You poor thing! You must feel so humiliated! How will you ever scrape yourself off the floor (or off my shoe) again? Listen to me, I’ll tell you how to shape up…


It’s a paralyser, it makes your body slump. It sucks the energy right out of you. You become shoe-grime; too weak to fight or speak up for yourself.

Don’t tell a sympathiser anything shameful. It will fuel their ardent belief that “you need help”! Their help is unbearable. You may never recover from it.


And yet an over-sympathiser is really just a little too stuck in other people’s problems. It’s misguided caring. It often leads to trying to fix things for you.

As I think about it, I realise that I sometimes play fix-it for other people. But it’s not good. I’d like to stop that. It doesn’t work well. It doesn’t make any of us into the best version of ourselves.

Let’s be clear and honest. I don’t know what’s good for you. You don’t know what’s good for me. Whose life is it anyway?

Why do we play fix-it?

  • love and care (that’s often genuinely there)
  • worry and anxiety (what will happen to you?)
  • I know better
  • you are my responsibility (ok for children maybe)
  • a sense of superiority; we are not equal
  • you are not doing a good job of your life (judgement)
  • you need me and I need you to need me
  • I would rather fix your life than deal with my own life

One life each 

We get one life each unless you believe in reincarnation (I kind of do but that’s for another day).

Reincarnation aside, we get one life each this time round. I’ll make choices in my life, you make choices in yours. We may also make choices together. That’s good and healthy when they are conscious choices in an equal relationship. Between adults there needs to be respect and equality.

Empathy – I’m messy too

So what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? They sound similar but they feel quite different. Here’s what I think.

It’s a bit lonely making choices for and by yourself. We do want to feel “in it together”.  Maybe empathy is not so much feeling for someone else as feeling with them but trusting them to live  their own life.

 trusting them to live  their own life

Can we be interested but not responsible? Can we seek to understand but respect personal boundaries?

How does empathy look and feel?

  • vulnerable and touching
  • empowering
  • heart-opening
  • honest and real
  • human – sharing common humanity, we’re all a bit messy
  • melts shame and leads to self acceptance
  • like connection
  • like healthy sharing
  • equal

Sharing – empathy in practice?

A large dog peed on me during hide and seek when I was five.  My mother’s friend shrieked with laughter before finding me new clothes. In kindergarten, I landed in the mud puddle at the bottom of the slide. They dressed me in dry clothes borrowed from the stuffed toys. I was small. Oh the shame!

Empathy is where you say, “I know how that feels. I ate a lizard because someone told me they were just like killer python lollies.”  Then I resist the urge to say  “Were you a bit slow?” Instead I say, “I know what you mean, I pulled a fridge over on myself as a small child. I really wanted to get to the food.”

Unfortunately that was not me, it was my sister. I was reading a book. I still wish I had been cool enough to get into proper trouble as a kid. She was (and is) way cooler than I will ever be.

Messy humans

I’m messy, you’re messy and we’re all just human.

I can’t have potato chips in the house. They are not safe from me. They know it.

In my twenties I lived with a manic-depressive opera singer, then a drug dealer, followed by three Reserve Bank economists (who withheld their shared profession until I signed – they needn’t have bothered).

When I meet celebrities I stare with my mouth open until they say “are you  all right?” (I thought I was going to be cool but she was so beautiful in real life I got an instant girl crush.) 

I can only hope I never meet Ricky Martin or Richard Gere. I will mutter and dribble. They will be kind but concerned.

We’re all like that, weird and human. You’re not? Damn it, we do not belong in the same room. Get out of here!