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

10 Jun

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:

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