A bird's eye view of sympathy

A bird’s eye view of sympathy

Jan 23, 2023 | Reflective practice

Sympathy is a feeling of sincere concern for someone who is experiencing something difficult or painful. It comes from the Greek sympathēs, meaning ‘having common feelings, sympathetic’, which was formed from syn ‘with, together with’ and pathos ‘experience, misfortune, emotion, condition’. Empathy was modelled on sympathy and involves actively sharing in a person’s emotional experience. It was coined in the early 20th century as a translation of the German Einfühlung ‘feeling-in or feeling into’.

To sympathise, to be sorry for another, drains, weakens and obstructs their experience and it is often called going the extra mile, having favourites and making someone feel special. Empathy also operates under this guise.

Sympathy is a badge worn by many of us in the caring profession of nursing and  midwifery and in truth our profession has been played by the irresponsible game of sympathy. It has corrupted our perception of our role in the care of patients and the meaning of true care.

Sympathy is an enjoining enabling emotion that robs like a thief in the night any opportunity for healing and ensures no learning but rather a return to the ‘doing life’ how it has always been done. Sympathy is a debilitating energy, it keeps everyone stuck and forever belittles potential, it keeps us as victim the ‘poor me’… incapacitated. Sympathy also breeds more irresponsibility as we all remain victims of circumstance and waiting for others to do for us. When we sympathise, we see another not as an equal, but as less than, incapable of making their own decisions, coping with what life offers and/or taking care of themselves. 

All illness is an opportunity to heal and discard what does not support the body to be in balance and equilibrium. Sympathy blocks our learning, our responsibility for how we live, all the choices we have taken that do not serve us to live well and, in so doing, it says no to the healing on offer.

Sympathy stifles patients’ ability to observe, allow, accept and learn from the lessons life offers 24/7. 

When I was a young nurse I was immersed in sympathy, feeling sad and sorry for others and thought my role was to take on everyone else’s lot in life, to patch up, make them all feel better and needless to say it never worked. It simply kept me burdened, sad and falsely thinking I was so needed. Looking back there has been much rich learning and today I am much quicker at observing whenever sympathy rears its ugly head.

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