Exasperation isn’t necessarily the same thing as sympathy

[Note: This post is not in response to any particular instance; it’s about a longstanding pattern.]

For many years, I’ve been seeing a certain specific kind of response to people expressing pain, and I’d like to respectfully ask people to think carefully about it before giving this particular kind of response.

The pattern goes something like this:

Person A: I’m in distress, and here’s why.

Person B: Sheesh! You shouldn’t be in distress about that!


Person A: I’m worried and uncertain about what I should do in this situation.

Person B: Stop thinking about “should”! Just do whatever the hell you want to do!


Person A: I feel remorse and regret that I did this thing that hurt someone.

Person B: Stop beating yourself up! Screw them if they felt hurt!

or, more generally:

Person A: I feel bad.

Person B: Stop feeling bad!

In almost all cases, person B is very well-intentioned. They’re generally a friend of person A, and they’re intending to express support.

But their expression of support is phrased in strongly worded terms that read to me as angry or exasperated with person A. They’re telling person A that person A shouldn’t feel the way they feel, or that it’s wrong to be conflicted or worried about the thing person A is conflicted or worried about, or that person A is giving too much consideration to the feelings of others.

(Note: I’m not talking about the situation where person A’s expression of distress is politically problematic and person B is pointing that out. That’s a different dynamic than the one I’m specifically referring to here.)

And my point in this post is that if you’re expressing anger or exasperation with person A, it’s worth being aware that person A may not experience that as sympathy.

I know that my reaction to this dynamic isn’t universal. It pushes some particular buttons for me that other people may not have. And I’ve seen cases where supportive-but-exasperated comments seem to be exactly what person A needed, to (for example) get person A through a bout of self-hatred, or to get person A to stop fixating on a problem.

But for me, these kinds of comments are pretty much never helpful. When I’m person A, what I hear when person B says that kind of thing is “Your unhappiness and distress are bad and wrong! You should feel bad for feeling the way that you feel!”

And my reaction to that is to feel hurt and defensive, and also bewildered because I was expressing pain and I feel like I’m getting attacked for it, by someone who I had expected to be on my side.

So please, when you’re responding to someone who’s expressing pain or doubt or fear or distress (in a non-politically-problematic way), think about how best to respond in a way that might be helpful to them, rather than responding with whatever you happen to be feeling about how they should or shouldn’t be feeling.

In particular, consider responding with an expression of sympathy rather than with an expression of anger, annoyance, or exasperation at them. Even if you’re feeling anger, annoyance, or exasperation at them, consider holding off on expressing those feelings in your response to them at that moment. Or at least expressing those feelings gently rather than forcefully. (Unless you’re sure that the person you’re responding to will appreciate a forceful declaration that they should stop feeling that way.)

If you’re not sure what kind of response they want, then you can ask. But if your goal is to help them feel better, then you may be best off not leading with telling them their feelings are wrong.

[Written in January 2019, but didn’t post at the time. Posting today because I just happened across the draft post, not for any deeper reason.]

See also discussion in comments on Facebook version of this post.

One Response to “Exasperation isn’t necessarily the same thing as sympathy”

  1. Jed

    See also my 2015 post about talking to people who are going through tough times, which is partly about the “ring theory of kvetching,” which recommends providing comfort to people who are closer to the center of the difficulty, and complaining only to people who are further from that center.


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