Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Day 8: On Empathy or Something Like It...

Social relationship building is a topic that I spend a great deal of time reflecting upon since I first started to recognize that Sammie is unlike other kids. The desire to connect to others, which we are told is innate, is something that has just never come naturally to him.

In fairness, it hasn't really come naturally to me either. While I am generally good in a group and have never really struggled to find friends, my "social self" has always been a slight deception of sorts. In truth, even one on one interactions can be a lot for me and I have to really psych myself up before I can function fully in a group. Generally, I'd much rather be alone or one on one with someone from my small handful of close friends and family members. I am an introvert in the truest form, masquerading around as an extrovert.

And I often struggle with "relating".

I tend to see things from a strictly intellectual point of view and have a hard time considering the social-emotional components of discussions. I've been called "cold" or unfeeling more times than I can count; even my nickname in university was "Zita-bot".

Social media has opened a whole new world in terms of 'relating' with one another. We now know intimate and personal details of the lives of our friends and acquaintances. We are invited to comment and dialogue on all these topics, leading us to forming better "relationships". 

I suppose this is, for the most part, a good thing. People who are innately social are able to have their Maslovian needs met. But, from my ice-box, I can't help but wonder if we don't take the idea of "relating" a bit too far.

One of my greatest social media pet peeves is on "pseudo empathy". Not to be confused with genuine empathy (defined as the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experiences of others), pseudo-empathy has nothing to do with actually relating to the other person. Instead of going through the internal process required to truly empathize with how someone is feeling, pseudo-empathizers use the pain, hurt or frustrations of others as a platform for airing their own discontentments. Sometimes, this is genuinely innocent as the person just needs a place to vent. Other times, it transcends into being a veritable competition of whose situation is the worst one. Either way, the original poster is left not only receiving no genuine compassion or understanding, but they are often left feeling worse off since their feelings were minimized and trivialized. 

Let me give an example:

FACEBOOK POSTER: "Wow, what a horrible day. First, the two kids were tired and cranky and whinning all day. Then I got mugged at knifepoint in our back alley. :("

EMPATHETIC RESPONSE: "Oh my god! That's horrible! I am so sorry. That must have been so terrifying. How are you feeling about it? Is there anything I can do??"

PSEUDO EMPATHETIC RESPONSE: "I KNOW RIGHT! Aside from the mugging, I had the exact same day. I totally know how you feel. FML."

Now, we can see from the empathetic poster's response that they have taken the time to internalize, process and relate to the information that was presented. In doing so, they were able to identify 1) How the other is feeling, 2) How they would have felt in their place, and 3) What they need to say in order to convey that they are understanding of, and compassionate to, the situation.  The response is sincere and genuine. It is relational, but in a way that is internal to the respondent. 

The pseudo-empathetic response, on the other hand, is everything but. It begins by discounting the poster's feeling and the great graveness of the situation by acting as if the mugging is somehow superfluous information as opposed to the central plot point. It then ascribes feelings to the poster by saying "I know how you feel" despite the fact that the poster didn't actually get an opportunity to express any feelings of their own. It is clear that this response is neither a) considered, or b) understanding. In fact, you kind of wonder whether or not the responder has actually even read the original post to begin with. 

Now, granted, this is an extreme example. But it's actually not that far off from the situations that I have witnessed on my own page and on others. This month alone I've had people do virtually the same thing as above regarding our sleep deprivation (no, Sammie going on his third week of sleeping an average of 3-5 hours a night is not comparable to your toddler waking you up twice because he needed a drink of water...), on describing an injury ("Aside from the broken rib, my day was exactly the same..." Yes. That really happened.) and on my mom's car crash ("I felt the exact same way when..." or even better "Ugh. I was in a fender bender last week. Insurance is such a bitch.") 

Heck, take it one step further. I've actually had to argue with people why it's not ok to tell me that I "should feel grateful that Sammie is nonverbal" because their kids "talk all the time and never shut up".  Really? Did you actually just insinuate that somehow my kid's disability makes it easier to parent him because he doesn't annoy me by talking? Really? Wow. 

And it isn't just my page. I see this kind of stuff literally everywhere I look. 

Someone says they're stressed out about finals, and within seconds you see someone retorting with "you don't even know what stress is until you've had kids" or something equally ignorant. 

Someone says that they've been sick. Cue immediate response of "Well at least you didn't have to..." or "when I was sick, it was way worse..." or the ever popular "I've been sick for the last month...". 

Seriously, people. If you need to vent or bitch, I'm all for it. But can't you do it on your own page? Do you really need to compete with every negative thing someone is living?

Or, to turn things into a different direction: Let's talk about success! Pseudo empathy isn't just for the sad, you know!

Your kid overcomes a challenging feat or performs extremely well at something? HA! You'd better bet that you have at least three friends who will be there to "share" in your joy by highlighting their own kiddo's success. 

You post a picture of your kiddo in a cute outfit? You'd better hope it isn't a hand-me-down, or you will almost inevitably get the "I remember how cute my kid looked in that outfit". 

Yup. The pseudo-empathetic oneupmanship is rampant in all walks of life. 

Except marriage. You post a happy post about your marriage, and you will get torn to shreds for being too sappy. No one wants to read about a happy marriage apparently. 

But I digress. 

Listen, I have no issue with conversation. I have no issue with relating. I have no issue with sharing your joys, pains, heartaches, stories, and life events. Please do so. Do it on my page. Do it on other's. Do it often. 

But before you do, I urge you to find your place of empathy first. 

Ask yourself: 
  1. Am I truly, genuinely and sincerely acknowledging the feelings of the person that I am responding to?
  2. Is my response going to make them feel better about their life event, and am I validating the importance of what they are living?
  3. Am I contributing because what I have to say is important and valuable to the discussion?
  4. Am I coming from a place of compassion, or a place of competition?
It is totally possible to contribute your own stories, while observing these cardinal rules of human relationships. 

So, what do you do when little Johnny learns to count to five? 

Don't say: "That's great. Jill can't count to 100 now. She's so smart. :)"

Say instead: "Wow! That is so great for him, and for you! You must be so proud. I know how hard you guys have been working on those. I remember how amazing it was when little Jill learned her numbers- and then she could count to 100 almost overnight! Keep up the great work, Mom!"

And when Mary says "I've never been this stressed out before. I need to sleep so badly, but there is so much work to do for my mom's funeral."

Don't say ANYTHING except: "Mary, I am so sorry about your loss. How can I help take things off your plate?"

Any other response violates any sort of human empathy and understanding codes that exist. 

Trust me. All your friends will thank you for it. 

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