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

23 Jun

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.

 

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