Escaping the Trap of Feeling Sorry For Others


Today, we are exploring what it actually means to feel sorry for others. We all have experienced moments when we empathize with someone and want to help them, but there’s a crucial distinction between empathy and feeling sorry for people. This article will explore the detrimental effects of constantly feeling sorry for others and how it can unknowingly sabotage our relationships. By understanding this trap and shifting towards a more empathetic approach, we can foster healthier and deeper connections with those around us. Let’s discover how simply understanding the nuances between empathy and sympathy can help us break free from feeling sorry for others.

I can remember being a young girl and always feeling sorry for my dad. I also went on to marry someone because I felt sorry for him. Who gets married because they feel sorry for them anyways? 🖐️ (Listen, they don’t say hindsight is 20/20 for nothing).

Alright, jokes aside, what the heck is this feeling anyways, and where does it come from? I couldn’t ever put my finger on why I had this feeling, and I’m still a little bit intrigued with what the feeling of “feeling sorry for someone” even is and where it comes from, so today, we’re diving in.

Ways We Relate to Others

There is a lot of discussion around sympathy and empathy. Sometimes people even confuse them for the same thing. (I’m here to tell you they are not). But pity is another way that we relate to others. So where does feeling sorry for people fit in? 

Not all therapists agree on these very nuanced emotions, and that’s not surprising at all because, if I can be honest, they are a little confusing. But there is power in understanding what they are, how they are different, and how we experience them, so buckle up. 

Let’s start with the definitions so we can be on the same page to ensure we are referring to the same emotions.


Sympathy is to observe suffering, but it implies that your suffering is a “you-problem,” not a “me-problem.”  Therefore, it actually creates further disconnection from the person suffering because there is an implied emotional hierarchy that keeps you and your experiences at a safe distance from the suffering of others. To me, sympathy is removed, self-absorbed, and kinda asshole-ish. If someone discusses themselves after you express some kind of suffering or misfortune, that’s their attempt to keep themselves safe from your pain. It’s alienating, irritating, and lonely.  And there is often an undertone of “that wouldn’t happen to people like me.”

People who sympathize often give cliches and platitudes, like…

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “You’ll figure it out”
  • “Time heals all wounds.”
  • “Stay positive.”
  • “Just think happy thoughts.”
  • “Don’t worry, be happy.”
  • “It’s God’s plan.”
  • “Just keep your chin up.”
  • “This too shall pass.”
  • “Just stay strong.”

People who sympathize often want just to fix or eliminate the problem for you, so it comes out like…

“Maybe you should do ___________”

“Have you ever thought of______?”

People who sympathize tend to compare what you are going through to what they’ve been through, creating an emotional hierarchy of who’s been through the most or who has it worse.

Example: “Tell me about it. This is what happened to me.”


People who pity recognize the pain and suffering of others, but there is an implied sense of superiority that is gratifying to the self (like “thank God that isn’t me”) and puts distance between you and the person suffering. There is a universal agreement in the research that there is an element of judgment in pity-a separation of them vs. me.

Brene Brown describes four elements of pity:

  1. A belief that the person who is suffering is inferior
  2. A response that is focused on the self, not on providing help
  3. A desire to maintain distance from the person suffering
  4. Avoidance of sharing in the other person’s suffering


People who empathize will listen and acknowledge another person’s suffering by trying to understand their unique experiences without feeling it for them. Empathy requires us to be willing to be present with someone else’s pain, no matter how uncomfortable, and stay grounded in their experience without judgment. It’s the ability to identify and relate to someone else’s experience. Empathy is what moves people towards compassion-the action of alleviating suffering.

What is feeling sorry for someone?

When we feel sorry for someone, there is an implied you vs. me that says, “I don’t experience that kind of problem” And because of this inequality, by definition, this would mean that feeling sorry for someone has inherent judgment attached. 

In my own personal experience, when I felt sorry for people, I wanted to eliminate their problems. I didn’t want to feel it with them. I just wanted to take it away. 

So when I read this article, everything made sense to me.

Sympathy is equivalent to feeling sorry for someone. When parents feel sorry for their child, they’re tempted to “save and rescue,” which does nothing but strip the child of their self-efficacy. Pity automatically puts the parent in a position of power in the interaction, disrupting any chance of emotional attunement.

Empathy is entirely different. Empathy occurs when a parent allows themselves to feel their child’s hurt for a moment (emotional attunement). When a parent thinks about how their child feels, allows themselves to feel it, too, and then honors the feeling, the child does not feel alone in their predicament. They feel understood and connected. This is the healing component of empathy, which creates resiliency and security in the child as well as closeness in the relationship. Bending the rules or shrinking expectations becomes unnecessary.

Erin Leonard Ph.D. of Psychology Today

This isn’t the only article I found that suggests that feeling sorry for someone is most closely related to sympathy. In fact, nearly all the research suggests that they are one and the same. 

Feeling sorry for someone is different from understanding and connecting with them. When you feel sorry for someone, there’s a safe distance between their situation and yours, and it can make you think that fixing their problems is a way to show love. But empathy is something else entirely. Empathy is a better way of relating to others. It means truly understanding their emotions and experiences without trying to fix everything. Empathy allows for a deeper connection and shows genuine care and support. So, empathy will always be a superior way to relate to others compared to simply feeling sorry for them.

Sympathy says, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Empathy says, “I understand that feeling. I’ve experienced something similar.”

Pity says, “That poor person.”

Compassion says, “I see your pain. What can I do to help?”

There are significant differences in how each of these is played out in real life. You see, if we ever want to reach a place of emotional maturity, it is imperative that we first have a foundational understanding of the simple emotions we experience every day and how we show up for others. The vocabulary we use is just as important as the definitions they imply.

Feeling Sorry for Someone is showing them Sympathy

Making the connection that feeling sorry for someone was my attempt to fix someone else’s problems because I was uncomfortable with them was profound for me. It makes sense that I used to feel this and no longer do. It’s not a reflection of a lack of empathy but actually the presence of empathy. Today, I can sit with the uncomfortable emotions of others without feeling the need to take them on myself, and this is a huge improvement for me, and you. Because when we take on other people’s pain and suffering by trying to fix or avoid, not only is it emotionally draining for us but it also leaves the other person feeling alone and disconnected. Therefore, the only solution to overcome feeling sorry for others and find true connection is by first understanding and getting comfortable with our own emotions and then offering that same understanding to those around us.

Now, I want to hear from you!

a penny for your thoughts?

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