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Pity vs Sympathy

In this episode, we break down our feelings over the outpouring of nice comments that viewers kindly left on YouTube on our last episode.

In this episode, we break down our feelings over the outpouring of nice comments that viewers kindly left on YouTube on our last episode. We touch on the difference between pity, sympathy and ‘feeling sorry’ for someone. Taimur feels strongly about this, Ali less so. We explore these feelings.

Here are some of the highlights from our discussion:

There’s a difference between pity and feeling sorry for someone. Pity is a feeling of discomfort and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones, sympathy on the other hand tends to involve care and concern for someone, and lacks the same condescending tones.

How we interpret reassuring comments is strongly influenced by the ambiguity of the terms pity and sympathy. Taimur tends to react negatively to those trying to offer reassurance. He believes that reassuring comments portray a feeling of pity rather than sympathy which is why he has such an adverse reaction to them. Ali counters by suggesting that this is not necessarily people feeling sorry or pity, it’s just people providing reassurance to show that they care whether the recipient needs it or not.

Feelings of pity are equally context dependent. Ali argues that if he was in a developing country and there were children running around in rags and no shoes, it’s very easy to have a pity response to that. Whereas it’s harder to have pity for someone that he knows in real life because there’s not the same feeling of ‘my goodness their life must be terrible’.

However, there are certainly categories of reassurance. These range from purely generic platitudes to reassurance that comes from domain expertise or experience. Pure platitudinous reassurance can come across as patronising and, on the whole, is not at all helpful whilst reassurance that comes from expertise and/or experience

Is reassurance problematic?

There’s a narrative that has developed that making someone uncomfortable is a cardinal sin regardless of the context. Clearly in most situations we shouldn’t be looking to make people feel uncomfortable, however Taimur argues that it’s the duty of trusted friends to push people and help each other in that way rather than optimising for short term kindness that reassurance and offering sympathy often provide.


This episode is kindly supported by Skillshare. Sign up at skillshare.com/notoverthinkingpod.

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