I Demand Empathy!

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Now, isn’t that an oxymoron. Here’s a fact about me that I am shy to confess: I have seen a psychologist. I went to see her for half a year. It was years ago, but regardless. Many people would say only weak people go get that kind of help. And others might say the usually make things worse. In my experience – it was alright, it didn’t make things worse, she didn’t impose any analysis on me. While I was seeing her, I was also digging deep into various concepts around mental health – looked what cognitive behavioural therapy is about, learned everything a psychiatrist and a layman both have to teach about personality disorders, concepts like self-esteem, mindfulness meditation, compassion, empathy…

I did most of it to figure out why I was having a hard time with people, with work, with interests – and of course, who could avoid the temptation on trying to figure out if the problem might be the other people, instead (everyone else being selfish and mean and mentally ill, of course).

Unless you have a holy father, a pastor or a fun aunt to talk to about your problems – in cases where the problems are the kinds you don’t want to talk about to someone else of significance in your life – or if you simply do not have anyone to talk to – I don’t see a problem in talking to a psychologist (or a fortune teller – choose your pick, doesn’t matter much).

I believe, when a person is determined to figure shit out – she’ll find something from these conversations, and will do her “own research” as well. You’ll find good ideas, bad ideas, hit your head, get inspired, feel enlightened, fall back into the dumps, maybe try again, maybe eat some sleeping pills or take some boosters. Hopefully you won’t fall into a bad crowd partying with psychedelics every weekend (it takes a toll, it really does).

The important thing to keep in mind – neither the psychologists or the fortune tellers, the sleeping pills, psychedelic gurus, books about self esteem or mindfulness meditation are hills (to die on) – they are stepping stones. They are tools, oars and sticks and ropes TO PULL THE BOAT you’re lost floating on. All sorts of techniques and therapies out there to help yourself – temporarily.

There seem to be two recurring issues which seem to point at why people get depressed or secluded. The times we live in, the culture, the scale, the way of life.

ONE: While technology has made things simpler and easier, we may fail to notice how it has also made us weaker. Because we are not forced to plow our way to food or feed the cattle to seize another good day in triumph – we have so much more idle time that we simply do not know what to do with it.

The good health gurus do have a good point – we have to come up with challenges on our own – something that strains us and beats us up – achievements that are difficult to achieve. Build muscle, run a marathon, fast, build a house, learn a science and try to invent and discover something new… Find a problem to solve.

TWO: It is not so simple to do any of that when we are alone with it. The second problem is people – while we are no longer forced to remain with the people who are in our village or neighborhood – it is relatively cheap to move away, and it is relatively cheap to survive on your own in a nice bachelor’s apartment – the real cost is something a little more difficult to pin down. We simply are incapable of holding ourselves accountable when there is no one else around. No one to work with, no one to share things with, no one to build something together with.

Introductions made – focusing on those two problems, and if you figure these are not your problems, everything must be alright – wrong. This is where I finally get to the empathy problem.

Thinking about it makes me feel a bitterness in my mouth.

Maybe I am not ready to write about it? I don’t know.

You’re not even wrong when you say, “you don’t understand me.” People jumping to call you a snowflake about it are equally snowflakes. Up to who is the onus on trying to understand (and show, clearly, that you have understood) first, anyway?

My first bulb went ashining back at that psychologist’s cabinet. I was discussing with her about arguing with people on the forums (or in real life, or over voice chat). I had been irritated with something – I was tired of hearing all the same old lame, naive, lazy arguments about a thing. I said, but I already know what they are going to say.

“But how can they know you know?”

So, there are two ways you can take someone’s dumb, naive and lazy arguments – you can be a snowflake and take it as an insult to your intelligence… Or you can slow down, articulate their feelings or points back to them, confirming that yes, indeed, you do understand where they are coming from.

Because what happens if you don’t do that – instead of assuming you must know something better – you fail to even connect with them, you have no idea why they are saying what they are saying. They won’t THINK neither FEEL that you have better information, better experience than they do – they will THINK and FEEL that you are an arrogant piece of shit who doesn’t know anything and simply loves to dump on people.

The same seems to apply on delivering criticism. If you first bother to SHOW them you understand that they were struggling with a thing because they were focused on trying to eliminate a problem in some certain way – you might say, that caught off-guard, in a similar situation, you’d definitely be tempted to do the same – the trick appears to be on ignoring that particular problem and focusing on this, instead.

Because when we don’t deliver a criticism delicately like this – once again, even if you really do understand why the person would have missed a mark – they don’t know that you know. And instead of seeing you as being helpful, pointing out a trick, they see you as being condescending, unempathetic, blind, arrogant etc.

Having empathy inside your head, knowing and understanding where people come from will be pretty useless when you never express it and make it clear. If you do, however – you’ll see how the tide turns.

“That’s right.” And the walls come off. They’ll hear your side of the story now.

Even so – doing all that takes patience. We’re all rushing so much – and rushing like that makes us seem careless and arrogant. Imagining that it is always I who has to put in the effort to have a good conversation, is taunting. Wouldn’t it be a delight to have someone else do the understanding and reflecting part, first? Oh damn it would be a fresh breath of air. How I would love it if someone took the time to curiously investigate or accurately reflect on my situation – for over a very long time I’d be surprised – that someone is SEEING me.

It is very likely that people around us SEE us all the time – and we see them. Why it doesn’t seem like it – almost no one slows down or stops to mention it. A sad side-effect to the delightful technology, the fast-paced world – and too few relaxed people around us to automatically start imitating.

Do you think you become someone imitation-worthy, like that?

PS I learned “tactical empathy” from a negotiation book. Tawk in the Twitter comments, if you’re interested.

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