Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lack of Empathy Is Not a Lack of Caring

When we hear that someone lacks empathy, most of us automatically think that the person doesn't care about the well-being of anyone else.  I used to think the same way, but then I met a close friend who does not experience empathy or emotions the way that a lot of people do, and who does believe that other people's experiences matter.  Empathy can be a helpful quality, but a lack of empathy is not a lack of caring.

Let's say that your friend is disappointed about not getting into the school play. Most people can relate to something like this, and would be understanding toward their friend. Now let's say your friend is still very upset a month later. At this point, people stop understanding and tell their friend to get over it. Why? Because now, not as many people can relate. Those people who put themselves in their friends' shoes at first are now thinking "I wouldn't be so upset if that happened to me." Most of the time, when we put ourselves in someone else's position, we don't put ourselves into the person's mindset.  We put ourselves, with our own mindsets, into the other person's situation. Putting yourself in someone else's position can be helpful in understanding the person, but sometimes our need to relate someone on an emotional level can prevent us from accepting others' experiences that we can't relate to at all.

Empathy is one way to understand someone, but it's not the only way.  You can also understand things from a logical, non-emotionally-attached viewpoint that if something is hurting someone, then that thing is a problem and needs to be fixed.  The lack of emotional attachment can mean accepting the other person's mindset and not taking into account whether you would feel the same way in that situation.  A person who does not experience empathy can care about what other people are going through just as much as someone who is very empathetic.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Pressure to Do All You Can

Whenever people talk about succeeding or fulfilling your potential, it always involves holding the most that you can.  But what if you don't want to do all you can?  What if you're happy filling only a small portion of your total capacity?

Here's a fictional story I liked to tell my college classmates: I once bought a bookshelf that could hold 100 pounds.  When the shelf was almost half full, it began creaking and swaying, like it couldn't hold any more. I double-checked the box label to make sure it said 100 pounds.  I weighed all of the books to make sure that I was nowhere near the maximum.  So I continued to pile the books, and the shelf kept creaking, until one day, the shelf collapsed. I think that the bookshelf was trying to tell me something - just because it could hold 100 pounds didn't mean that it wanted to.  Maybe it was happy with only half of its space filled. I like to imagine that all that creaking and swaying wasn't a struggle, but warning sign for me to stop.  The shelf didn't collapse because I added more than capacity, it self-destructed because it wasn't happy doing more.

So instead of looking at potential and box labels, we should listen.  Listen to what makes people happy and remember that what someone can hold is not necessarily what they want to hold.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Denying Convictions

(I did enjoy the party in this picture)
Person 1: "I hated that party."
Person 2: "You didn't have any fun at all?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "But there must have been something you liked?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "But what about when we played games?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "How about when we all danced?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "But, um, there was root beer at the party!  You like root beer, right?"
Person 1: "Yeah..."
Person 2: "So you did have some fun at the party!"
Person 1: "I said no. Why can't you accept my answer?"

As silly as this may sound, it is a very, very common conversation, although most of us won't call Person 2 out on not accepting our answer.  For me, these conversations are usually about school rather than parties, but let's use the party example for now:

One of the reasons that Person 2 might be so hung up on Person 1 having fun at a party that's already happened is if Person 2 feels some sort of responsibility, like it was their fault that Person 1 didn't have fun.  Here are the possibilities of who Person 2 could be:

Host - If I were hosting a party, I would feel bad that someone hated it because I'd feel responsible for everyone's enjoyment.  I can see why a party host may try to deny their friend's feelings and insist that their friend must have liked something about the party.

Guest - If I were a guest at the party, I would feel bad if I could have helped my friend, ex: if someone was being mean or if my friend felt left out. But if my friend just didn't like party overall, I would understand that it's not everyone's thing, and let them know that it's okay if it's not theirs.

Connected - If I didn't attend the party but was very familiar with the host or the activity, I might give relevant information, like "It took me a while to get good at that game," but other than that, I wouldn't try to convince my friend that they liked the party.

Not Connected - If I had no connection to the party, I would still ask my friend why they didn't like it, but I wouldn't try to convince them that they did like it.

Unless I was hosting the party, I wouldn't have any reason to try to convince my friend that they had fun when they didn't. It's wrong to deny someone else's experience anyway, but I can understand where it's coming from if someone feels a personal responsibility for the other person's happiness.  What I don't understand is why you would deny someone else's conviction when the party wasn't your responsibility - why guests feel like hosts, why people who had no connection to the party have a stake in it.

It makes me wonder if some people really feel responsible for their friends' happiness, even when it's out of their control.  Maybe some people feel like the party host when they're not, which makes them hate to admit that someone didn't have fun.

Extreme Comparisons

Most of us are familiar with unfair comparisons, when a person says something like, "I'd rather [something really traumatic and horrible] than [something much less bad]!" I came across a website with lots of of posts like this, and the common response is, "That's a really horrible thing to say to anyone who has actually been through that traumatic experience!"  I agree, but I also think I understand what's behind them.

People don't always listen or accept what we have to say. You might tell someone that you had a really horrible experience and they tell you that it couldn't have been that bad. Making a comparison is actually a good way of communicating with someone who won't accept what you say about your situation. Ex: "I hate college as much as you hated middle school," or "How would you feel if you couldn't [most important thing to the person]? That's how I feel now because I can't [most important thing to you]." This isn't completely accurate because you can't really know who has stronger feelings about things, but it gets people's attention. It gets people to stop and realize, "Wow, that would really suck."

I understand that people can go too far with these comparisons, but we never know how far they've been pushed already, how many times they've tried to express themselves in another way. Not to mention that we also use unfair comparisons to invalidate people, like telling someone that what they're going through isn't that bad because something else is worse. With responses like this, I'm surprised that more people don't use extreme comparisons to get their point across. I understand why people are upset by extreme comparisons - I would be really upset if I had been through something traumatic and someone used it as a comparison point. But I also think that this wouldn't even be an issue if people would just acknowledge that yes, if your friend says it was that bad, it was that bad. If you argue about someone's own convictions, don't expect them not to fight back.