Sympathy Can Be Bad For Your Health

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Sympathy Can Be Bad For Your Health

“Oh, but I understand why he does it.”

Famous last words.

And words that a friend of mine uttered shortly before her boyfriend started to get violent with her.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Empathy is a great thing; we couldn’t have relationships without it.

Sympathy, on the other hand, can get us into trouble.

So, what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Sympathy is when someone else is drowning without a life jacket and you jump in the deep end without a life jacket to drown along with them.

Empathy is putting on a life jacket while you throw them one and then help pull them to shore. Neither of you drowns. You know how they say on an airplane to put your life mask on before you put your child’s on? The reason for this is because you can’t help your child if you haven’t taken care to make sure you are out of danger first.

So how does this translate into a relationship?

Sympathy understands why your boyfriend does something crappy, so you don’t say or do anything when it affects you badly. It means you are only considering him and his feelings while sacrificing your own.

Empathy is giving yourself equal consideration.

Here is an example of what you would say if you were considering your own feelings when your guy is behaving badly:

Honey, I understand that this is a tough situation for you, and I want you to know that when you get so angry and yell at me and call me names it impacts me ________________________ (share whatever way it impacts you). I want to have a loving relationship with you and I can’t do it if you are going to continue to do that (by saying this, you are putting on your own life jacket). I would like us to find some support (by asking for this, you are offering him a life jacket) so we are able to do something different, but I can’t continue to have this happen.

The catch is that your boyfriend has to want to put on the life jacket you are offering. He may or may not.

I know it could mean the end of a relationship with someone you love if he continues to call you names, so when you say something like this, you have to be ready to mean it and to stick by it. If you are ready to have a healthy and happy relationship and your boyfriend wants to continue to be in an abusive one, then you have to make some choices about that. You have to choose short term heartbreak over shutting down your spirit long term in a relationship that doesn’t work anymore.

Usually it would take getting some counselling help on your end as well or else you will likely repeat your pattern and end up in another relationship with a guy who has an anger issue and calls you names, or has some other way of impacting you in a way that is similar.

Again, the good news is that the power of it all rests with you. You may suffer some short term pain, but you get to go to bed at night feeling better about yourself, which, as I say, is the real goal anyway. It’s only then that you are going to attract a man who loves you as much as you love yourself.

My BFF Liz Coleman is a great counsellor who is very experienced in the area of learning to love yourself while drawing a line in the sand for the kind of relationship you want. To contact her, go to


8 Responses so far.

  1. Another great post and I had to learn the difference here myself not too many years ago.

    • Marion says:

      It sounds like you have done some of your own personal growth in a big way. I celebrate that.
      The distinction in the article is very key and a big one if someone doesn’t understand it yet. It was big for me, for sure.
      Thank you for your kind words.

  2. Anne Friston says:

    Really good advice, Marion. I like that you emphasise how being empathetic, we retain our power whereas being sympathetic can drain us.

    • Marion says:

      Hey Anne,
      Thank you. Yes, that’s the whole idea. As society’s caretakers, we have to learn to keep our own gas tanks full before we can give to others. It’s a big lesson for many women.

  3. Great advice. Putting on you life jacket first is so important and hard for many women to do.

    • Marion says:

      Hey Heather,
      I know! It’s a tough thing for so many women to learn. We are the born caretakers of our society, so we think it translates into giving everything until we are a wrung out sponge!
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Beth Hewitt says:

    Hi Marion,

    Really like how you have explained sympathy and empathy and some really good words on dealing with situations such as the one your outline above.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Beth :)

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