A few years ago, a friend said she felt sorry for me because I didn’t drink coffee. Last week, my aunty told me she felt sorry for me that I didn’t go to church. In both cases, I could see what each was saying: “I find this thing enjoyable/calming/whatever, and I want you to experience this same kind of joy/peace/whatever, because I love you.” But what struck me about both of those comments was that they weren’t preceded by me tearfully sharing my deep sadness over the lack of coffee or church in my life; had they asked or listened, they would have noticed that in fact I fell somewhere on the spectrum between neutral and completely happy about both my caffeinated-beverage and Sunday-morning decisions.
I’m not sure it’s ever okay to say “I feel sorry for you” (unless your aim is to insult somebody, in which case, go nuts*). Even if the person feels sorry for themselves, it seems to be a self-centred reaction: why start talking about your feelings when someone else has just shared theirs? Let them have their moment. This isn’t about you. But “I feel sorry for you” is especially inappropriate when the person you’re speaking to has given you no reason to believe they’re at all sorry about their circumstances/preferences/choices. It shows you’re listening to your thoughts and feelings rather than those of the person you’re speaking with, and it suggests that you believe the only way a person can live a truly fulfilled life is if they are exactly like you.
It’s totally fine to want other people to feel the same positive feelings as you – I, too, want good things for everyone I know, as well as many people I don’t! Here’s the difference, though: saying “I feel sorry for everyone who hasn’t heard this song” is not the same as saying “I want everyone in the world to feel the same kind of incredible joy that I felt while listening to this song.” The latter sees that fundamentally one’s desire is for the feeling to be shared, not necessarily the song. It acknowledges and accepts that the song you love may make someone else gag, while the song that brings them incredible joy is the one that makes you switch stations every time it comes on. People are different. Different is good.
So, if you’re about to blurt out, “I feel sorry for you!” you could stop and say instead, “I find it so interesting that you’re not upset about not drinking coffee, when I find so much pleasure in it!” Or, “Isn’t it strange that a service that brings comfort to one person can have the complete opposite effect on another person?”
Rather than the message being, “If you were like me your life would be better,” it would be, “We’re different, and I love you anyway.”
* This is a joke. Please be kind.
** There’s a cool study, described in the first few minutes of this talk, which found that sometime between 15 and 18 months old, babies figure out that not everyone likes the same things they do. The researcher made it clear she preferred broccoli over crackers and then asked the baby, “Can you give me some?” 18-month-old babies would offer the researcher broccoli, whereas the 15-month-olds would offer the crackers, because DUDE. It’s BROCCOLI. I’m not sure what I’m saying with this, but I couldn’t help thinking of it. (Possibly: We learned this lesson a reeeeally long time ago! We should know better!)