Tag Archives: empty empathy

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.