Archive | June, 2019

Empty Empathy #3: The Alternative to “There, there”

23 Jun Sunset over Koffler Reserve, Toronto

In today’s media-dominated world the subject of ‘mindfulness’ has gained great gravitas, and whole college courses are dedicated towards making people more conscientious about the feelings of their fellow humans. Ironically, the only participant of mindfulness classes who I know personally has unfriended me on Facebook, because I criticised Apple watches for being too expensive. His mind was so full of himself that he thought I criticised his spending behaviour instead of Apple’s pricing policies.

But enough about me! I spent the past few blogs whining about my own situation, and the inability of most people to comprehend the depth of my woe. The last two blogs dealt with empty empathy, and why it can make people feel even more neglected than regular ignorance. Most of us have some deficiency in understanding our fellow man. (I could write ‘[wo]man’, but why avoid troubles?) Today I will offer alternatives to the blatantly empty phrase “There, there, everything will be okay.” Stick around, we all might learn something.

1) Console and inform

When someone is in peril, and you want to help them conquer their emotions, you can provide information regarding the situation and the next logical steps. Most people react well to constant blubbering, which is why first responders often chat with an injured person, especially if they are in shock. The mere sound of a calm human voice is comforting. So, just by speaking you are already helping. Remember not to brag with your own accomplishments, and you should be fine.

When Timmy breaks his legs, and you tell him that “everything will be okay,” he is not going to be happy about it, because believing that particular nonsense is going beyond his proficient injury. Instead, you should tell him that you are taking him to the hospital, where real-life professionals will dedicate all the labour that their underpaid nurses can provide to fixing Timmy’s legs, so that he can once more run the trails like a doped-up deer. Obviously, don’t say that, if Timmy’s legs were taken out by an Israeli shell cluster, because that might be overselling your medical capabilities. But you get the idea.

Merely providing personal comfort and situation-specific information can go a long way towards inner calm and mental healing. People in pain want to be taken serious. ‘There, there’ does not do that. But “you’re getting a shiny white cast” does.

may-meltdown

Any injury, be it mental or physical, can be comforted with heart-felt attention.

2) Offer a different perspective on the issue.

Many people focus on their tragedies and failures instead of their successes. I don’t exclude myself from that fault. (See?!) Providing an alternative view on the situation can lighten the mood significantly.

Loss in general, and death in particular are prominent examples. People tend to pour effort, time, and money into all things physical, building deep emotional relationships, yet ignoring that all things must pass, and all life must die eventually.

But as inevitable as death and decay, so is the rise of new life and opportunity. When my grandpa died, I did not feel a sensation of loss or tragedy; I had dealt with that long before. My grandpa spent his last two months in a hospital, growing weaker every day. At his great age there was little enough anyone could do to even make his days marginally more comfortable, making his death a relief for everyone involved. He had a life; he lived it, and now he is gone to make room for someone else. Remembering this simple ‘circle of life’ philosophy helped me overcome any sorrow that I felt over his loss.

A distinctive incident of loss is never the end. Unless the singular event in question is the heat death of the universe, but even that might just be the premise of a new beginning. Sure, Timmy loved his cat, and is sad about Kitty’s demise. But now that one pet succumbed to the natural decay of all cells, he can rescue a new cat from the impound, and maybe this time pick one that doesn’t eat his homework. Don’t think of it as replacement, but rather the chance for something fresh.

If you can find the spark of positivity in any misfortune, you are on a good path towards emotional recovery.

Tromso, Norway. A port view.

After my terrible cruise experience I never returned to Norway. However, I retain many good memories towards my job as cruise photographer. Focusing on those I actually cherish the experience.

3) Console and discuss

Intelligent people react relatively well to logic and information. So, if you spice up your conversation with personal insight into the tragedy, the mentally injured person might feel significantly better. Please refrain from telling brag stories, though. It’s great that you ran ultra marathons before and after you sprained your ankle, but that kind of sportif heroism is not achievable by everyone. Try to stay relatable, please.

First responders often tell kids about the super cool equipment that they are about to use, turning their underaged patients into eager listeners. Not just because the shiny metal toys distract from the searing pain of a broken appendage, but also because they want to learn new stuff. Adults are just the same. Tell them any novel information that pertains to their situation, and most likely they will greedily inhale it. My friend Joe had great anxieties before he went to the first MRI session for his chest injury. Six months later those scans haven’t just become a routine for him; he actually anticipates learning something new about human anatomy and MRI technology with every visit. Because learning is cool!

Goemon5 knee X-ray

That fractured patella still hurts today. But what other nerd has such a cool radiograph of his knee cap?!

Informed Dating

Granted, that doesn’t quite work the same way for the not-dating introvert. In this case there is no piece of technology that you can point at, so as to distract from your quick escape from an awkward conversation. But even here you can find things to talk about that will help in dealing with this emotionally difficult situation. As a wannabe support companion you have to immerse yourself in the predicament, and reflect on advice that might actually be helpful in moving forward. I mean, apart from ‘one foot in front of the other’. I already know how to walk; no need to patronise me.

Tell me how you met your spouse; how you gained each other’s undevided attention; or what kind of non-physical traits you find attractive in a person.

So, your Tinder date made you a Quinoa salad, and that prompted you to invite him over, and cook together? Or you felt a special connection when he showed you how to repair a tire? THAT is interesting to know. Anecdotes like these help me plan my own approach to dating, because they build on experiences that I can potentially replicate. I find it nearly impossible to score a first date with any woman I am interested in, so I am eager to learn anything that helps me increase my own appeal to the opposite sex.

Don’t tell me that you are into knubby noses, or high-pitched voices, or really short feet. I cannot emulate those physical features, so they are of no use to me. Worse, it might reinforce the idea that I will never find a mate, because I was born with the feet of a half-giant.

Instead, point out things that I can influence, such as what clothing style you find interesting, what chatter topics resonate on a first date, or what type of scent would make it more or less likely to wanting to meet someone a second time.

Weinberg Snails in coitus

Maybe not the most romantic example of animals bonding. Still, these two share a very special relationship.

Empathy done right

Most people are receptive to intelligent conversation. (More or less, but see US voting habits for details.) Introverts, in particular, enjoy an informative talk. Introverts don’t like to share their feelings with just anyone, so please appreciate that if we do open up to you, it’s because we trust you as a very special friend.

If you react to my openness with an ignorant “There, there …”, or by bragging about your own successes, I only learn that confiding in you was a stupid idea. Because you either ignored my pain, or used it to refocus the conversation on yourself. Empty empathy hurts people, so please avoid it.

Instead, offer some useful information along with your well-trained consolation. Think about wisdoms and attributes that helped you avoiding or overcoming similar situations. Sharing your corpus of expertise reinforces our friendship, and allows me to grow personally. When you take some time out of your busy mind to custom-tailor a helpful response to my worries, and consider its impact on me, it shows that you care. That really is the essence of mindfulness.

Is this blog helpful, in any shape or form? Do you have concerns or complaints about it? Let me know in the comments, so we can move forward together.

 

The (not) dating introvert #6 – Adding insult to injury (empty empathy II)

16 Jun Sunset at Koffler Reserve, KSR Toronto

Last week I introduced the topic of ‘Empty Empathy’ and laid out the negative impact it has on people who are already in emotional distress. Today we will dive deeper into the subject, and find some extreme examples for it. Sadly, we don’t have to go far for that.

As you recall, my dating history is shorter than the list of vegan options on a  McDonald’s menu. While most of my friends fight their first divorce, or prepare for the arrival of their second child, I am still trying to find a woman who wants to go on a second date with me. It is not easy to feel genuinely happy for the romantic relationships of others when my own efforts in these past twenty years led to a rejection rate of nearly 100% (with a few psychopathic exceptions). There are days when I genuinely feel alone in the world, and my introverted self has difficulties talking about that emotion (which really doesn’t help the issue).

My friend Beth, on the other hand, has the tirelessly positive attitude of a labradoodle, probably a side-effect of her being surrounded by happy tea enthusiasts all day. In itself that is not problematic. Our society (and economy) thrives on boundless positivity. But as in any poetic mind her optimism frequently detaches itself from reality, which leads to  phrases such as: “[…] when you meet that woman of your dreams, and decide to marry her.” Or

“Everything is possible that you can set your mind to.”

That is empty empathy at its worst. Ignore my troubles and emotional strive, and counter it with a phrase that could serve as the generalised moral for every one of Aesop’s fables. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Beth to bits, because we’ve been poetry buddies for year. But if I reveal my greatest emotional dilemma to her, and her response does not even acknowledge my situation, she is not doing a great job in managing my emotions. An off-hand response is merely serving your own conscience, so that you can feel better for having contributed ‘something’ to the discussion. At a time when I am vulnerable and in search of help you are merely tossing a band-aid in my general direction; convinced that you involved yourself in my personal development.

I know this is a dire perspective, and most people who feel obliged to involve themselves genuinely wish to help. What I need you to understand is that to me empty empathy is not helpful at all. Unfounded prognoses like “everything is possible” sound particularly void of meaning when they come from a happily divorced shoe model who was winning poetry competitions while his peers still tried to figure out how to open their pencil cases. When humanity worships your feet, you can’t possibly sympathise with my situation. Because it is difficult to assess a problem of complex personal failure from a viewpoint of complete personal success.

Cardinal Bird in Toronto

Some things are easier to spot from a point of vantage. You lose track of the details, though.

I don’t exempt myself from that. For example, I cannot sympathise with people who can’t grasp a basic understanding of natural sciences. I’ve always been a natural talent with logical thinking, making it very difficult for me to understand why a university student would fail eight-grade mathematics ten times in a row (let alone one who worked as technician for a German automobile company). I have always been good at Math, which is why learning disabilities for logic-based subjects go beyond my comprehension. But no matter the intellectual disparity between us, I would not respond with “There, there”, and pretend that I was helpful.

Just the same, you can’t be an attractive female, and be able to understand what it feels like to be utterly alone for most of your life. Cute girls get invited to dates without any personal effort, so grasping the troubles of someone who gets perpetually rejected would be a comprehensive undertaking. I know you mean well when you comment on my situation, but by ignoring the complex reasons of my sadness you are crossing from ignorance into condescending mockery.

 

Insult to injury

The more I reflect on the premise of unconditional affirmation, the more it sounds like the babble of a deranged Billionaire, trying to justify his most recent tax breaks. Sure, “anyone can become rich”, but there are certain mechanisms that prevent most people from ever achieving that prospect. People who are born into poverty experience much greater difficulties than people who inherited a fortune. Walking up to a snow-covered beggar in front of a supermarket, and telling him that “everything will be okay” is not going to lighten his mood. If you underline your point with a description of a castle by the lake that you recently inherited, you better run for cover, because the snow balls you will get in response are not going to be soft.

Maybe you want to be encouraging and helpful, but empty empathy is not the way. When people talk about all the suitors they had in high school, it sounds much more like bragging than any form of encouragement. Most girls probably had more dates in grade ten than I had my entire life, so could they ever identify with the desolation that haunts me?! Our lives started from very different parameters, and a generalised response cannot address that. Tales of your own successes will only deepen my woe, which is why I usually avoid talking about my feelings.

Sunset over Koffler Reserve, Toronto

Partnership is important for humans. The grieve over perpetually lacking a stable relationship makes it difficult for me to feel happy for couples.

Shared pain

This is one of the key obstacles for introverts. Emotions are an incredibly personal subject for me, so I don’t generally want to talk about them. I always lacked that ‘special someone’ who other people confide their innermost feelings to. Whenever I do seek council regarding my emotional state from a friend, I am met by either puzzlement or inefficacy, or sometimes outright mockery. I believe the latter stems from mistaking my confessions for a strange form of sarcasm, although I personally don’t find the subject humorous.

As a forlorn introvert I frequently find myself in social seclusion. I have great difficulty trusting anyone enough to tell them about my feelings, because when I do they usually multiply. When I decide to share, and in response merely receive a reminder of how much greater everyone else’s life is, it only confirms my belief that sharing is a bad idea.

Alright, we walked a long path to make this point, but I hope you learned something about introverts and empty empathy along the way. Imposing your own success story onto someone who is perpetually down on luck can easily sound like you are bragging with your good fortune, no matter what noble intentions you might have. Please be gentle with your fellow humans. If you don’t have anything nice or useful to say, refrain from involving yourself with more than a hug, and a diverting question.

Should you see yourself as some empathetic super hero, or you just want to know what other forms empathy can take, wait for next week, as the following blog will tackle some alternatives to empty empathy. Filling that void with useful information is not really difficult, but just as any other form of mindfulness it involves trailing thoughts that most of us are usually unaware of.

 

The (not) dating introvert #5 – “There, there”; when thoughtless positivity becomes hurtful (Empty Empathy I)

10 Jun Jurassic Park - A Fallen Kingdom

When I was just a little boy I would frequently encounter the discomfort of meeting barren surfaces at a much greater velocity than my earthly body anticipated. I know, every kid falls, or bumps into tables, but I broke my arm three times, so you gotta grant me extra credit on this issue. No matter how much I bled or how much pain distorted my face, my mom would always have a variation on the same response: “before you marry it will all be well again.”

Now, that is a fairly solid prediction towards a seven-year-old boy, particularly if his government forbids marriage among children, and the injury in question is a fractured ulna. Eleven years is more than enough time to heal a bone. Still, it does not actually improve personal comfort when my arm feels as if a wild hog had chomped down on it, and the only verbal affirmation of the situation is “this will heal eventually”. In fact, it is utterly frustrating. When I’m hurt, I look for comfort, not for the random misgivings of a fortune cooky. Of course, my seven year old me could not quite articulate these concerns in eloquent terms, so my usual response to mom’s attempted communication was a frustrated “Whaaah!”

“There, there, …”

My mom’s phrasing might sound a bit odd, but in actuality this is a common German expression, and contextually it is nothing more than a variation on the English “There, there; everything will be okay”. Whenever an empathetically inclined person attempts to expunge third-party pain, this seems to be the standard response: “There, there”.

The phrase speaks to a systematic neglect of actual helpfulness, because it is usually unfounded, and therefore meaningless. Today I will discuss how empty phrases like this one can actually compile additional damage on someone who is already hurting emotionally.

Fire in Calgary

Some tragedies are beyond your powers. That does not make “There, there” an appropriate response.

We need another Timmy!

The phrase “There, there” undoubtedly has its place. When little Timmy bruises his knee, or drops his ice cone, empty empathy is a quick way of dealing with the situation. Situations that are neither scary nor life-threatening can easily be defused with a hug and a few words of positive affirmation. “Don’t cry, little Timmy. We will just get you a new one.”

Now, that approach doesn’t quite work when Timmy loses his mom in a plane crash. You can’t just get him a new one. Unless you are a Russian pimp, in which case Timmy should probably stay away from you anyway.

Complex emotional situations can’t be addressed effectively with empty words. Like when one of your friends gets fired from a job he held for ten years, or your bestie breaks up with her lover, or your nephew’s cat gets smeared over the asphalt. There is nothing short of a miracle that could reverse any of those situations, so you have no simple way of intervening in the tragedy. You cannot save the day. Yet, most people feel the urge to intervene anyway, which usually results in sentences like “it’s gonna be fine.”

Timmy has questions

A pat on the back combined with an empty, rhetorical phrase might be simple enough to conjure up. However, its effectiveness is rather limited. Especially when the recipient of that phrase reflects on it.

I consider myself to be of above-average intelligence (admittedly a rather arrogant belief, enforced by post-graduate degrees in real-life sciences, and in two languages). Thus, I easily take offense in remarks that ignore reason, or that otherwise digress from reality. When I ponder my non-existent dating life, and realise that twenty years of valiant efforts have never led to a second date, not to mention any chance for a romantic relationship, the only conclusion I can draw for myself is that I will die alone. Telling me that “everything will be okay” and I “might find someone very soon” is not helping. In fact, it ignores my own observations of thousands of failed attempts to find a partner. Really, by uttering that empty phrase you ignore me, at which point I ask myself why I am still listening to you.

(The answer to that is usually some form of relayed empathy on my part. It would hurt your feelings to tell you that your empty rhetoric is crap, and that you are actually just deepening my emotional dilemma. I mean, you could talk about the weather, and be just as helpful. But telling you the truth would upset you, so I let you babble, because that’s what introverts do.)

Svalbard Husky Station

I feel caged in by society most of the time. No need for you to point that out. It just adds insult to injury.

Virtual Hugs

When someone tells me that true love lies just around the corner, they mostly do so with the well-spirited intonation of a TED-talker. That is a well-situated form of enthusiasm, and yet, the first question that comes to my mind is: “with what authority do you attempt to predict my future?”

I have gathered twenty years worth of solid evidence that strongly contradicts that prediction, so what gives anyone the arrogance to question my judgement? You might as well tell Timmy that his mom will rise from the ashes of the wrecked plane. The claim that “things will just work out” is just too far from my personal experience to be worth any consideration.

Goemon5 aboard the ABC RypMeOff

Timmy’s new hair cut makes him forget his worries.

It’s not as if I wouldn’t want to be comforted; I just require much more than unfounded foolery to feel encouragement. When people try to cheer me up with their little pep talks, I genuinely appreciate their enthusiasm. Just like any other social animal I am grateful for being tended to, but the way most people do it has no lasting comforting effect on me.

Keep in mind that out of the thousands of ladies I asked out over the years not even a dozen said yes, and out of this handful of women only one ever wanted to see me a second time, and she is a certified “friend”. You cannot make me forget my compilation of negative experience by treating me like any kind of romantic fool. “There, there” is not going to cut it, when all my experience tells me that my life is markedly different from everyone else’s. Don’t try to make this appear normal, because I know it is not. When Timmy gets hospitalised with amputated legs, and you tell him that he will be back on his feet in no time, you better expect some hospital gear being thrown your way. (I gotta say: Timmy is leading a pretty traumatic life in this blog post.)

Empty Empathy

In order to make communication a bit easier, and because I really like alliteration, I hereby coin the term ‘Empty Empathy’ as a description for words of encouragement that are served in an attempt to be supportive and encouraging, but are actually void of any real acknowledgment of the problem at hand. Prof. Kaplan employed the term Empty Empathy to discuss the role of commentary-free news coverage, and Thrive Global described the dangers of ‘thoughts & prayers’ in our social media landscape. My account really just adds to the pile.

My request is this: please be mindful. Sometimes saying nothing is better than regurgitating some random, unfounded positivity crap. When I experience crushing loneliness I don’t want to hear that I “will find somebody eventually”. Especially not from anyone who is happily married, or is gloating over his/her ability to pick up dates on every street corner.

When you fall on the pavement, I don’t tell you how much better your situation would be if you hadn’t tripped. Instead, I help you up, gather your belongings from the ground, and check for serious lacerations or shock. I may not be the best First Responder you could wish for, but I will get the job done, and I will do so without causing you further injury. And that’s essentially the response that I hope to receive from anyone whom I entrust with my emotional troubles.

This blog is the first part of a trilogy dealing with empty empathy. Next week will be even more depressing than today, with examples from my personal environment, before part 3 finally offers some alternatives on the common theme of “There, there”. Stick around and comment to your heart’s content. We all might learn something.

 

Sources: Kaplan, E.A. (2005): Trauma Culture The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. New Brunswick, NJ Rutgers University Press.

Thrive Global: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/empty-empathy-on-social-media/

The (not) dating introvert, #4: OK Cupid & sex before the first date

1 Jun

Any dating site that wants to be taken serious as such needs to incorporate some sort of algorithm to estimate whether or not the personalities of two people would make a good fit. After all, you don’t want to scroll through pages of profile text before realising that the two of you share less chemistry than you did with your assigned lab partner in grade seven. [I’m still waiting for that crystallised Chloride, Derrick!]

Our new friend, OK Cupid, provides an extensive reservoir of multiple-choice questions that you can answer. Based on your own answer, and considering how high you rank the importance of that question for your dating quest, the website will then rate the degree of commonality between you and all available profiles. These questions cover an immense spectrum, from your general political views, to your favourite spirit animal, to the amount of food stored under your mattress, to the shape of houses you find romantic. It is very eclectic.

Cleanliness is not a Chinese invention

Some of the questions ask you to evaluate whether your kitchen is more or less disgusting than that of AirBnB host Mike Chen. I don’t know why messy people would supply a response to that.

Dating Site Questionnaire

Many of those match riddles are pretty harmless, and I filled out some 150 of them to increase the potential for positive matches. However, many questions carry a bias that would likely preclude me from reaching a high match score with anyone but myself, because they build on issues that I never even think about, especially not when considering someone as a potential partner. Questions such as “which of these three painters do you like best?” or “would you go to a sports bar for a first date?” are utterly irrelevant for my life.

Sure, I could just answer with whatever comes to my mind, but that immediately decreases my matchability. Ladies who do care about one particular painter will think that I don’t like their painter of choice. Granted, that concerns about 1% of the population and barely impacts my potential match score, but add a dozen of these together, and my scoring decreases by 10%. Scale that up to 150 questions, and these tiny decisions will make the difference between ‘that’s a guy I’d like to meet’ and ‘What’s he doing here?’

What do you even mean by ‘Sports Bar on a first date?’ Do I frequent these TV-filled taverns? Do I hate sports? Is there any team contest I would watch in public? [The answer is rollerderby; thank you.] Since I neither hate nor love sports bars my answer obviously depends on context, which is something I can’t provide by clicking one of the three boxes provided.

My patent solution is to skip all questions that I find ambiguous. If our first date takes us to a sports bar, I promise not to roll around on the floor, kicking and screaming. However, I wouldn’t consider it a good opportunity to chat while three hundred hooligans practice their ritualistic chants.

may-meltdown

Rollerderby rules. How good of me to find a place and time to point that out.

Sex before the date

And then there are the real trouble makers; questions like “How quickly after seeing someone do you usually end up in bed with them?” or “Would you have sex on a first date?” Those inquiries are really just setting me up for a fight, because there is no right answer to any of them. To be honest, there are a lot of sex questions on that site (it’s more like an introverted and sophisticated Tinder, really), and I skipped nearly all of them.

For starters, there is no “usual” in my relationship to sexual intercourse. I’d like to have some, some day, but I don’t think it’s an appropriate consideration before I meet someone for the first time. No matter how I respond to those sex questions, the underlying assumptions will always be that 1) coitus is an important topic for me in a fresh relationship, and 2) after a set number of dates I expect to fornicate with a woman. As much as the general idea excites me, I am not on that dating website to find a carnal connection. If copulation was my primary goal, I would just upload a polished photo to Tinder, and frame it in pointless sexual innuendos.

I could easily imagine being intimate with a woman on our first date. People fall in love ‘at first sight’, so deciding on sexual intercourse during that time frame should not stretch anyone’s imagination. People who claim that coitus after the first meeting is an unbreakable taboo are either liars, or ultraconservative hutterites. And in the latter case they might actually still be liars, if the reports on child abuse and incest in ultraconservative communities are anything to go by.

The same goes for the opposite approach of “I need to know someone really well before I become intimate with them.” The only people who would be opposed to sniffing each other out before having intercourse are sex addicts, and as mention above, they have their own kinky websites. There is no conceivable reason why a person who only procreates with a confirmed long-term partner would refuse to meet someone who typically pleasures their partner after the third date, solely on the basis of that sensual disconnect. Show me a single woman who would refuse to have dinner with George Clooney, if he confessed to usually having sexual intercourse on the second date!

1_tumblr_nagro8RJ8W1sdwq5oo1_1280

This is what most men are ultimately after in a date. But if we say that out loud, we only earn disdain.

Avoid erotic discourse, unless you’re really into it

Whatever option I select, it will always be the wrong one. Half of all women will think I am needy for even talking about coitus, while the other half consider me prude for precluding sex from the first date menu. When I consider the greater implications of these sex questions, it just leaves me without any viable response. Sometimes silence says it best.

I couldn’t even employ the truth, because “I usually don’t have sex” does not feature among the multiple choices provided. (This would also inform ladies about my sexual inexperience, which probably leads most women to reject me off-hand. We shall cover that topic and its underlying idiocy another day.)

Let’s drive this derailed train of loose thoughts over the cliff, before I lose another paragraph to pointless ranting. At the end of the day I need to be able to identify myself with my own dating profile. Therefore, I avoid any questions that are front-loaded, or too complex to answer by clicking a preformed box. I recommend you do the same.

Alright! Next up: more discourse about sex, dating, and maybe even a long deserved return to real life actual problems. Unless I finally get to finish that blog about mindfulness I’ve been working on since the dawn of empathy. Let me know in the comments if there is anything YOU would like to read about.