Following on from yesterday where I talked about This One Time in Band Camp stories and how we can often connect with someone over their hurt, or feel invested because of their pain, I wanted to expand on the whole ‘Florence Nightingale’ role that many women play and how we don’t realise how we’re removing power by being sympathetic instead of empathetic.

I was talking recently with a reader who came up with a great analogy about empathy and sympathy as we had been discussing the issue of being a Florence Nightingale, a woman who focuses her energy on fixing/healing/helping people who have been almost specifically chosen for their potential workload. I explained how empathy (having the ability to share in someone’s feelings) is necessary in relationships instead of taking a sympathetic view point, which not only removes power, but causes you to make misguided assumptions about people, which you will then use to legitimise what you feel are your opportunities to fix/heal/help.

In an inspired moment, she said something like “So it would be like seeing somebody sinking in quicksand. Empathy would be to run into the quicksand to help them and sympathy would have you throwing something in to help drag them out”. I was like yes but the other way round and she didn’t understand why I thought this, and we went back and forth, and we continued the discussion on email.

I saw her analogy about empathy and sympathy in an entirely different way, and if you have ever been a sucker for a sob story or you’ve been inclined to let your instinct to nurture and control go into overdrive, by trying to fix/heal/help men, this is what I saw:

Jumping into the quicksand with them wasn’t going to help them, but if the person had empathised and understood their position, they’d have realised they needed to be dragged out, not a companion to drown with. To stretch my interpretation further, I often speak to women who take on the other persons problems, to the point where they end up with alcohol/drug issues, for instance, or some other symptomatic issue – that’s getting too ‘with’ it and enabling the other persons problem while adding to your own. What would make a huge difference to women in these situations is hearing the persons problem/story, empathising and even being a little sympathetic, and recognising that these are not problems that they can fix or are equipped to fix, not least because in thinking that they can, they assume that the solution to the other persons problems lies in them, when in actual fact, it lies in the other person. The longer they stick around, the perception that this person holds the key becomes like a lead weight and may even be smothering, especially because many women take up this role before there is any real relationship or the other person has worked out how and what they feel. It feels too much and the average person doesn’t want someone to be the solution to their problems – if they want to be loved, they want to be loved, not fixed, healed, and helped.
Sympathy removes power whereas empathy empowers is what I always say.
I think we can feel with someone without actually taking on their problems and internalising them.

If you’ve been receptive to tales of woe or felt connected by the pain of someone’s past, or believed that whatever information you knew about someone’s experiences gave you a legitimate reason to ‘love and stay’, you do it because:

It gives you a purpose. You like to be needed and in these relationships, you can imagine that with you at their side, they can overcome their problems. If the fantasy extends further, you may even believe you’ll bask in the glow of the praise and admiration that you think people will express when they see the positive difference that you’ve made on someone’s life.

It gives you a reason to stay. It’s very easy to get ‘lost’ in someone else’s drama and decide that if you can ‘support’ them, it will eradicate the other issues that exist. It’s a bit like assuming that the problem is their problems as opposed to other reasons that may also exist. You may also look for return on investment and then not recognise when to ‘fold’.


You believe that you and your ‘love’ can be the ‘solution’ to someone’s ‘problem’. Tying into the need to be needed role, is the idea of being a buffer, fluffer, gap filler, human airbag, or nurse. You think the ‘love’ and the fixing/healing/helping ways of a good woman will conquer all turning your frog into a prince.

You believe that they’ll be more receptive to what you have to offer because they are wounded. Yes, it’s basically like dating someone with problems because you’re afraid to truly put yourself out there. Naturally, knowing that you could do better, you’ll expect them to be ‘grateful’ and express their gratitude by sorting themselves out.

You try to heal your own wounds by attempting to heal theirs. You want to right the wrongs of your past. It could be that your parents (or someone else of importance) were similar or that you’ve had a really painful experience where someone else’s pain clouds out yours and acts as a distraction. You also hope that they’ll understand your pain and then be caught off guard when they don’t.

It lets you feel in control. For Florence Nightingales, relationships that don’t involve The Walking Wounded or guys with what they perceive as fixer upper potential, don’t feel attractive because they’ll cause you to feel out of control. Secretly, you’re worried about whether these ‘other’ people would reject you – at least you know what to expect with your usual guys.

There are so many issues that arise from being in these types of relationships, not least because your ‘partners’ are likely to rebel or even overcome their issues and then associate you with their ‘old self’, but also because you’ll suffer with I Can Change Him syndrome, control and co-dependency issues, and will feel bewildered by the lack of gratitude and the absence of the relationship you thought you’d get.

However, aside from these host of issues, playing Florence Nightingale, whether you’re a bit of an extreme makeover type that chooses guys and then demands change, or a ‘nurturing’ type that takes on people with dangerous problems that you’re ill-equipped to solve with your presence and brand of ‘love’, it’s the fact that you assume that you are the only solution to their problem, that they need you and your love, or that you can make someone’s life better because you know that you’re ‘better’ that proves to be dangerous and disrespectful.The dangerous part is almost obvious because you may place yourself in dangerous situations, or with dangerous people, or end up seriously damaging your own emotional health. But the disrespectful part is the thing that most find difficult to swallow.

Trying to fix/heal/help someone as a mode of relationship removes their power. You assume that you are the solution to their problem(s) and that because you have decided that you love them and that you want to be with them, that they should be receptive to whatever you have to offer.

You’re trying to solve someone else’s problems. You’re assuming that you have that great a power that they should be able to transform and change under the glow of your love and your presence.

You’re trying to be bigger than the problem – choose me instead of drink/sex/drugs/being a narcissist or whatever their issue is. It’s the ultimate validation – not only having someone make you the exception to their rule of behaviour, but ‘overcoming’ a serious issue because they met you and you became the solution.

And I should emphasise, that many women take up the Florence Nightingale role without their being your typical major issue like an addiction to something or actual personal and mental health problems. Plenty of women will assume Florence Nightingale when they hear information about their partner such as experiences with an ex, bereavements, financial issues, family woes, or just a sad story. The problem is that on hearing these stories, often with them being genuine and it not necessarily having to be a This One Time in Band Camp tale of woe, they take pity and then determine things about the guy and imagine the type of relationship that they could have with this guy based on their assumptions, and then decide that they’re attracted and/or in love.

When you become aware of the issues that these guys have and decide to fix/heal/help, you’re jumping into the quicksand with them. When you get healthier ideas about reasons to actually be in a relationship (values for instance), you’ll realise that you don’t need to take on other people’s problems or assume that they need you to be better. In fact, you’re unlikely to be attracted to them.
Your thoughts?

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