It’s Not That Bad – Empathy vs Sympathy


“It’s not that bad.”

Said in compassion, these are still four words that nullify another person’s experience.

It takes away their right to mourn, to grieve, to experience defeat or loss. It says, “YOU don’t know how you feel, but I do.”

I used to be guilty of this, and probably will be again at some point if I am not present. It’s natural for us to want to minimize someone’s suffering or to offer a different perspective (especially if WE are the problem!) and so we say:

“It’s not that bad.”

If you really want to connect with someone and help them, you have to be willing to take a risk, to open yourself up, to be okay with pain.

Instead of taking away someone’s right to their experience, help them understand it on their own terms, in their own way.

Ask, “How bad is it?”

And allow the reply.

It might be uncomfortable to hear the truth, but it’s the only way to get through something, really process it and grow.

“How bad is it?”

Now you can have a healing conversation.

Because sometimes it’s really bad, and a burden too hard to carry.

And sometimes it’s not so bad after all, once someone is allowed to look at the situation without constraints or conditions.

A lot of people feel that you must NEVER focus on the bad or bad things will happen. Just keep your mind exclusively positive ALL the time.

That is denying the very purpose and path of experience and growth. That philosophy can be unhealthy when taken to extremes.

If you don’t freely acknowledge where the struggles are and what they are, you simply steal your opportunity to learn!

This also works for the state of the world.

And it’s a very good way to diagnose something honestly and then to work toward making it better.

After all, once you know how deep it goes, you have the map for getting back out again.

And so, “How bad is it” can eventually become, “So what’s left that’s good?” And “How much more amazing can it get?”

There is hope for you, for me, for All Our Relations.

And it starts by allowing the truth of the moment, of a struggle, of a feeling, to be expressed.

It starts with that level of gentle kindness and humility.

Hiy hiy


Theresa Wiseman, Nursing Scholar, studied very diverse professions where empathy is relevant and came up with four qualities of empathy:

  1. Perspective taking, the ability to take the perspective of another person
  2. Staying out of judgement
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people
  4. Communicating that recognition

Empathy is a choice and its a vulnerable choice.


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2 Replies to “It’s Not That Bad – Empathy vs Sympathy”

  1. You may recall how I found an ENT doc, who knew how to treat my rare condition, by quite forcefully telling the nurse taking my vitals before my exam that I was ready to walk in front of a moving bus.

    BAM! SUddenly they discover they have a doc on staff who knows this stuff. He joined the staff around the time I informed them of my condition.

    Lesson 1: Bitching has its merits.

    The specialist ENT examines me and tells me that my condition isn’t very bad. Well, compared to cases he’s seen, this is true.

    But that information helped me not a bit, and had me so angry I almost grabbed his throat and had an intimate dialog with him.

    Lesson 2: If it’s bad enough to bitch about, it’s bad, and bad is bad and that’s that.

    Which is not to say that what’s good isn’t good..

  2. Wow. thank you for your insight and your words Aaron. they come at a time much needed, as a friend’s father just committed suicide and it’s bad and it’s hard. my mom left this world in the same way but i know that i cannot use the words “i know how you feel” even so, because, i may have an idea, but i don’t “know” exactly how she feels, her feelings are her own. your words (and your ART, which is incredible) have really helped and i am truly grateful. Hyswka Siem 🙂

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