wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

You feel distressed. Who do you approach for compassion and support? Intuitively, you search for someone who has experienced something similar to you; surely they will be more understanding, empathetic, supportive, and compassionate than someone who has not gone through a similar struggle.

Surprisingly, a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found just the opposite.

Researchers used examples of five distressing events (e.g., enduring a polar plunge by swimming through icy water, or managing the emotional challenges of unemployment) to explore how people who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event evaluated others who had just gone through a similar experience. They found that people who had previously experienced similar situations were not always as supportive and compassionate as one might hope.

People who had already experienced similar hardship tended to be compassionate primarily when the person seeking their support seemed to have already endured the emotionally challenging experience. In contrast, those who had struggled with the challenging experience—people who could not complete the polar plunge, for example—were actually judged more harshly by people who had been through the same experience themselves

Why would a person who had been through a challenging emotional event be more negative and judgmental toward those who struggled with the same experience?

There are a couple of reasons:

  • First, our memory of challenging experiences tends to "soften," so we forget the real emotional distress we experienced and remember the event as less distressing than it actually was. Known as "empathy gaps," this phenomenon means that we are likely to have less empathy for another person who is going through the same thing than we might have were experience been more fresh in our minds. (See Do Others Underestimate Your Emotional Pain?)
  • Second, because we endured the event ourselves and have a weaker memory of how challenging it actually was, we believe that others should be able to endure it, and we might be less supportive and compassionate when we see them struggle. In other words, we think, "I managed so they should be able to manage as well."

What to Consider When Seeking Compassion from Others

Given these findings, when you are going through an emotionally challenging event—divorce, illness, loss, rejection, failure, or any other type of hardship—make sure to consider the following:

  1. If you’re going through a hard time but generally managing the situation, you are probably seeking a more general, ongoing kind of emotional support. Someone who has been through a similar experience would probably be a good bet for providing empathy and compassion.
     
  2. If you are at a low point or breaking point, you probably need additional support and accountability to help you get through your struggle. Someone who has been through a similar experience may judge you for your "moment of weakness," Better to seek someone who has not been through a similar experience to find more compassion and empathy.
     
  3. If you have a choice of people from whom you can seek support, be aware that some people are simply more compassionate and supportive than others. All things being equal, those people are the most likely to offer compassion, regardless of whether they have been through a similar experience themselves. (See 5 Questions to Answer Before Seeking Advice.)
     
  4. Above all, remember that the person who should be most compassionate to your emotional struggles is you!

Copyright 2015 Guy Winch

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