What To Do When The Sympathy Runs Out

Months (or years) have passed since your break-up and you’re still talking about it; your friends can’t stand the mention of your ex's name. You’re still suffering physically and emotionally from some lagging chronic illness; people have long stopped calling to ask how you are. Your beloved dog died weeks ago and you still cry about it everyday; your family tells you to get over it already.

How do we cope when other people have run out of tissue, willing ears to listen, sympathy, and patience? How do we get through when people jump ship while we’re still weathering the storm?

This is all too familiar. Four years into my Lyme saga most people have trouble understanding how something can be so persistent, why I can’t just ‘get over it’ or stop suffering. In a world that expects quick fixes and instant gratification, where time moves faster and faster, we seem to have a harder time than ever before allowing for the processes that certain life situations require.

I received a nasty and ignorant message regarding one of my blog posts a couple months ago—the first ever in all the years of sharing my process publicly. The message said, amongst other things, ‘Don’t you think people are tired of hearing about your suffering?

Loaded into this question, was the idea that sympathy is limited and that I had long used up my share.

I’m healing as fast as I can and handling this extremely challenging situation as gracefully as I can. As is everyone, I believe, who goes through the tough-as-shit things life can sometimes present us with. Even with four years of research, a holistic doctor, and sourcing from every inner and outer resource I have, it’s messy and, yes, it's taking forever. I’m doing the best I can. I’m pretty sure that those of us who are undergoing the lengthy recovery process with Lyme are more inconvenienced by it than a healthy bystander could ever be.

This calls to mind a scene from a movie called ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, the story of teenagers living with terminal cancer who meet in a support group and fall in love. Their friend who’s living with ocular cancer is about to have an invasive surgery that will leave him permanently blind and his girlfriend has left him in the days before the procedure. He says incredulously, I’m the one going blind and she can’t handle it?!”

Messy shit is inconvenient, especially to those who don’t have to go through it.

Having the inner space to hold suffering—our own and someone else’s has everything to do with capacity (I wrote about this in my Soul Tribe post awhile back). Our ability to be present to the suffering of others is directly proportionate to how present we can be with our own ‘stuff’. Also, I’ve noticed that as people get busy, distracted, and swept up in their own lives their ability to be present often decreases. Those who neglect their own pain or processes will certainly not be able to be present with yours or mine. In that sense sympathy is limited. Compassion has everything to do with the capacity we're able to bring to any given moment.

When another person’s suffering annoys us it’s a clear indicator that we’re not in our hearts. Suffering is an inconvenience only when it’s met, not with compassion, but with judgment.

It’s not just those of us going through tough stuff—we all have a narrative. No matter who you are or what you’re living, there's a pretty predictable stream of dialogue coming out of our mouths at any given time. The content of our stories may vary, but we're all largely defined by the stories we hold about our life situations, our world, and ourselves.

Understandably when you’re chronically ill or in pain it takes up a lot of bandwidth, or inner space. When you’re going through a divorce or breakup, have endured a loss, or suffered a trauma, it takes up a lot of headspace and heartspace—and it should. Part of the transformational nature of these challenges is how all consuming they are. They totally dislodge ‘business as usual’ and completely disrupt our narrative about our world and ourselves.

It’s understandable that most people cannot follow us out of their own ‘business as usual’ or that people only have so much ability to be with suffering. Powerful healing processes take time, often way more time than we’ve allotted and far more time than is convenient. Understandably, there is a limit to how much people can hear about the same thing over and over.



When the sympathy runs out, when people can no longer listen, when they’ve stopped passing the tissue, calling, or seeming to care, here are a few things to explore.

1. Check Yourself

Is your emotional response still in a ‘healthy’ range? If so—carry on, even if you have to do that without certain people. Most people have a pretty low toleration for heavy-duty stuff. We mustn’t take that personally. If you’re unsure or just need extra support I recommend enlisting a professional therapist to provide support for your process. If you feel like you’re going it alone a bit more than you'd like or if people in your support network are dropping like flies—it happens and it’s not personal even though it hurts like hell—it’s time to enlist a professional or to look into support groups. That’s what they’re there for.

It’s important that we both feel things fully and that we know when enough is enough. There’s a fine line between healthy processing and the downward spiral of wallowing or being a victim. A therapist can help you determine if you’ve crossed that line and what to do about it.

2. Take Refuge In The Present Moment

I know you’re probably rolling your eyes, but hold on. This simple shift is what allows me to get through most days. When we focus our awareness in the here and now it automatically loosens the big ominous story of our suffering and it lightens our load. When we’re fully and completely in the present moment, we see that the story of our loss, our illness, our hardship is just that—a story. Eckart Tolle speaks to this at length in his book ‘The Power of Now’. In the moment there is only the sensations of the body, the breath coming and going, and what is absolutely immediate—the floor beneath my feet, the birds outside the window, the sound of my finger tips typing on the keyboard. In the absolute present there is no long-winded saga of chronic illness—I’m able to release the weight of all that. When the weight of our loss, trauma, or illness feels unbearable we can take refuge in the moment and find breathing space there—one breath at a time.

3. Practice Fierce Self-Compassion

Finally, when the sympathy runs out it’s a great time to take your self-compassion to a whole new level. As much as support from others is essential to healing, your process is ultimately your own. We have to give to ourselves what we need. We can support ourselves by crafting an unconditional friendship with ourselves. Are you listening to you? Are you being patient with you? Are you being gentle and kind with you? Here’s a little incantation to stoke fierce self-compassion:

I approve of me even if you don’t approve of me. I’m here for me even if you’re not here for me. I’m patient with me even if you’re not patient with me. I love me even if you can’t love me right now. I forgive me even if you don’t forgive me. I have compassion for me even if you don’t have compassion for me. (You get the idea).


Some people will naturally fall away on your journey to make room for others who will step in. Some people will make it some of the way with you, others will bail right at the get go. Some people will come and go throughout the process. Not everyone will be able to make it through your ordeal—can you really blame them? This is heavy-duty stuff! Forgiveness is key—and for most of us forgiveness needs to be an ongoing practice in the face of feeling let down in our hour of need.

Compassion is one of the greatest gifts of suffering.  Compassion is a treasure that is forged in the alchemical heat of our suffering. Those who haven’t endured are rarely keepers of unshakeable compassion and sympathy.

We can give thanks then, that we, who’ve gone to the very edge of our tenacity and back, are in turn compassionate beings who will be able to meet others in their suffering. Stay strong my love. It’s not all for nothing.


Copyright © 2015 Marie-Ève Bonneau