Tag Archives: empathy

Willingness to hurt

It’s a bit of a romance novel cliche – the person who has been hurt and thinks they cannot open their heart or love again. In romance novels that tends to resolve, but in real life often it doesn’t. 

No one wants to suffer (well, aside from masochists but that’s another story). Some of us are perhaps too open to being hurt – family patterns can have us expecting love to be painful and thus not holding good boundaries. However, trying to protect yourself from pain can all too easily mean missing out on a lot of life.

To care is to be open to being hurt. Care invites empathy, and no one and nothing in this world will continue forever in some pristine, untroubled, healthy, happy state. To love someone is to be open to being hurt by whatever hurts them, at the very least. It means loving people, cats, trees etc even though you know that when they die it’s going to hurt unbearably. And yet you choose to bear it.

Sometimes the people you love will let you down. Maybe by accident. Maybe because their needs don’t align with yours. Maybe deliberately. If you aren’t prepared to risk some of that, you can’t have trust, or any kind of depth, or any scope for natural human error.

If you are determined to avoid hurt, you might not be willing to deal with the discomfort of having got something wrong. That shuts down opportunities to learn, and to improve things. It means as soon as something goes wrong, the entire relationship is in trouble. The more set you are on avoiding pain, the more likely it is that you are demanding impossible levels of perfection from everything and everyone around you. That in turn means you’re setting everyone up to fail because you won’t be perfect and neither will they. Pain avoidance becomes, perversely, something entirely likely to get you hurt.

Beyond our human relationships, we need to be willing to get hurt over what is happening with the climate crisis. If we try to insulate ourselves from that, we’re simply going to add to the problem. If we’re willing to be uncomfortable, we can change things. The more we push to try and stay comfortable, the more likely we are to destroy the very things we depend on for that comfort.

If we want what is good in our lives, then we have to be willing to care enough about it that we give it the power to hurt us.

Ableism and Empathy

I think one of the things that commonly underlies ableism is not being able to feel empathy with ill and disabled people. People with no experience of pain can find it hard to imagine what it might be like living with pain all the time. People who are not frustrated by their bodies, or unable to predict what they might be able to do can have trouble understanding how that works for someone else. Crippling anxiety that stops you from doing things, depression that leaves you unable to function – it can be hard to empathise if you don’t know what it’s like.

Many people do better at empathy when they can see something that makes sense to them. Visible illness or injury is self announcing. If we see an awful bodily injury, we can make sense of it. The vast majority of illness and even injury doesn’t look like much if you don’t know how to interpret it. 

This all leads to the able person imagining that the person in distress is over-reacting, not trying hard enough and so forth. This results in mistreatment, bullying and the denial of essential resources. 

One of the best ways to build empathy is through the sharing of stories. The more we know about other people’s experiences, the more likely we are to be able to feel compassion for people we encounter. Seeking out other people’s stories is a good thing to do, and the internet makes it very easy. None of us can learn everything about all the things everyone else might be up against, but the process of learning about people living with disability, mental illness, neurodivergence, and bodily illness can give us some useful points of reference.

I’ve experienced oppression and that means…

One of the reliable mistakes well meaning people make is to assume that knowledge of one thing means understanding of another: I have endured sexism so I understand racism. I have endured workplace bullying so I understand domestic abuse. I’m a lesbian so I understand the problems of gay men. And so on and so forth. Less well meaning people take it a step further: I have experienced sexual oppression and therefore I cannot be racist. I have been a victim of abuse so I cannot be a bully. It’s easy to see how we get there, and the consequences are unhelpful through to harmful.

One of the things this does is let us not consider where we may be going wrong. A lifetime of dealing with sexual discrimination gives you pretty much no insight into the mechanics of race. If you are a white woman, a lifetime of sexual discrimination does not actually mean you are incapable of racism. The uncomfortable truth is that to be white is to be part of a system that upholds racial discrimination. If you want to change that, you have to find ways to be active about it. Imagining reasons it does not apply to you doesn’t help anyone.

Granted, experiences of oppression can give one group the scope to empathise with the sufferings of another group. That can be a productive base for mutual support. But it can also be a way of erasing the differences in power that exist. It can be a way of minimising your role in the other group’s problems. Sometimes it can leave people feeling entitled to speak for, and speak over those they claim to be helping. Speaking for other people is something to do with caution, because so often it turns out to be speaking over. Believing that you are qualified to speak for someone else is an impulse that needs scrutiny.

Suffering does not make you incapable of being an ass-hat. Experience of discrimination does not make you incapable of discriminating against others. Experiencing challenges does not mean that in some situations you don’t also have privilege. Thinking about this may be uncomfortable. You may feel a knee-jerk defensive reaction that wants to say ‘no, because I…’ and it’s ok to feel that if it’s what you’ve got. Feel it, sit with it, unpick it, understand it. Look at where those protective feelings come from. Do it privately where no one else can see. Own what you find there. It’s not an easy process, but if you do this quietly and alone, everyone benefits.

Poor Little Me

The Poor Little Me is a character from Hopeless Maine, inspired in part by Eliza Carthy’s song ‘Me and Poor Little Me.’ I started wondering what a Poor Little Me would be like, and thinking about possible examples. It’s a really unpleasant way of being, but in a rather passive-aggressive kind of way.

The PLM says ‘oh, poor you, that’s so bad, you must feel terrible. That must be awful, I bet its really getting to you, you must hate it, you must really be struggling there.’ At first it sounds like sympathy, and when we’re hurting, sympathy is welcome. After a while it sounds like pity – because they do it a lot, at very little provocation. Given long enough exposure, and it sucks out confidence and power, and you become this frail, useless thing and they become the big, powerful thing. Poor you.

Of course we can do it to ourselves as well – if we’ve internalised those voices, or we like to wallow too much. There are times when a good dose of ingratitude and self pity are necessary for getting life into perspective and taking action. The problem is taking up residence there. If you look at everything and see how it could have gone better and say ‘poor me’ for what you didn’t get, you’ll talk yourself into victimhood, despair and dysfunction.

In terms of dealing with the PLM as an inner voice, noticing it happening is key, and then challenging it. It’s important to deliberately look for the good in things as well as seeing what’s awry, this balance is essential to decent mental health. Often the destructive voices that live in our heads come from other places, so identifying whose voice it is can help with an eviction process.

In terms of having a PLM in your life, again noticing is key, because it will be offered in the guise of kindness and they will be ever so nice to you as they tell you how ghastly your life is. It’s very hard to protest or resist. The only method I’ve found is to step back. If rumbled, a PLM can become nasty – far more distressed that you could see them that way than they will ever be by the idea that they were making you uncomfortable.

How do we avoid becoming a PLM? Watch out for pity. Sympathy in a time of crisis can be supportive, but if it’s all we offer, it sounds like pity, and it also focuses the recipient on their woes. Make the effort to go further, offer something positive, encouraging or helpful alongside your sympathy. Act to empower the people you’re dealing with. Empty sympathy noises are easy – which is why we make them, so becoming damaging to someone else may be more about laziness than malice. Empathising and working out what could change things is a good deal more useful.

PLMing may happen to silence another person, perhaps with a feeling of justification because they keep going on about their woes. Yes, it’s terrible, poor you, you can shut up about it now. When it happens for those reasons, it doesn’t solve problems, or tackle a PLM living in someone else’s head, and it can isolate people who really are in trouble.

And if you’re curious about the PLM as a character, do click through to this blog post – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/salamandra-and-the-plm/

Sharing the misery is good

Last night I went to a Miserable Poet’s cafe. In the past I’ve been to Death Cafes. Both serve similar functions in allowing people to talk about what is otherwise unspeakable. I’m in a social media group that allows the same process. In a space that is held for people to talk about what makes them miserable, there can be a surprising amount of laughter.

Mostly in our lives we’re encouraged to hide our hurts, fears, failings and setbacks. We are to look brave and successful. This can make tough times into lonely times as well, and it can isolate us. When you think everyone else is brilliant, and winning, when all you see is the online bragging, it can be easy to feel you’re the only person who isn’t having a fantastic time.

Miserable Poet’s Cafe is the brainchild of Bill Jones, a chap who has an uncanny knack for making people laugh by being relentlessly miserable. He’s run several now, and their popularity is increasing as ever more people want to come out, not just to share their woes, but to listen attentively to other people’s. Why? Why would a person choose a night of misery over something fun?

There is a common humanity exposed by sharing stories from our worst times. Last night we had teenage diaries. I didn’t contribute from mine, but hearing other people’s, I realised I was not the lone freak I’d previously assumed myself to be. I listened to tales of pain and breakup, bereavement, madness, sickness, abuse and loss. We share these things. Sooner or later, all of us are touched by one of the many things that can go wrong for a person. Seeing our suffering reflected in other people’s poems, we can each feel that bit less alone. We can recognise the commonality of experience, and that makes it easier to be gentle with ourselves, and see that behind other people’s cheerful exteriors, all manner of grief may be lurking.

A poem calls on the writer to put their pain into a coherent form that can be shared. That in itself is a process that can be cathartic, and bring fresh insight. The sharing can be an act of release, having it witnessed can help place it in the past and draw a line under it. Finding out that other people understand can lighten the load, make it easier to help each other, make it seem less shameful to admit failure and shortcomings. We can laugh in recognition, we can laugh in relief. We can hurt together, and at the same time be comforted by the sharing of hurt. We can applaud each other for finding powerful, well crafted ways of making hurt intelligible to others. After an evening of that, you don’t go away depressed, you go away lighter, and feeling less alone.

I’ve discovered, in the last few years, that I absolutely love making people laugh, and if I can do that on a stage and hear the laughter, that’s even better. Comedy can work very well in darkness, it can feed on disaster. I remember from college a quote that went “Comedy equals tragedy plus timing.” It may have been Woody Allen. Being able to frame tragedy so that it becomes funny, is an incredibly effective thing. It can give back a sense of power and control, it can restore a person, it reveals the vulnerabilities we all share, and provides a coping mechanism. If you expose your sorrow, you can share it in empathy, and sometimes in laughter, and both are really helpful.

People: what’s not to like?

Taken individually, I tend to like people. It probably helps that I look for things to like, and have passable empathy around the things that render people grumpy. I’ve been following School of Life, who do a good job of pointing out that even as adults we can be knocked around by all the same things that make babies miserable and uncooperative. Low blood sugar can bring any of us down. I’m endlessly interested by other people’s stories, ideas and beliefs and very easy about people not agreeing with me over a lot of things.

Most of us are works in progress. Many of us have old scars and places of fragility that make perfect sense of why we do as we do, but which make us odd for other people to deal with. Many of us are insecure, anxious, overtired, out of our depth, faking it in the desperate hope of one day making it. Some of us are in pain. Some of us have really big challenges that are not visible. These are all things to cut each other some slack for, to be patient with, and not to judge. It helps to talk, I find. If I know why a person is flailing, I’m less likely to take it personally and therefore more likely to be able to help. Or at least turn up with cake.

Just every now and then, someone turns up who I cannot find it in myself to like and often the things on the list combine, so that three or four are acting at once.

Fondness for creating drama in order to be the centre of attention, needlessly using up other people’s time and energy by making problems. Eventually the inability to be out of crisis becomes obvious.

Unwillingness to learn. By all means keep making new mistakes, but to refuse to change what manifestly doesn’t work and then expect sympathy, time, attention and energy from others and there are serious questions that need asking.

Entitlement. Imagine that you are entitled to my time, skills, energy, body, without any expression of gratitude or anything offered in exchange, or act like you are entitled to take from me without my consent, and after a while I will stop co-operating. Assume you are magic and special and that everything you want should happen the moment you announce it, and we are not going to be friends.

Cruelty. I have no time for people who enjoy hurting other people. (Consenting BDSM stuff aside, that’s different). Anyone who takes pleasure from making other living things miserable, I have no tolerance for whatsoever.

Dogma. Often this comes from a place of insecurity – not feeling confident the person needs everyone to agree with them. However, if the dogma pushing becomes aggressive or abusive, or demanding, then I will move away.

I’m also not very good at dealing with smug self-importance, rudeness, arrogance, and people who like to patronise me. People who wilfully mislead me had better have a stunningly good reason and I really don’t like being taken for granted. I also don’t like people trying to control me or hold power over me.

I believe in giving people second chances, because people mess up, it’s part of being human, and so often messing up has everything to do with not knowing what was needed. We do not all start with the same beliefs, assumptions and emotional needs, and we don’t all communicate in the same ways, and these things merit gentleness and trying again. Just now and then, someone crosses the lines so often, or so thoroughly, that I have to step away.

How to empathise with imaginary people

Tom and I are co-creators on a graphic novel series. Volume three has just launched in webcomic form over at www.hopelessmaine.com . For various reasons I’d not looked at it much in the year since Tom finished the art. It came as a bit of a surprise to realise how many real people and settings had crept into this one. The first chapter features the church from Purton, Gloucestershire, fellow comics creator Maxwell Vex, and Canadian Steampunk icon Lee Ann Farruga, more real people will be along later.

It is generally held wisdom with comics that the more realistic the people are, the harder it is to empathise with them. Smiley emoticon faces have the power to be anyone, and this can be a great aid to getting people into the story. Cartoons function in a totally different way to realistic representations, in terms of how they affect the mind of the viewer. From a creative perspective, this raises some really interesting questions about whether we want people getting inside or standing outside the characters.

Alongside that is the issue that the less detailed and individual the faces are, the harder it is to have something visually gorgeous going on. Elegance can be had, but not sumptuousness. You can’t have nuances of emotion in smiley emoticon faces either. The words have to do more of the work.

Hopeless is not a story full of ‘everyman’ characters where the idea is that the reader can slot their own life into the gaps. Although that said, a surprising number of people have cheerfully imagined themselves into islander roles, which is part of why more of the people we know are getting into the books. We know this from www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com and from reader responses. Despite the specific and individual nature of characters, people can get into this. I have theories of course. I always have theories…

Everyman faces work for simple storytelling. They work for uncomplex emotions. If you want a mix of emotions, you need more face with which to express it. You need eyes that can reshape and lips that can move, and a body shape that can express feelings. It isn’t possibly to convey all of the things human bodies and faces can convey without an image able to hold more of those details in the first place.

I think it’s also a consideration that empathy is not transference. You can feel with a person without feeling that you *are* them. I know that many people come to all manner of things just looking for affirming reflections of themselves, but not everyone does. Some people are happy to look outwards, to consider unfamiliar emotions and ideas, to put themselves in shoes that are not their own. If your capacity for empathy depends on being able to see yourself in whoever you’re looking at, then simpler cartooning is your friend. If what inspires you to empathy is seeing someone else’s humanity, then perhaps more involved art isn’t going to alienate you from the story.

Of failure and compassion

I re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun recently, and one of the themes has stayed with me. There’s a young, female character who is so pure and innately virtuous for most of the book, she has no capacity for feeling compassion for the failure of others. Believing that all should be as virtuous as she is – by the standards of the day – she can’t relate to the short comings of others, cannot empathise, and is of little help as a consequence.

The more I think about this, the more I realise how easily done it is. Those places we have not been, can so readily look like weakness, shortcoming, lack of proper effort… Mental health is a case in point. From the outside, depression can look like an ailment of not getting your act together, a failure to try, an excess of self pity, a lack of work ethic. From the inside it’s all very different, but for people who haven’t been there, it can be hard to understand.

Many of the same things can be said of poverty. The sense that if only poor people made a bit more effort, they wouldn’t have all these problems. When you’ve grown up in an educated, well off enough and aspirational family, the impact, both practical and psychological, of living in total poverty is hard to understand. We are collectively slow to recognise the existence of things we don’t really understand, and quick to judge. Crime is another one, we blame it on lack of moral character, greed, laziness, an unpleasant nature, and don’t look hard enough at the diets, mental health and education levels of so many people who end up on the wrong side of the law.

The person who has never messed up, never acted in desperation, never succumbed to temptation, probably doesn’t exist, and if they did, they’d be vile. However, it’s all too easy to refuse to acknowledge our own failings, holding a sense of importance, perfection and justification that leaves no room for compassion – either for ourselves, or others. It’s always easier to see other people’s shortcomings, to turn the blame outwards and not to recognise what we do ourselves.

There’s incredible emotional power in failure. It’s a great teacher of how to get things right, a great test of determination and dedication. If we face our own mistakes, shortcomings and stupid moments, it’s easier to be more accepting of the ways in which other people do those too. We’re all human, we all mess up. The person who can admit it, can move on. The person who has to hold an image of perfection in their own eyes, cannot progress. Worse yet is the person who needs everyone else to believe they are faultless and excellent in all things and who will reshape the world to meet their need, at least in their own imaginations.
Falling down and getting up again are part of the journey. If we ask each other to be perfect, we are asking each other not to be human. That seems true in so many workplaces right now, and it’s not workable. We fall, we fail, we make the wrong call. Acceptance of that enables experimentation, real progress, and scope to haul each other up again when needed.

In the meantime, Gods save us from the shining ones who imagine that they are superior and incapable of error, and who crush mere mortals under their boots for imagined shortcomings, much less real ones. As Oscar said, we are all lying in the gutter. Some of us are looking at the stars, I’d like to add that some of us have eyes shut and fingers in ears, la la la I am not in this gutter at all. You miss the stars that way, and the gutter, and everyone else.

Life without skin

I think early on I was fairly normal in terms of my ability to handle tragedy. That changed when I became pregnant. All capacity to distance myself from the grief and pain of others left me. From then on, news items frequently brought tears to my eyes. This last year has further intensified it, hence the blog title. Sometimes it feels like I am going through the world with no skin on.

There are plenty of jobs in which ‘professional distance’ is required, and which become impossible if you empathise too much. I knew a nurse who was unable to tune out the suffering of wounded soldiers in her care, and who was coming close to being traumatised as a consequence. What does it say about the state of things if the only way to survive in an ostensibly caring profession, is by not caring too much?

Unlike even our relatively recent ancestors, we have the woes of the world delivered to us by international media. There’s probably no more woe out there than there has ever been – and in terms of life experience, many of us get an easier ride than they might have done a hundred years ago and more. Most of us don’t see violent death first hand, much less see it frequently. So maybe we’re encountering the idea of it a disproportionate amount even as we encounter the reality less frequently.

To be honest, I have no idea how much skin I *ought* to have. I feel everything all too keenly, and there are times when it would be useful to be moved less easily. But at the same time, this often painful awareness of other people’s distress is a constant spur, and makes it very hard for me to be complacent, or disinterested. Maybe that’s a good thing.

What prompted the blog is this. Yesterday, like many people, I heard about the four trapped miners. When news came through of the first body found, I was almost in tears. My grief was less for the dead, more for the families waiting and not knowing, for the heartbreak and the devastation to their lives. This kind of high profile tragedy always attracts empathy, but the odds are in the weeks, and probably months to come I’ll still be wondering how those people are doing, and what I would have done.

I remember when Princess Diana died, and there was a tremendous public outpouring of grief over her passing. Commentators remarked at the time that it seemed disproportionate, as though people were finding it an opportunity to vent private grief. Interestingly, my counsellor has been saying similar things – the undealt with pain can leak out in response to other things – sad films, and the distant stories of other people’s grief. The things we cannot weep over in our own lives are only expressed when something distant but hugely emotive reaches out to touch us.

Perhaps I am weeping for everyone else because I was not able to weep for my own wounds when I needed to. Perhaps there will come a time when the soul skin re-grows and I’m not so naked, not so vulnerable to every source of distress that comes to me through the media. Or perhaps not. I don’t know how I could honourably meet the world without breaking my heart. I’m not at all sure I want to go back to being able to hold my distance and tune things out. I wonder if my Druidry will require me to keep going through life like this, desperately raw and unable to protect myself on certain levels. Then I find myself asking what such a painful degree of awareness is for, and I know that in trying to answer the question, I’ll be beginning a whole new quest.