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  • Writer's pictureRachael Yahne

You Down with OPP? (Other People's Problems)

Romantic yet tragic, the myth of the starving artist is all to real. As such, to literally and metaphorically afford articles here on HerAfter, I do many things and make many sacrifices. This includes two main factors on a daily basis: seeking constant education and inspiration (I’ll be in the corner of the library, thanks), and putting myself smack dab in the firing range of other people’s problems. On the literal side, that meant waitressing and working in customer service to pay the bills. The metaphorical side was balanced by, as always, life’s majestically hilarious joke of continual and perfect balance: those experiences allowed me to get up close and personal with my best subjects, which are every day people trying to live their lives, be happy and get things done. When something went wrong during the pursuit of any of those three goals, people need to put their problems into someone else’s hands. The waitress. The front desk girl. The service representative on the other end of the help line. I got paid to fix other people’s problems. Then I turned their problems – their emotional needs, their insecurities and fears, their want to be understood and heard – into ideas for articles here.

The truth is, a ‘problem’ can only be viewed one of two ways: as be a barrier, or an opportunity. I found that most people would rather willingly choose anger and powerlessness so that they don’t have to take responsibility for solution over simply taking the reigns and doing the work to fix the situation themselves.

I found myself all too often in the throes of another person’s emotional reaction; tangled into their disposition and giving up my own ability to reject anger or defensiveness. Allowing another person space for their temper-tantrum without absorbing their bad mood was a divine lesson. You might unknowingly be absorbing other people’s problems, too. It might be the coworker who walks in and cools your happy mood before your morning coffee has had time to do the same. It might be the friend who leaves her problems on your dinner date table for you to scoop up, take home, and analyze while she feels suddenly freed. It might be a boss, a brother, or anyone in your life. You might not even be aware that you’re absorbing the mood, or the anxieties and worries, of other people. The mask your wearing might seem like a rose-colored picture in which you’re offering love. But really, you’re offering sympathy when you should have simply been apathetic.

Empathy Vs Sympathy

Fashion legend Alexander McQueen is an artist and designer who changed the couture world with his ability to twist his own inner demons around the bodices and brocades of gowns, and in doing so, turned them from the internal into the external, from fearful to admirable, from suffering into success. Despite being diagnosed with mixed anxiety disorder and depression (which might have been seen as ‘problems’ and certainly caused him pain), he remains one of the most celebrated designers of all time. He didn’t pity himself for his personal problems; he created through them. In transforming that which might have otherwise weakened him into something powerful, something poetic, something which he did not stifle the force of nor lived under the oppression of, he gained empathy rather than sympathy.

Here’s an explanation of the difference from the always fascinating blog of

The terms empathy and sympathy are often confused, and with good reason. Both of the words deal with the relationship one has to the feelings and experiences of another. Today we explore the differences between these terms and how they are most commonly used.

Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning “suffering, feeling.” The prefix sym- comes from the Greek sýn meaning “with, together with” and the prefix em- derives from the Greek en- meaning “within, in.”

The difference is whether you take on the emotional responsibility (and energetically draining act of) feeling sorry for someone else – or yourself. With sympathy, another person’s problems seep into your mind like a poison, feeding you the belief that something is wrong with the world you’re both sharing. You pity them, and you carry the weight of pity. Empathy, on the other hand, understands that another person has problems, and respects that another person has their own life and point of view, without strapping theirbaggage to your own back. Empathy is looking briefly through another person’s view for understanding, without forgetting you still have your own eyes, your own life, and your own view.

Responsibility or Resentment

Dealing with your own problems isn’t much different than dealing with the problems of another person, in that it’s all about whether you let problems take hostage your mood and disposition, and whether you choose to see them as barriers or not.

In a recent interview, one Mr. Bill Clinton recently stated that he firmly believes there are only two options when one finds themselves in conflict: there is choosing to be resentful, or there is choosing to take responsibility. Resentful typically looks like hands dug in the dirt, unable to make change, and a wail of woe-is-me. Responsibility looks like hands at work, a mind set on finding solutions, and a commitment to woe is me.

So you might learn the crucial difference between being empathetic to another person’s problems, watching as your fellow man digs his own grave deeper without offering to pick up a shovel. But what about with yourself? Will you choose to see your own problems, even your own shortcomings, as an opportunity to create something new that simultaneously overcomes your own fear while capitalizing on what makes you unique? Will you learn not to absorb the emotional toll of your worldly problems and define your mood and mindset on something grander?

Will you see your entire life as a series of opportunities… or a series of barriers?

The Take Away:

  • There is a crucial difference between understanding another person’s point of view, and adopting another person’s point of view. You can understand without approving of, absorbing, or being recruited to another person’s bad mood.

  • Taking responsibility for fixing a problem is much more effective (and fulfilling) than holding onto resentment that someone else hasn’t fixed it for you.

  • Anything you might define as your ‘weakness’ can also be something that gives you strength and helps you create something new in this world. It’s all in how you see things.

  • You will always face problem situations and personal emotional problems in life; it’s what you choose to make of them.

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