I’m fascinated by psychology and psychiatry. There’s a very good reason for that: I have several psychiatric/psychological disorders, mostly inherited, but at least one developed: bipolar (genetic), ADD (probably genetic), PTSD (developed), and generalized anxiety (who knows?). These are things that influence my entire life and that I work constantly to… well, I don’t want to say overcome, because genetic disorders stick with you. But “deal with” and work around, certainly.
I’ve known a lot of negative people over the course of my life. I knew one or two early on who influenced me greatly, and we tend to see the things we grew up with as “normal”, so we end up seeking them out, consciously or unconsciously, as we get older as well. For me the problem has been people who lack empathy. Now, people who lack empathy exist on a scale, ranging from well-meaning folks who simply have no ability to put themselves in others’ shoes to people who, because they can’t understand others’ needs, just don’t care about anyone but themselves and have no qualms about hurting others.
Because I’ve been around non-empathetic people so much, this had two major effects on me, as I see it. One is that I had to work hard at relating to other people and learning to put myself in their shoes. The other is that I had anger management problems, because I spent much of my time hurt and angry at the people around me who seemed to care so little for my or anyone else’s feelings.
This comes up today for two reasons. One is that today I came across a fascinating blog article about how Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain. I’ve experienced the “contagion” of negative emotions this writer speaks about; it’s hard not to get caught up in other people’s anger or depression even when you don’t agree with them. Sometimes you need to get a bit of distance and breathing room even if you really want to be there for someone, just so you can continue to be around them at all. Certainly I’ve left various online communities that had turned into war-zones of words, just because I decided that life was too valuable to waste on pointless arguments over things that, in the grand scheme of things, really weren’t that important.
Epinions makes a great example of this, come to think of it. I no longer participate in the community. Overall I like the site, but too many people would get worked up over the stupidest things and engage in wars and diatribes that would persist for months, if not years. I was recently talking to someone from the site and discovered that people who were worked up over what should have been pointless things before I left were still on the warpath about the same things, and it’s been more than a year. It seems like some folks just have to be angry about something in order to feel good (as odd as that may sound), and they’ll attach importance to the strangest things in order to find something to get worked up about. My husband used to say, in reference to someone we knew for a while, “…you know how he likes to get that vein in his forehead throbbing,” when the guy would get worked up about something. It was clear to us that he enjoyed being angry, at least on a certain level.
But anyway. Back to empathy, which has been on my mind lately and is the second reason for this post. These things are partially related; if you have a lot of empathy for others, you’re less likely to get all worked up over things because you can understand that others might not share your viewpoint. Empathy, however, is also its own beast.
Empathy is something I find fascinating. Someone who is totally without empathy can end up displaying sociopathic behavior. If you really are incapable of understanding that others feel pain, or of caring when they do, then you probably have few qualms about causing others pain when you feel you stand to gain something from doing so.
I mentioned that lack of empathy is a sliding scale, however. I don’t think that a lack of empathy necessarily turns someone into an ass. However, I do think it makes someone very difficult to be around. I’ve known people at both ends of the lack-of-empathy scale: well-meaning people who simply make life difficult, and people who truly hurt those around them without caring. I’ve learned to simply boot the latter from my life whenever possible, because they’re toxic. Sure, their behavior might be the result of a bad life or whatever, and maybe there’s reason to feel sympathy for that, but when it comes down to it, because they lack empathy they aren’t going to change. You can’t make them understand that they’re hurting people and get them to stop unless they see value in stopping for themselves–and then they’re only going to stop until they see value in starting again.
Someone who means well, however, can be different. I’ve found you still need to draw strict boundaries with this kind of person. You have to be willing to say, “this is what I’m willing to do for this person, this is what I’m not willing to do, and this is how much time I’m willing to give them.” Otherwise they tend to take and take and take, without ever even realizing that what they’re asking for is exhausting and unreasonable. You can explain it to them if you like, but since they’re virtually incapable of seeing things from your perspective they probably will never get it, and you’re usually better off just saying, “sorry, but I can’t help you with that tonight,” instead of trying to explain why you aren’t up to it or why it’s asking too much of you. Otherwise, I’ve found they simply try to argue you into seeing it from their perspective–because in their mind, theirs is simply the only correct perspective, and they just need to get you to see the truth of things. You also have to understand that, odds are, there are going to be a lot of people who think this person is an ass, because they don’t see the lack of understanding–they just see the surface selfish behavior.
Lest you think I’m bashing on anyone who doesn’t perfectly understand others, however, let me make it clear that I’m talking about folks who have virtually no empathy whatsoever. It isn’t as though everyone simply falls into two camps, one “with empathy” and one “without empathy”. Amount of empathy itself is a separate sliding scale, ranging from so empathetic that you experience the highs and lows of everyone and everything around you, all the way to what I’ve been describing above. I think of it like a capital L, I guess:
You might wonder why I used the word “dangerous” to describe folks at the far end of the low empathy/not-well-meaning scale. Well, that’s because this is often where you’ll find folks who are willing, when necessary, to hurt others to get what they need. This might be the mugger who has no qualms about knifing someone to get a wallet, or the person who will use anything from emotional manipulation to physical abuse to keep his spouse in line.
On a physical level, the mugger is probably more obviously “dangerous” of course. In his own way, however, the abusive spouse is more dangerous. Why? Because he’s often more subtly manipulative and abusive, convincing people that he’s the sad, injured, unappreciated party, which makes it easy for him to get away with hurting those closest to him. The interesting part is that odds are people will like this person more than they like the well-meaning/low-empathy person, because this person has often learned to manipulate others and to pretend to be a better person than they are.
I’m seriously rambling by this point, of course. I’ve had this rant building for some time, you see, and there’s a lot I can’t really say about it that I’d like to. I know I should just delete this rather than post something this unformed and incomplete, but I know that if I do, this rant will just keep building, so call it a release valve. That other post I linked to is far more coherent, so if you need something normal, I suggest reading that. Someday, perhaps, I’ll post something much more complete on the nature of lack of empathy and kind of people and results it creates.