Why pretend to care about others when we have professional therapists?

A friend criticized me for being unsympathetic regarding a concern of hers that I thought was irrational.  She believed that a friend ought to care simply because another human being is apprehensive, even if that apprehension is not justified.  During this exchange it occurred to me that there is actually no reason for the layperson to be sympathetic or empathetic in any modern situation.

Three hundred years ago everyone had to know how to make soap.  Today we can run down to the store and buy Ivory or Palmolive.

Three hundred years ago friends needed to empathize with one another.  Today anyone who wishes to get sympathy for his or her troubles can simply buy it from one of the hundreds of thousands of trained professionals in the therapy industry.

Friendship isn’t obsolete of course.  Psychotherapists aren’t very entertaining so we might still rely on friends for amusement.  But why bother pretending to care about another person’s troubles when there are so many psychotherapists out there who actually do care, truly, deeply, professionally?


  1. eric rolph

    December 4, 2003 @ 6:20 pm


    Most comments after 12/2/03; 5:11:35 PM prove my theory that most people don’t read an entire comment thread.

  2. derek

    December 5, 2003 @ 3:49 pm


    philip greenspun is mean.

    how is janet aka (daughter of former finance director of sierra leone gold and diamond corporation mr marcus aka, who was assasinated by the rebel forces loyal to mr forday sankoh during the peak of the civil war in her country sierra leone) going to get the urgent assistance she needs without a little empathy?

    animals… animals…

  3. spideysgirl

    December 5, 2003 @ 4:58 pm


    I think if the friend is expressing concerns that may lead them to be suicidal, then you should care, or at least refer them to some highly effective chemicals.


  4. Andre

    December 8, 2003 @ 1:06 pm


    CALVIN, very good point.

    There are people who want to enroll you in their drama so that it’s more real for them so that they can go deeper in the pleasure of feeling bag for themselves.

    But sometimes someone needs to share deeply with another human being in order to make a step towards healing.

    The first type does not care about real understanding. They want you on their side, confirming the trauma. Or consolation.

    The second type – they need you to open your heart and tell them the truth as you see it, without judgement. This takes a lot of trust and I call it friendship.

    One catch is that the same person may come through as type I or type II. Another catch is that sometimes you have the ability to turn a type I situation into type II.

    Enjoy your choices.

  5. Jay R. Ashworth

    December 9, 2003 @ 6:34 pm


    I thought this was a troll. Nice one, Phil.

    > If I actually believed that our industry of hundreds of thousands of professional psychologists et al. had supplanted the need for friendship I would sell my crumbling cramped 100-year-old apartment, which is within a 10-minute drive of most of my friends, and move to a brand-new McMansion in the exurbs, ideally in a central Florida airpark where you walk out of your kitchen into the hangar and fire up the airplane…

    Hey! I live about 100 miles from one of those. My best friend drools over a lot there. 🙂

    The corollary here, of course, is that the problem which needs to be fixed for some statistically significant percentage of people in therapy is …
    lack of friends.

    It’s my bucket theory of stress: everyone has a bucket full of stress. Your friends position their buckets underneath yours when you’re more stressed than they are, and drill a little hole to drain off some of the stress before your bucket overflows and gets all over the carpet.

    This can get a bit Escherian in practice, but…

  6. Ellis Vener

    December 9, 2003 @ 7:26 pm


    friends are to therapists as lovers are to prostitutes.

  7. Joe Shipman

    December 9, 2003 @ 8:30 pm


    Nice irony, Philip, too bad so many of your readers are unable to appreciate it.

    Have a great trip!

  8. shafer

    December 10, 2003 @ 12:12 am


    This is sorta like the “Dr. Phil” show- entertaining with simple lessons to boot.

  9. Matthew A Schneider

    December 10, 2003 @ 6:06 pm


    Love your humor, you crack me up.

  10. Marty

    December 11, 2003 @ 8:31 pm


    I think you’ve too easily blurred the lines between empathy, sympathy, (compassion), and therapy.

    Or perhaps it was the therapists themselves that blurred this line…

    Just remember this:
    Self-Esteem is for Losers!
    Forget the Lifestyle — get a Life!

  11. Nero

    January 4, 2004 @ 1:10 am


    Ahh, Mr. Greenspun,

    Interesting post, as it suprised me, even though I have been reading your works for some time now. As for your topic, a dear friend of mine is one of those individuals, who, as you put it, “care[s], truly, deeply, professionally.” She is also one of those truly empathetic individuals that Mr. Bloom mentions above, and it is an honor to share friendship with her. One of the things I learned from her was the difference in how she listens to friends vs her clients, and that is the difference between listening intuitively and listening in a more academic manner. When she listens as a friend she gives away some of her strength, some of herself to help the other individual, in what amounts to taking a bit of that person’s burden. That is part of the sacrifice of a true friendship, based in mutual trust, respect, and love. That kind of sacrifice cannot be asked of a therapist, for they would get too burdend by the cares of their charges. Admittedly, some therapists do make that sacrifice in cases, and it does enact a toll on them.

    True care hurts, and that is why true friends are so valuable — they will hurt with you. You can’t buy that from a therapist, no matter how caring, because of the need for that distance they need to keep for their own sanity.

    My best to you, as always, Phil.


  12. Kostya

    January 5, 2004 @ 2:01 pm


    Well Phil. You’ve spilled your guts all over the web when your dog died, obviously not without a reason. You’ve also mentioned how your friends were supportive at that moment. It seems you are ready to accept it when you are suffering but when it comes to other people it becomes a nuisance for you. If you were a men and consistent with your own views you should’ve kept it quiet and go cry to your therapist for a healthy fee.


  13. Andrea Matranga

    January 6, 2004 @ 9:15 am


    Why have sex when there’s a lot of hookers around?

    I’ll consider your comment an outlier to your usually intelligent ideas.

  14. Bleeper

    February 6, 2004 @ 10:07 pm


    Uh….may I suggest you need either to touch-smell a dead body….or watch a few desert sunrises. It’s obvious you know nothing of life.

  15. marina

    November 17, 2004 @ 8:38 pm


    hmm…i dont know about all these people..
    but you make a very reasonable and interesting point. And this would be the answer to..why do we need doctors? to help those people who want to be self-sufficient… those who dont want to bother friends with their problems…. totally see ur point.

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  18. rajeev

    September 29, 2006 @ 5:54 am



    Nice blog!

    Why don’t you consider writing about some of the new “India 2.0” sites that are creating a little buzz as well?

    Eg: http://www.ilaaka.com




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