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September 1, 2011

The Limits of Sympathy

We all know people who are going through tough times, whether it's the painful decision to get out of a bad marriage, or a death in the family, or what have you. We all eventually have a good friend who is going through such a situation. A friend that we want to reach out to, a friend that we want to listen to and give a hug to if necessary.

The trick is not to be overbearing and smothering, to not care *too* much. Or at least not to force that caring on the person who's going through the bad situation in the first place. They've got enough trouble without having someone keep poking into things when they don't necessarily want you to.

That's something I've had to learn over the years, and something I still have to deal with when I get into that situation. My tendency is to care too much, and to want to do everything in my power to help the person involved. I have to pull myself back sometimes and figure out just what level is appropriate for them. I want to do more, but sometimes that person isn't ready for it, or doesn't want that much attention.

The default, of course, is to always be available to listen if they want to talk. My door is always open; I'm always willing to lend an ear. I know the person is probably not looking for advice on what to do (though they could be), but they just need a friendly ear to let things out to. Sometimes just talking about the situation, or the person who has died if it involves that, is all the person needs.

I've always been told I'm a good listener. Not so much an advice-giver, which is why it's a good thing that people don't generally come to me for that. But I make a great sounding board. It's one of my specialties.

And sometimes that's all that's needed.

But yet you always want to do more. Maybe be a shoulder to cry on when things get too bad.

That's not always what's needed, though. Some people don't like to cry when anybody else is around. I know I have trouble with that.

Or maybe you're not quite at that level of friendship, as we all have groups of friends that are different. Perhaps it's a work friend, somebody who you can talk to if you need to, but you don't see them outside of work. You don't call them up at night and let everything out.

Or, in this day and age, maybe they are friends on the Net. Even in that category, we have different groups. Some people we interact with a lot on a web site or a blog or whatever, but they're not people that we would reveal our deepest, darkest secrets to.

On the other hand, there are those who find good friends on the Net, so good that they are just a phone call or chat away from being able to talk about anything and everything. They're almost friend-soulmates (as opposed to romantic soulmates), even if you've never met. They just seem to "get" you, and you are the same with them.

What it all boils down to is realizing just what expressions of sympathy are appropriate for any given situation and level of friendship, and to hopefully not overstep those bounds. And also to realize what you're capable of giving. I can't empathize with many of these situations. I've never gone through a painful divorce. It's been many years since I've lost somebody who was close.

But I can definitely sympathize.

It's tough when you see somebody going through a painful experience. You want to give them all the love and support you can. But you also don't want to push them away by giving more than they want. A hug they're not comfortable with. Or trying to force them to talk to you when they're not ready.

It's that fine line that we often have trouble with.

A fine line that I sometimes struggle not to cross.

I like to think I've pulled away from that line without crossing it. And I guess that, if I ever do, the (figurative) smack in the face will tell me that I did.

In the meantime, all I can do is let them come to me when they are ready, for whatever they want me to give. Or whatever they need me to give.

And just be happy to do that.

Which I certainly am. Though it is tough sometimes.


  1. Was trying to figure out what prompted this blog.
    I think I would be true in saying you inherited this trait & that makes me very happy. You always want your kids to inherit your good traits. I've always felt like that is my best trait. I'm always worried about friends who are going thru rough times. I know what you mean about how far you can go. I guess you're right you have to let them come to you for whatever they need. Let them know you are there. If you have really close friends (like Diane) you know they will always be there for you.
    I hope you inherited more of my good qualities. I'm hoping I have some more you could copy.

  2. It's not a situation that you've heard anything about.

    I'm sure I inherited lots of your qualities. :)


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