This is the only kind of sympathy I can get down with
I know, people mean well. I really do. But I really wish people would stop giving me their sympathy. (aka pity)
I really don't want it. It just makes me have to work harder to be resilient because after they're done, I feel like my life sucks.
Now, I get it. My son is in a wheelchair. He has a fatal illness. It makes people sad.
And they want to say something.
But dropping their face and saying, (cue a really sing-songy voice):
"I am sooooo sorry."
"Oh my God, I don't know what I would do."
"I can't imagine what that would be like."
...Just makes me feel worse.
It sounds like my life is horrible. It sounds like no one would ever want what I have.
Yes, I know they have the best intentions. But I have to work extra hard to feel strong after they talk to me.
It's the truth and I want to be real with you.
So, the first time I learned of "Sympathetic Joy," my first reaction was, "Oh, no, that sounds like something to stay away from."
I'm not learning that.
But I was so very wrong about this one.
Sympathetic Joy is a Buddhist teaching that means having Joy for others’ Joy.
Ok, sounds simple, right?
But let's be real. Let's be honest about what goes through our minds when we hear of success for someone else.
Sometimes, overt feelings like:
"I wish I could be like her or have what she has"
"Why can't I ever get that even though I work just as hard."
And there's really a more subversive feeling going on under there. What you're really saying is:
"If she has what I want, there's LESS for me to have."
Yep, scarcity. That's what you're saying. That there's only enough joy to go around.
Now, since we're being real here, I'm also going to admit to you that this sympathetic joy thing has been a VERY hard thing for me to learn. Because when I got really honest with myself, I realized I was living in this scarcity state ALL the time.
It's not pretty and I'm not proud of it, but here's what was going on in my head:
"She's prettier than me."
"She is a luckier mother than me because her kids are healthy."
"She wrote the book I wanted to write (Damnit! usually followed that.)
And unfortunately, I could keep writing on and on but you get the idea?
But I worked with it and it finally landed in the right place for me and it's made BIG changes in my outlook.
Since learning how to use this, I actually feel the opposite of that word sympathy (aka pity party) that I was scared of.
And I want to teach YOU how to use it.
Sympathetic Joy gets us out of our negative downward spirals.
The truth is we usually celebrate what WE get, not what others get. Like I said before, we somehow think there won’t be enough to go around.
But the truth is if we can have Joy for what others get, we can feel better ourselves. Trust me, I didn’t think this was true and I thought I’d just be faking it, but it works!
The Dalai Llama talked about this when he asked us to think about it. It is in OUR vested interest for other people to feel joy. Because the more they feel joy, the more chance we have to feel it. It’s just an odds game.
And it does you no good to spiral into what you don’t have because someone got something you wanted.
So, how do I do this practically?
Let’s get into the good stuff here. When I hear someone else is happy and I feel myself go down the scarcity, pity myself party rabbit hole, I stop and breathe. (I always stop and breathe before I do anything. It’s just the smart thing to do. Stop and put a space between that moment and the next as a transition.)
And then I close my eyes (or not, if I’m driving:) or in a place where I can’t) and say to myself something like,
“May you feel even more joy for the days to come.” or
“May your joy be an example to me of the possibility we all have for joy.”
Use your own words but basically, I move myself into a place of feeling abundance instead of scarcity. Try it next time. It takes some practice but it really disrupts that negative downturn AND turns you TOWARD the other person because the reality is they deserve their joy.
This simple twist has made me happier because I am less negative (yay!) about myself and less anxious because I’m not letting anyone’s joy be a way that I diminish myself.
Sympathetic Joy teaches us stronger compassion and connection.
Ok, sometimes it’s hard to do this, I’ll admit. To have joy for someone else.
But in the end, your gift of appreciating their joy is a gift to yourself.
If you can’t find joy for their joy, think about them as a person in the bigger context of their lives.
How they have worked so hard to achieve what they have or maybe how they have faced other obstacles in their life and now it’s wonderful that they can be happy.
See them as human who suffers and triumphs just like you.
This will connect you to them more deeply while cultivating compassion for them as a regular person.
When you feel yourself tightening up in your body, heart or mind in reaction to their joy, close your eyes and breathe. (Yep, that breath is ALWAYS the first step.)
And then, think about them in their larger life. If you know how they have suffered in the past, extend your compassion for that. If you don’t know anything about their larger life context, just think about them as a child and moving towards this point in their life. That they have had surely obstacles as well as wins and that you are just here to see one of their big wins.
They are human, just like you.
I feel more energetic when I practice this because I am opening up to this joy instead of letting it push me down. Think about it, I’m not fighting it anymore this way.
And let me know how it works for you! I was so resistant to this concept at first so I get it, if you read through this whole thing and still think I’ve missed the mark this week.
But if I’ve planted a seed, just nurture it and see where it takes you.