Warning: Sympathy Hurts and can be Harming to your Health

Take it from someone who has lived with cancer for over 20 years – if you want to support a friend, a family member, a colleague, anybody – don’t come (bring) with sympathy. Let go of any pity or sympathy. It is not supportive or helpful but can be rather harmful.

There is a way you can truly care and support, more on that later, but first let us have a closer look at sympathy.

I used to think that sympathy was a good and ‘wanted’ feeling and expression. This notion I picked up from my surroundings growing up. When you are sick or something challenging, difficult, or ‘bad’ happens to you, you get sympathy from family, friends or anybody who knows about it. You might hear words of pity like “Oh you poor thing”, or of sympathy like “I am so sorry to hear that”, or “gosh that is bad news” or “that must be very difficult” and so on.

After yet another cancer diagnosis I experienced the damaging effects of sympathy. The breast cancer I have lived with since 2002 had metastasised and I was just out of hospital where I had lung surgery and my life expectancy seemed dramatically shortened.

Shortly after being back home, I attended a presentation/workshop I did not want to miss, and I met many people and friends I knew. Many approached me with their own anxiety and often sympathy. I could often feel the energy, especially the sympathy before they were even close to me.

I experienced the effects of the sympathy on my body loud and clear! I noticed how some people who knew about my last surgery came to me with an energy that was quite uncomfortable. Many seemed to know about the new terminal diagnosis, and I must admit, that in the beginning I quite enjoyed the attention and acknowledgment I received.

But by the end of the day, I felt physically sick, and that was not from the surgery. It took me a while, but after sharing with a good friend who looked after me, I realised that I had taken all that sympathetic energy into my body, and it felt awful.

I already felt it when it came towards me but because I was still under the belief that I can’t feel energy much, I was not aware of it.

My body already had enough to deal with and to heal, so I had to stop the effect of the sympathy; by this time, I had been very much cured of enjoying it as attention. But what could I do? How could I stop people approaching me with sympathy? I still did not trust my ability to feel energy instantly.

The next day I learnt immediately that I do feel energy and I was surprised how clearly. I could feel when somebody was walking towards me if they came with sympathy, pity, with their own anxiousness, or maybe just being curious and interested in how I was doing, out of genuine care, or maybe with an energy of duty to show that they cared but would rather not deal with it. I noticed some people who knew me did not approach me at all and that was fine. I would rather have that than receive their emotions or pity. The fear of death often comes with sympathy and is hard for a lot of people to be confronted with.

I also learned how to stop this energy of sympathy, sometimes by just observing it and bringing understanding and sometimes by nominating and calling it out.

But how could I tell someone that I did not want their sympathy? I found my way and it was different with different people.

With some I could say it with humor, with others straight out as a fact: “no sympathy please”. With others I felt to expand and share how awful it feels to receive sympathy…. With some people when I said “no sympathy” they just got it, others were puzzled, and couldn’t understand or just moved on.

One friend came with a whole dose of sympathy and wanted to give me a hug. I said in a light joking way “only if you don’t do it with sympathy” and the energy left the person instantly. Once you tell this energy off there can be an instant clear shift and people just snap out of it and it is not there anymore. For some people it was a relief to have it called out as they were freed from playing a role that they thought they were obligated to play, the role of the sympathetic and concerned friend.

Some did not understand, maybe they did later.

I choose to have people around me who are ‘normal’ with me and who do not bring their sympathy or own anxiousness or whatever. I haven’t changed just because I have a serious disease – or have I?  Due to the way that I am dealing with and have surrendered and understood the disease, today I feel more open, light, joy-full and purpose-full.

I feel more committed to life and serving my community and humanity than ever before, from the simple things like learning to speak the truth in each moment, to supporting people to stop fearing death – having had a dear friend pass not long ago, I have seen that there is another way to pass over gracefully – without suffering, misery and sadness.

Death is a natural process we all will go through; there is no need to make it as difficult as society makes it today. But for this to happen the community has to come together and start truly caring for each other– and true care can only happen without sympathy and must include self-care.

Sympathy feeds victimhood. It feeds a person to feel sorry for themself and to not take responsibility – it can also affect their ability to surrender. It can either feed ‘staying a victim’ or cause ‘becoming a victim’. Sympathy does not feel straightforward … people want to be nice but behind it there is all the person’s unresolved emotions, their pity, their anxiety, and past hurts.

Out of sympathy some people hold back as though they don’t want to call you out on something. Or a friend of mine needed to clear something with me but held back because he did not want to bother me. I felt it and when I asked him, we cleared it in a couple of minutes and had a deeply felt hug.

Real care and interest are okay and welcomed and does not come with sympathy.

I am not blaming God and the whole world anymore for whatever is happening in my life. I take full responsibility for my situation and what happens. I understand that everything is a result of my previous choices. Everything that unfolds is a great opportunity to learn and evolve back to who I really am and where I come from – from the Divine. 

This is not to say that I won’t need care and specific support, especially later on when my health really deteriorates, but that support can come with normal relating. I don’t want people to treat me differently or to treat me with cotton gloves.

True care can come without sympathy and in fact sympathy sabotages the care that someone may have the intention to bring.

When people bring sympathy, they often think they are being loving but sympathy feels very different when you are on the receiving end of it, both energetically and physically. When people say they ‘like’ sympathy what they really like is the attention, like I did in the beginning but when you feel the quality of the attention it doesn’t feel great at all, and it can be felt in the body.

When people are really sick and in the process of passing over, I am sure that a lot of them feel sympathy’s harming effects, but they don’t want to say anything because they don’t want to upset people – especially family and friends.

To truly care and support – you need to come without your own emotions and your own ‘stuff’. It is very loving but does not come with ‘you poor thing’ or any energy like that.

I had a beautiful experience the other day of true support without any sympathy. All morning I had been frazzled and close to tears, no idea why or what about. My hormone medication can cause that sometimes. I was with a group of people and at one point I just allowed the tears to come out. When I was holding them back, I felt I was hardening and not wanting to connect with people, my body was contracting. A friend saw the first tears and asked if I was okay. “No, I am not” I said. He gave me a big hug and I melted and let the tears freely flow. At first the tears felt like a natural release but at a certain point I became aware that I was slipping into a story around my crying, I was starting to go into sympathy with myself and become emotional. It felt awful and I chose to not go there any further. The tears naturally ran out and I had a wonderful day after that, feeling back with myself, open and connecting with people.

The true support I received without sympathy allowed me to not go into sympathy myself.

How blessed I am to have a community that will care and look after me lovingly and tenderly. This is something everybody deserves – just like the love, tenderness and care we give to newborns, we need to give this same love to people who are dying. At each stage of life, we are worthy of receiving true love and support – and to do this we need to knock out sympathy and embrace responsibility.

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