Do you find yourself wincing in empathic pain when others experience perceived hardships?
Do you feel pity for those who don’t have the same privileges or opportunities as you do?
While this might seem like an admirable, noble trait to have, it can actually be quite the opposite. Furthermore, it can be damaging to both you and those whom you feel sorry for.
So why is it that you feel sorry for others? And how can you stop repeating that (usually subconscious) behavior in the future?
Why do I feel bad for everyone?
There are several possible reasons why you feel bad for others. These feelings may arise because you’re a sincerely caring individual and you hate to see other people experience difficulty.
You may have been through a lot and think that others feel the same way that you did during those times, or you might have skewed perceptions about other people’s needs and wants based on your own values.
Below are some reasons why you might pity others. They may arise regularly or pop up once in a while when circumstances inspire them.
You feel the crushing guilt of privilege.
Let’s say you inherited a home from your grandparents and, as a result, you and your family have a lovely place to live. There’s no mortgage to pay, so you’re simply responsible for energy, water, and upkeep. Meanwhile, you hear your friends and coworkers talk about how broke they are because they have to pay exorbitant rent for apartments smaller than your kitchen.
As a result, you may feel intense guilt about the fact that you have things so much easier than others.
This can apply whether you’ve worked hard to get where you are or if your skin color or gender give you privileges that others don’t have.
You hurt because they’re hurting.
If you’re an empath, you may find yourself almost debilitated when you feel other people’s suffering. As a result, although it may seem as though you’re feeling sorry for others, the reality is that you want them to stop suffering so you can stop hurting in turn.
This is known as “selfish altruism” in some circles, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, you wish these people didn’t have to suffer as they do, but you’d also really like that misery to stop because then you won’t have to suffer either.
In cases like this, it may be difficult to discern where pity for the other person ends and pity for yourself begins. This is why self-awareness is so important. You don’t want to mistake one for the other and fall into patterns of indulging personal victimhood or martyring yourself for others’ wellbeing when you should be taking care of yourself instead.
You only see a small part of the picture.
You may pity others and feel sorry for what they’re going through, but you only have one or two puzzle pieces to work with. As a result, your mind fills in all the gaps and makes you assume that you know everything that’s going on in their lives.
Furthermore, you may have misplaced ideas about your own value versus that of other people. That might sound a bit harsh, but take some time to think about it honestly.
The things that make you feel most proud in your own life might mean absolutely nothing to the one you feel bad for. Sure, you might be able to bench press 300lbs, but the perceived “weak” person you feel sorry for might have three PhDs. They might place very little value on physical strength, and thus have no idea why you’d feel sorry for them.
You’ve been on the receiving end of formative conditioning.
When we were kids, we were always told to finish what was on our plates because starving kids in Africa were hungry and would be delighted if they had a plateful of boiled Brussels sprouts and mashed turnips to eat. This gave many of us the mistaken impression that the entire continent was comprised of malnourished children living in poverty.
That was quite a misconception, and it implied that Africa and its many peoples were suffering terribly. We were never told about thriving cities like Nairobi and Addis Ababa or the lush vegetables and fruits grown in Uganda and Zimbabwe. We grew up associating Africa with poverty and suffering because that’s what we were taught—not because we had any firsthand experience.
If you grew up with a similar type of formative conditioning, you might immediately feel sorry for someone due to what your elder family members or teachers told you about them, rather than finding out the truth of the situation. This isn’t limited to people of a particular ethnic background, but it can refer to social class, education level, religious leanings, or dietary preferences as well.
How can I stop feeling sorry for others all the time?
Feeling sorry for others can weigh heavily on a person’s heart and psyche, especially if it happens on a regular basis. Fortunately, you can decrease the impact that pity like this can have on you by analyzing where your feelings are coming from.
Below are a few tips that may help you determine the source of your own emotions. Much like any situation, determining the source of these emotions can help you figure out how to stop them.
1. Remember that they might not be suffering the way you think they are.
This ties in with what we discussed earlier about the differences in people’s values.
The ones you feel sorry for aren’t you, and as such, their priorities (and preferences) may be quite different from your own. In a similar fashion, although you may experience pain or sorrow in a particular way due to life circumstances, that doesn’t mean that those circumstances hurt other people the same way either.
As an example, a person from Sri Lanka might feel terribly sorry for someone in Siberia or Nunavut because of the horrible -50C weather they have to endure. But the Siberian or Inuk person doesn’t feel like they’re suffering at all; cold weather is normal to them. They know how to cope with it, and their people have thrived in those conditions for thousands of years.
In contrast, they might feel sorry for the Sri Lankan who has to deal with oppressive, cloying heat and mosquitoes the size of rottweilers.
This also goes for feeling bad for people because they don’t have access to the same material possessions or experiences that you do.
No two people will experience anything the same way. What makes one person happy will be excruciatingly boring or uncomfortable for another, and vice versa. The same goes for life circumstances and different types of personal fulfillment.
Have you ever had someone try to do something nice for you to cheer you up, but what they offered you was something that made them feel better, rather than what you like?
Maybe they brought you ice cream even though you don’t have a sweet tooth, because that’s what makes them happy. They can’t conceive of anyone not liking the same things they do, and since this brings them comfort, it must bring others comfort as well.
Similarly, while you might feel uncomfortable if you aren’t surrounded by creature comforts, that doesn’t mean others feel the same way.
For example, we had a massive power outage a while ago and had no electricity or running water for about a week.
Friends reached out to express their sympathy for our struggles, and many of our neighbors left the area to go stay with family members in the city before they went insane from a lack of internet access.
Meanwhile, we rigged up a stove from cement blocks, filtered water from the river, and enjoyed a blissful week without the sound of humming electronics.
Keeping this in mind can go a long way toward not feeling sorry for others all the time.
You might feel sorry for the people who live in mud huts, as well as for their children who don’t have a roomful of toys the way yours do. Meanwhile, they might very well feel sorry for the life you spend trapped behind a computer, dealing with mortgage payments and carpal tunnel syndrome. They’re just fine with what they have (or don’t have, for that matter).
2. Ask them for more details instead of assuming.
You might feel bad for others because you assume that they’re suffering, based on your own personal preferences and perspectives.
As an example, you might work with someone who brings the same, sad-looking sandwich and piece of fruit for lunch every single day. Since they never mix it up, you might glean that they’re not doing well financially and thus have to keep repeating that meal.
Alternatively, if it’s their partner or spouse making their lunch for them, you might think that their spouse doesn’t love them enough to change the menu for them on occasion.
That’s a personal narrative that you’re projecting onto someone else.
Instead of assuming, try asking. You may discover that this is your coworker’s favorite lunch in the whole world, and their partner loves them so much that they diligently make it absolutely perfect for them every day. Alternatively, they might tell you that they have dental sensitivities, food allergies, or issues with food textures and these are “safe foods” for them.
When we find out the truth about a situation, it sheds light on what we might have assumed to be something far different.
3. Determine why you feel superior to the ones you feel sorry for.
Generally, people who feel sorry for others feel on some level that those they’re pitying are inferior. Even if they don’t do so consciously, they see those “little people” as somehow being less than they are because they don’t have the same amount of money, material possessions, social standing, attractiveness, and so on.
When and if you feel sorry for someone because they don’t have your advantages, ask yourself if you’d still pity them if the advantages you currently have suddenly disappeared.
What if you lost your job and all your material possessions? Would you still feel sorry for the person who currently has less than you do? Or would you envy their faded furniture and tiny apartment because you only have a sleeping bag and a tent? How about if you lost your social standing due to a faux pas or your looks faded? Whom would you feel sorry for then?
Take a moment to really think about that, because awareness of that kind of mindset really drives home the feeling of superiority that may be ingrained in you. If it helps, consider wearing a mala bracelet (a beaded bracelet that is a smaller version of a mala) or other physical reminder that you can touch and meditate upon when and if these thoughts arise.
Think of them like literal touchstones that bring you back to the present moment and to the awareness that anyone’s life can change at the drop of a hat. What you feel sorry for today may be out of your league tomorrow, and vice versa.
4. Keep in mind that they may have privileges that you don’t.
While you’re feeling sorry for others because they haven’t had your advantages, they might take pity on you for similar reasons. Here you are, skipping merrily along thinking that you have it so much better than they do, but they might have countless great things going on in their life that you struggle with in turn.
For example, you may be well off financially but don’t have a close connection with your family. In contrast, they might struggle with finances, but they have a huge, close-knit extended family that offers loving support and joy.
Everyone has some type of privilege or benefit that others lack, and vice versa. One person might have been extraordinarily fertile while another had to have in vitro fertilization to conceive a child. Another may have had the benefit of an elite education, while another has much better physical health.
It’s easy to assume that you have it better than others at a passing glance, but the opposite may very well be true. As a result, you don’t ever have to feel bad that others don’t share your privileges; they’re likely just fine with what they have.
5. Remember that hardships are necessary for personal development.
Feeling sorry for people who are suffering isn’t a bad thing, as it shows that you have immense compassion and empathy. You may also feel drawn to take action to alleviate said suffering (as mentioned above), though the actions you’re capable of taking will depend on each situation.
While lending a helping hand can do a lot of good for many people, it’s also important to learn how to recognize when someone who’s suffering truly needs help and when said suffering is a vital part of their character development.
Here’s a truth that’s difficult for most people to stomach: It’s only through hardship that people can develop resilience.
A person who doesn’t experience any kind of difficulty can’t cultivate vital coping mechanisms that they’ll need for the challenges they’ll inevitably experience as they go through life. We might want to spare others from feeling pain or fear because we don’t want them to hurt, and that’s very noble. But hurt is part of life, and if they don’t learn how to deal with it in a healthy fashion, it’ll incapacitate them when it does pop up.
Similarly, most people only develop real empathy for others after they’ve experienced similar circumstances. Those who’ve gone through difficulty are often the best suited to help others who are navigating the same thing.
Additionally, those who have experienced hunger are often the ones who end up being incredibly generous when it comes to donating to food banks or cooking for those in need.
6. Learn how to shield yourself.
We touched on this earlier in the article. If you’re an empath who is easily affected by other people’s suffering, then it’s important to protect yourself. Since you can’t simply decide to stop being an empath, you’ll need to take some measures to keep yourself from being overwhelmed.
When you know that you’re going to be in a place where you’ll be exposed to those who are going through a rough time, try to take action to avoid it for the sake of your own wellbeing.
For example, you can listen to music through earbuds or AirPods to distract you from their emotions. Wear sunglasses if you need to as a sort of dampening field so visuals aren’t as sharp, and so on.
You can also try to envision a bubble of calm around you at all times. Make this bubble as large or as small as you like, and try to avoid letting others within its boundaries. This becomes your “armor of light” and is designed to protect you from others’ energy and emotions so they can’t harm you.
This is really no different than putting on a raincoat and boots if you’re venturing out into the rain. If it means that you’ll actually be functional for the rest of the day rather than crying in the office bathroom, then do what you need to do.
Another way to protect yourself from empathy overload is to cut down on your social media use. At every moment, there are many people who are dealing with immense hardship, and doom scrolling is only going to make your empathic nature go into overdrive. If you find yourself being far too injured by all the sadness and suffering going on in the world, take a step back from it.
Make some tea, put on some music that inspires you, do some yoga, and meditate to bring yourself back into the present moment. The weight of the world isn’t yours to carry, and you’re absolutely allowed to step away from it when you need to for the sake of your own sanity.
This is where we reiterate that self-care isn’t selfish. In fact, it’s vital for our own survival.
7. “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
There isn’t a single sentient being on this planet who isn’t going to experience pain at some point in their life. But pain does not have to lead to suffering. This is the essential teaching of the four noble truths of Buddhism.
Pain comes in countless different forms, and it can range from losing one’s home to becoming ill or injured. Death is also inevitable, and there’s often pain associated with that as well—whether it’s a slow illness causing one’s own end or the pain that comes with losing loved ones.
When we acknowledge this inevitability, we can learn to accept pain and even lean into it, rather than trying to avoid it at all costs. It’s often the aversion itself that causes the most suffering. As such, you may have an aversion to the pain that someone else is going through, whereas they’ve made peace with it.
8. See to your own house first.
It’s often a lot easier to feel sorry for others and want to help them sort out their lives than to turn the focus inward and sort out one’s own problems.
Quite often, people fixate on all the things that are going badly in other people’s lives so they can avoid dealing with their own mess. You’ve likely seen this type of projection before. People in terrible relationships may try to “help” others fix their broken marriages. Or a person with various health issues of their own might try to remedy their friends’ and relatives’ ailments.
Instead of feeling sorry for others, bring your focus back to your own life. There may be dirty dishes in your friend’s sink, but the cobwebs in your kitchen could use some tending to as well, right?
9. Take action to help.
In general, pity (or feeling sorry for others) is a spectator sport. It implies that the person feeling sorry is superior to the one being pitied. It’s unlikely that they can do anything about the other person’s suffering, so they wince, feel bad for a moment, and carry on.
In contrast, compassion pushes one to take action to help instead. It brings everyone to the same level as human beings and inspires us to reach out to alleviate suffering, if we can.
If you come across a vulnerable group that really is suffering—not just dealing with issues that you find difficult—then one of the best ways to stop feeling sorry for them is to take whatever action you can to ease said suffering. This has the dual benefit of alleviating the awfulness they’re experiencing and lightening your heart in terms of feeling bad for them.
Each of us has the ability to do some good in the world, even with limited resources. For example, you don’t have to donate money every day to be a good person if you’re of little means personally, but if and when you have a couple of dollars to spare, you can put them toward a cause you feel strongly about.
Similarly, if you have a skill that someone else can benefit from, then consider putting that to good use to help them out.
Hopefully this article has helped you to figure out why you keep feeling sorry for others. Once you’ve determined where that pity has come from, you can either take steps to overwrite your formative conditioning, shift perspective, or even take steps to make things a bit better for those who are hurting.
While you’re at it, you can also be patient and understanding with yourself for having felt this way. It’s okay to feel bad about being privileged, but another person’s suffering doesn’t somehow negate your own emotions in that regard. The key is self-knowledge so that you understand why you feel various emotions, and then you can decide what it is you want to do about it.
Are you the type of person who can step away from an emotional experience? Or do you feel like you want to put those emotions into philanthropic action? There’s no one-size-fits-all right answer here.
You have your own path to walk just like they have theirs. Maybe you’ll meet halfway and discuss your respective journeys and learn to understand a bit more about one another without any pity or bad feelings arising at all.