I feel your pain

Jul 17th, 2011 | By | Category: abundance, Career advice, compassion, difficult boss, empathy. sympathy, personality, self-compassion

President Clinton popularized the saying “I feel your pain” as way of connecting with voters without actually committing to doing anything to improve their situation. Since then it has become common in political and business rhetoric. Although saying that you feel someone else’s pain implies that you are empathic, sympatric, or compassionate it does not carry the same promise as any of those terms.

In the workplace and in our personal relationships we often encounter situations where our emotions tend to over ride our better judgment. When we someone in distress, it is only natural for our feelings to conjure up what it would be like to be in a similar situation. Of course, if we were in dire straights we would want someone to help us, so it is only natural to want to help others. In most cases we dive in headfirst without thinking, and not only do we not help, but often we make matters worse for everyone involved including ourselves.

There is a human tendency to accept someone else’s situation as our own. For example, when a fellow employee tells you how the boss is mistreating them, it is common to feel resentment against the boss, even though your relationship with the boss is fine. Before you know it, your behavior towards the boss takes on a negative trend, and before you know it you and your co-worked are in the same boat and sinking fast. Who have you helped?

Of course you feel bad for your co-workers and others when you see them struggling and depressed, and while it may make them feel better if you joined them in their struggle, is really helpful to them, and fair to you?

The quick answer to this question is – If you were in their position wouldn’t you want them to join in your struggle? Fair enough, misery loves company, but does it really help? And is it fair to you?

I once worked in an office with a tyrannical boss. He not only micromanaged the office, he tried to micromanage everyone’s personal life. When I first joined the office I got along fine with the boss, in fact he liked me. Over time listening to everyone complain about the way they were treated I started to develop a dislike for the boss. Mind you he never did or said anything negative towards me. First thing you know I am starting to have the same problems as the others. In a way it felt like was one of the group with my own stories to tell, but it damaged my career and soured my working environment.

Did I do anyone any good? No –least of myself. Not only did I not improve my co-worker’s situation by my accepting their situation as my own, I now was in a worse situation myself. I don’t know what I expected, but my co-workers where not that eager to support me, as they were only focused on their own situation. Like a drowning man, they were reaching out to pull everyone down with them. It was not a band of brothers to fight a common foe. It was more like every man for himself in a bed of quicksand. The more you reached out to help someone the deeper you sank. It took some time to realize this was not a group effort and the only way out was the same way I got in, on my own.

There was no salvaging my standing with the boss and I eventually got a transfer, but I really didn’t learn my lesson. There are some who actually use this scenario to recruit supporters for their own agenda.

I worked with more than one person who was looking to get ahead by being a victim. By evoking a victim’s status, they drew others in to support them. First thing you know, they were using you as a pawn to fulfill their own agenda. Although competitive for the same promotions, all of sudden you appear to be supporting them. – Not smart at all.

There are few really hardhearted people. Most of us have feelings of empathy, sympathy and compassion, but some of us know how to better apply the correct emotion to a situation.
Empathy is when you take on someone’s problem as your own. There are very few situations where is the best thing to. This is the most common response. Your co-worker is in trouble with the boss, so you jump right into the fray without even knowing the facts. Soon you are in the same situation.
Sympathy is when you feel you should help someone, so you go out of your way to support them. The boss picks on your co-worker so you speak up to defend them. Usually you are butting into a situation you do not understand, and end up in hot water or looking very foolish.
Compassion is when you see someone struggling and come to their aid in a constructive way. The boss is picking on a co-worker for not getting their work done. You try to help your co-worker be more productive.

I learned a new term while researching for this article “ self-compassion”. Dr. Kristen Neff on her website http://www.self-compassion.org/ explains the concept of self-compassion. -The relentless search for high self-esteem has become a virtual religion; and a tyrannical one at that. Our competitive culture tells us we need to be special and above average to feel good about ourselves, but we can’t all be above average at the same time. There is always someone richer, more attractive, or successful than we are. And even when we do manage to feel self-esteem for one golden moment, we can’t hold on to it. Our sense of self-worth bounces around like a ping-pong ball, rising and falling in lock-step with our latest success or failure. Fortunately, there is an alternative to self-esteem that many psychologists believe is a better and more effective path to happiness: self-compassion.

Perhaps feeling someone’s pain may lead to compassion and feeling your own pain can lead to self-compassion.

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