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

16 Jun

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.

 

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