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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Compassion is Much More Helpful Than Sympathy

In prior blog posts, I've written about the importance of compassion for others as well as compassion for ourselves, referred to as self compassion:  Developing Curiosity and Self Compassion in PsychotherapyPsychotherapy and Compassionate Self Acceptance and Are You Gazing at the Sky Through a Straw? Today, I would like to focus on the difference between compassion and sympathy, which are often confused.

Comparing Sympathy and Compassion

Comparing Sympathy and Compassion
With regard to sympathy, there's a vivid memory that stands out in my mind from the time I was about five years old.  My mother and I were standing on line in front of a subway token booth to buy tokens to go on the subway.  Just ahead of us, there was an elderly man, probably in his late 80s, who was trying to pay for tokens with change in his hand.

But every time he tried to hand the token booth clerk the money, he would drop all his change because his hands were trembling so badly.  Whenever he would drop his change, I would hurry to pick up the coins to hand them back to him.  But no sooner did he try to hand the coins to the token booth clerk than he would drop them again.  I remember feeling very upset that this old man, who looked so sad, was by himself and helpless to hold onto the coins.

Finally, after the third time, my mother gave the change to the token booth clerk, and the elderly man was very grateful.  Then, we went our separate ways.

As my mother and I walked onto the train, I could feel the emotional upset welling up inside me.  I was trying, as best as I could, not to burst out crying.  But when my mother said, "That poor man...," I couldn't hold it in any more, and I burst out crying.  I could easily imagine this elderly man being my grandfather and, at such a young age, I took on this man's emotional pain.

My mother was taken aback at first that I had such a strong emotional reaction, but then she comforted me, and she allowed me to talk about how badly I felt for the old man with the trembling hands.

As a child, I didn't have the capacity that I developed as an adult to be able to dip into another person's experience with compassion, but to remain grounded in my own experience.  The ability to empathize allows us to care about others with compassion without taking on the other person's emotional pain, which is what we do when we feel sympathy.

Compassion is much more helpful because, even though we feel aligned with their emotions, we are in a better position to help as compared to when we're immersed and weighed down by their feelings.  

Standing Outside of the Emotional Vortex

When I explain this to clients in my psychotherapy practice in NYC, I often talk to them about it by giving the metaphor of "standing outside of vortex."  So, when a friend or family member is in crisis, it's not helpful to them if you've jumped into the emotional vortex with them.  Rather than being helpful, you're immersed in the same emotions.

When you're "standing outside the vortex," you can see and sense everything that is going on, but you're still on solid ground and have a bigger perspective than the person who is in crisis.  You're better able to help your loved one as well as yourself.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotheapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006. 

photo credit: Artotem via photopin cc

photo credit: AlicePopkorn via photopin cc

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