You can cheer for the underdog, but don’t take it home: pity friendships

For the well-adjusted among us, who’ve never heard of pity friendships,  the definition of a pity friendship is a friendship where one party becomes friends or friendly with the other party because they feel sorry for them, and not because they are naturally really good friends.

Being something of a closet bleeding heart, I have had a few too many pity friendships over the years, starting when I was about six. I always felt sorry for the underdog, or in primary school terms, the kids that got mercilessly picked on by the other kids.

I became  friends in primary school with a girl who had pretty much every state of difference that the other kids got mean about – she had red hair, freckles, a hare lip, and a cleft palette. I saw her feeling sad and lonely, and embarrassed, after being teased and I burned with righteous indignation.  I spoke to her when the others didn’t, and I found a friend – she was highly intelligent, and funny. We became pals, and it was a good friendship (until she moved away and we lost touch completely).

This is not written in order to be show-offy about what a fabulous person I am (feel free to infer this… :)), but to say that friends can be found in unexpected places. However, this post is more about a note of caution, and a tiny bit of wisdom learned the hard way. While I was lucky in that childhood instance that sympathy turned into friendship, I have now learned, as a grownup,  that sympathy is sympathy, and friendship is friendship, and they are not necessarily interchangeable.

I should pause to note here that the friends I have today are not pity friendships – so to all my friends reading this blog, you are true pals, and I love you all for the glorious human beings you are!

The thing with pity friendships is that you feel a kind of obligation – you’ve taken someone on, rather as you might take home an ill-treated animal from the animal shelter, and you think you have a responsibility towards them. If it’s an animal we’re talking about, you probably do, but if it’s a human then the playing field is somewhat more level.

There’s nothing wrong with helping people, but I have come to understand that it is not really kind or helpful in the long term to confuse acts of kindness with acts of friendship. The harm is more likely to rebound on you than it will on the recipient of your pity – they’ll probably never know how good you’ve been.

For me the problem is really in my expectations – I expect my pity recipients to know how amazing I’ve been, and to respond with the appropriate gratitude, and when (quelle surprise!) they don’t, I am hurt and saddened. A note of warning, still on the animal motif, – sometimes underdogs bite the hand that feeds them. And when, on occasion, I dump them, after realising how one-sided and unhelpful it was for me, they never understand why, and then I feel mean, and then…time to stop.

So I shall find some other channel for my milk-of-human-kindness…volunteering for a good cause might work it out of my system in a more productive way, rather than picking up strays of any breed. Peace Corp, here we come..!

Have you experienced a pity friendship, (giving or receiving), and what was your resolution?

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