I believe that it’s a natural impulse to want to help others when they are in emotional pain. All too often, though, we get confused about what attitude actually helps.
The confusion often begins in childhood. Many parents may look to their children for the emotional support they feel they don’t get from their spouses. This is probably more often a wife and mother who feels her husband never listens to her, so she airs her problems to her children in an attempt to get their sympathy. (It could also be a father and husband, though.)
We want our parents to be strong and protective, and it’s very threatening to discover that they’re unhappy and vulnerable. We’ll do the best we can to make them feel better, but this can be a difficult task. Those of us who fail may feel inadequate. We’re likely to become unhappy ourselves.
This early childhood training leaves its mark, with many possible outcomes. We may end up as adults who believe that sympathy is the mark of a good and kind person. We may end up thinking that we must always put our own needs last when others need us.
This is a particular issue for women, since in many cultures, they are trained to think of the needs of their husbands, children, and anyone who seems to require emotional support. This is why we find so many women in the helping professions, but again the role is not limited to one gender.
Taking On the Pain
Sympathy becomes an even bigger problem when people feel that they have to suffer along with the sufferer. They may feel as if every crisis and pain is happening to them. The saddest thing is that they help neither themselves nor the object of their sympathy.
Pain shared is not pain halved. It’s pain doubled. When you are suffering along with your spouse, child, or friend, you surrender the emotional center of strength that could help them. Sympathy becomes confused with compassion.
When someone is drowning, you don’t help them by drowning with them, but when you take on someone’s suffering, you end up drowning in the emotions of the person you’re trying to save. Sympathy only convinces others that they’re right to feel helpless, overwhelmed, or self-pitying.
When we’re compassionate, we stand on solid ground and extend an arm to help them pull out of the water. We appreciate the suffering of others without taking it on. We respond to suffering with emotional and spiritual strength. That can help them gain a broader emotional perspective.
How to Set Boundaries
Those inclined to sympathy will benefit from getting over the idea that it’s cruel to set boundaries.
It’s also important to recognize that setting boundaries is a choice made when necessary. It’s not the establishment of a wall or creating a state of emotional numbness.
Recognize also the danger that, if you don’t purposely set boundaries, you may set them default when the misery of another becomes more than you can handle.
It’s crucial to realize your limitations. In some situations a person may need psychological, legal, or other forms of professional assistance.
Be very alert to the times when you may want to immerse yourself in someone else’s problems in order to postpone attending to your own issues.
Finally, understand that the person most capable of helping others is the one who does so from a place of emotional stability. You can’t give more than you have. To attempt this leads to emotional bankruptcy for both of you.