people generally look for active listening, validation, and support rather than for people to feel sorry for them or otherwise they bottle everything up.

  29. I just experienced someone that does this.

    The thing is I’m not sure they know it, at least consciously. There seems to be a bit of attention seeking that is linked with the behavior. I suspect it might stem from a void of emotional support when the person was young – sooner or later the love starved child recognized that if they played the “poor me” card, then love was forthcoming…likely a learned behavior.

  30. Hey,Kri, it’s nice to hear you share a similar sentiment. The bottling up game is far too dangerous and it’s in the last years that I realised it. Cute dialogue, but the pathie of empathy is a better, sunnier pathie and even that one should come with some limits. For the one who gives it, or it drains you, and the one who receives it, least one should become that vampire who just takes, takes people’s vital energy.

  31. Neptune in Scorpio 5 th house
    Quite sure I sit in the middle of this boat; In my defense I think it’s my attempt to vet about a problem ?yet others get overwhelmed, it’s human nature to want to help ? Perhaps , So what am I doing?showing my pain, can’t make it all about me, as all have pain in their thoughts,I have seen my oldest
    And grandson both get angry that
    I should share a problem, rightly so
    I must fix me or live with issue
    Sometimes how I explain feels like a guilt thing, I am trying to not include
    Them with any hurt feelings in me , really , I need a buddy , but honestly
    Not sure If it would be fair
    To the buddy, even this sounds like a pity party, I need to have more faith

  32. Pisces ascendant and Neptune in the 8th. I keep it to myself or a partner. I abhor fake sympathy and when it’s real l feel like a victim!

  33. it’s one way to get attention. probably easier than many. although the quality of the attention is not terribly useful, in my experience…

  34. I have had had friends be sympathetic and it can be like a balm. It depends on the style of how they do it though. “awww….poor thing!” doesn’t do it but just someone listening and understanding my struggle helps. I have felt sympathy but it does feel useless to ME when for another but they always say thank you and seem lifted a bit. They don’t always stay stuck in their situation. I think empathy is more helpful to people but something that not everyone has. It can be developed though.

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