Quinnie’s Opinnies: Sympathy Sucks

Story by Quinn Manzo
Print Editor

Sympathy makes me really uncomfortable. It’s difficult to tell when it’s coming from a genuine place, and when I receive sympathy from someone, I feel an obligation to thank them profusely for offering me nice words. In the end, I don’t feel any better. 

Most of the time, except in interactions between coworkers and acquaintances, sympathy is an ineffective form of solace. Sympathy is saying things that are logically or factually true, but with a soft tone to mask the fact that what is being said has no real feelings. 

Perhaps I’m biased. Growing up in South Pasadena, it is entirely possible that I hate sympathy because I am used to being watched. Used to being surrounded by people who have seen each other’s worst moments since we were six years old. There’s not much to do here besides eat pizza and talk about each other. So, I could see that my hatred for sympathy comes from the fact that when something bad happens to me, I can assume other people already know,  already feel bad for me, and I do not need to be reminded. 

How did sympathy become the default response to pain instead of empathy? Knowing that someone feels for you, that someone feels bad for you, does nothing but add extra weight to my negative emotions. I find no comfort in being pitied. 

I get a disappointing score on a test. “It could have been worse,” someone says. Wow. An astonishing revelation. It could have been worse! I could have gotten an even lower score. I could have walked into the classroom, prepared to take my test, and an iron clad man from my dark medieval past could have waltzed into the room, demanding a rematch on our life-altering duel. My overconfident self could have taken him up on this offer. Underestimating the way his combat has improved in the past eon. I could have been humiliatingly bested, forced to complete my assessment with the remaining three-quarters of my right arm. There is an endless list of things that could be worse. Just like that, pointing out the obvious has washed all my anxieties away. 

I can’t, with a clean conscience, denounce sympathy entirely. I know that it comes from good intentions, from the desire to make someone feel better. There’s no evil in that. Sometimes, even if someone uses sympathy and it doesn’t make a person feel better, that person can see past the words, and merely the fact that someone is trying is what comforts them. However, one can never guarantee the way their good-intended actions will be received. Plus, I believe there are certain situations in which it will always be inappropriate to use sympathy. It’s absolutely awful to try and tell someone who is depressed, someone who is grieving, or someone who feels betrayed, to look on the bright side. 

It can be extremely uncomfortable to watch someone you love, to watch anyone at all, in  emotional distress. It’s difficult to come up with a good thing to say, let alone the right thing. If nothing comes up in your head, don’t fall back on a script, because that’s exactly what it is. It’s a list of phrases that are so general and emotionless that they can be applied to any situation, and are therefore unhelpful. My solution when the good feelings fade is to sit in the silence. Oftentimes, people don’t need you to say anything. They just need you to be there. It helps to sometimes realize that if you can’t come up with something helpful to say, it’s  a sign that you shouldn’t say anything at all. 

Above all, and like sympathetic phrases you can go ahead and apply this to every situation, think before you speak. If you really let a moment marinate before responding, you will be able to recognize when sympathy or empathy is the appropriate response

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