It’s often said that communication is critical to successful relationships – it is – but what we often don’t realise is that often when we do communicate with others or convey information about ourselves, we can be frequent users of words that we don’t actually truly understand the meaning of.


Right up there as one of the most overused and misunderstood words, I’m regularly told “I’m a deeply compassionate person” and “I stayed because I felt a great deal of compassion for him/her”.

Meaning: Feeling sympathy and concern for the sufferings and misfortune of others.

While it is good to be compassionate, pity along with concern for suffering and misfortune, are not reasons to stay in a relationship or be attracted to someone, nor something that you really need to boast about as a relationship quality – you kinda expect people to be compassionate anyway. Most people don’t seek to be pitied unless they like being victims, which would have further implications for your relationship. If you tend to use this term you’re likely a fixing/healing/helping Florence Nightingale that likes to feel needed and have ‘problems’ as a purpose. You’ve got to stop inflating your emotional airbag – your job is not to lessen the impact of their previous relationships or experiences!

Empathy and Sympathy

Lack of empathy is a real issue in relationships but it is often mixed up with sympathy.

Meaning: Empathy is about understanding and sharing in another person’s position which includes their feelings.

Sympathy – Yep, it’s to feel pity for another’s misfortune

Empathy is critical – not only will it help you step outside the box and consider another person’s perspective but you will be more conscientious in your actions and avoid making swift judgements and assumptions.

Empathy isn’t the same as thinking about what you would think, feel, and do in the same position and assuming that this is what they feel or have experienced – that’s putting yourself in your own shoes not theirs. You still need to relate to their actual position. Likewise being able to empathise doesn’t mean ‘Let me leap in there and fix/heal/help you’ plus it also doesn’t mean that you should take on their problems which are all acts of pitying someone.

Here’s what pity looks like “Oh, there there. How sad/awful. I bet they must always have wanted someone to love them so they can feel like a worthy person. Ooh, lightbulb coming on! I know – I can love and take care of them and they will be so grateful for my love and love me back too!”

Empathising with them would be to understand their position but not deciding that you’re the solution to the problem or trying to be in control of managing it and instead, letting them remain in control of it. It’s also important to note that if and when someone does understand your position, it doesn’t mean they automatically agree with it.


It’s important to understand our feelings and own and validate them but sometimes we get the descriptions mixed up. Eg. “I’m hurt that you didn’t take out the bins/trash.’ or I’m hurt you said X’ or ‘I’m hurt that you did Y to me’.

Meaning: Hurt is about experiencing mental pain or distress.

It’s important to distinguish between someone not doing what you want, someone not doing something in the way that you would like, and someone doing something that directly relates to causing emotional distress. Expand your range of feelings beyond hurt because it shouldn’t be the automatic descriptor for everything that other people do that you don’t like.

Acknowledging a variety of feelings appropriate to each situation combined with having levels of what actually constitutes hurt, will make for more meaningful dialogue. If the word we reach for is always ‘hurt’ we communicate to partners that every slight, no matter the size will cause us emotional distress – that’s a lot for someone to deal with.

I’m irritated that you didn’t take out the bins. – The truth is that it’s a bit excessive to be in mental distress over the bins not being taken out. And as an aside, it’s important not to equate any and all things down to disrespect. People forget, get absorbed in other stuff etc. It’s unrealistic to decide ‘If someone loves me they won’t forget anything or make a mistake because it will hurt/disrespect me that they didn’t put me in the centre of each and every thought’.

I’m pissed off that you said X. – You may well be hurt. However you could, depending on what was said be irritated, annoyed or angry that it was said and following that, should there be a lack of apology or explanation, then yes, you will be hurt. Conflict is tricky but unavoidable. If we say we’re hurt every time we have even the most minor of disagreements, it sends a message that discussions will be shut down or avoided for fear of causing distress.

‘I’m hurt because when you did Y, I felt that you were being disrespectful to me and as a result it feels like you Z’ is more ‘productive’. You will experience moments of being hurt even in the happiest of copiloted relationships but if you follow up admissions of hurt with being a little specific as to how you came to feel that way, you create a situation where not only do you give them the opportunity to understand your position (empathy) but you understand why you feel as you do.


I spoke with a reader a while back who was frustrated that her guy wasn’t proposing despite some previous conversations and now hints. I suggested she have a talk – shot down. She preferred to hint, simmer, and no doubt inadvertently convey a nervousness.

Meaning: Indirectly or even just slightly indicating something.

Your relationship can’t afford for you to be covert about what matters to you especially since a hint is only as good as the person receiving the message and due to the nature of being indirect, either the message is lost or you end up being irritating. Relationships require vulnerability and willingness to communicate with open, honest dialogue, something that’s difficult to achieve if you seek to avoid vulnerability by being indirect. It’s also frustrating because you seek to get a lot without putting yourself out there.


People love describing themselves as kind, which is somewhat less vanilla than ‘nice’. Unfortunately some people are so ‘kind’ that you couldn’t distinguish them in a lineup of doormats.

Meaning: Friendly, considerate, charitable, goodness, understanding and if you engage in being, for example compassionate or selfless they are acts of kindness in themselves.

Kindness is still a virtue and a very necessary quality, however, while we can endeavour to be kind, it is part and parcel of being an authentic human being, something we should all strive to be anyway. Often people who try to be The Good Girl/Guy are the biggest users of the term ‘kind’ and in attempting to maintain an image of ‘goodness’ can end up in bad situations in the name of not looking ‘bad’. Some people are too friendly, too considerate, too charitable to the point where they will get knee deep in an abusive relationship and have their compassionate meter on high at the same time. You can be kind without being naive or blind.

People that know the true meaning of kind also know how to be kind to themselves . It isn’t selfless to treat others like the sun shines up their backsides while treating yourself badly – it’s low self-esteem and disrespect of yourself.

Your thoughts? Can you suggest any terms that get misused? I will be doing a follow up which will include terms like ‘communication’, ‘discussion’ and ‘break up’.

Check out my ebooks the No Contact Rule and Mr Unavailable & The Fallback Girl and more in my bookshop.

Source of some of the meanings Oxford Dictionaries – compassion, hurt, kind, hinting

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