Compassionate Relationship: Hidden Apathy

Painting of Michaelangelo's Hand of God

Here is an example of a relationship test at a level one – when one person is experiencing pain from an external source, which has nothing to do with the supporter/listener. Notice how easily things can go wrong and the relationship test can fail.

Last year, I was offered a position working within a team of people doing something that I absolutely loved. I had been working with them for over two years before that in an external capacity. We had been going back and forth for about a year, in discussions about me joining their team to write and implement a very special project. This whole time I was very happy and excited, waiting for the technical things to be sorted out so I could start the project. After two years of talking, it took a year to sign the contract and then I finally started writing the project. I was very hyped. But two month into the project, things changed in the organization. The person managing the project left and the wisest decision for me was to stop the project. I was soooooooooooooooooooooo disappointed. I was very sad and even cried. To manage the overwhelming challenge I was facing, I shared the story with other people, which put our relationships to the test. Lucky for me, most of my relationships were successful. While sharing my challenge with others, we both passed the test of support. But this is not always the case for every challenge. Here are some examples of relationships and how things can go wrong.

“If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy I could have won”
– Mumford and Sons from the song “I gave you all”

Imagine me at the lowest point in my story, feeling absolutely devastated.

  1. Image of the brainThe first way to fail the relationship test is to show apathy. “Why are you telling me this?” or “Come on Ronit, do not make it into such a big deal. Snap out of it!”, “Let’s talk about more interesting things” or worse, “Why do you think I care”. Although I am a great believer in minimizing complaints and whining, some situations require empathy. Dismissing someone’s feelings will guarantee that the test will be failed. The idea of giving someone else space for “expressing their feelings” becomes problematic when one person is constantly experiencing pain. In this situation, it is likely that the listener will be apathetic in order to manage their emotional overload. It is not easy to be constantly supportive. Most people will reach a point where they just do not want to hear or show support for any more whining and complaining. Yet apathy can be damaging to the person experiencing the pain, the one who needs to support. Both people in the relationship need to try their best to avoid reaching this point. The listener, by clearing the stage from time to time and allowing the person in pain to express themselves. The person in pain, by not overusing the empathy of the listener.
  2. Another way of failing the test is to say “I told you never to sign that contract with them!” This example can be a result of indifference, or the inability to consider the other person’s feelings. Or it can be when you feel sympathy and it makes you helpless. This sometimes makes us use the “I am a fortune teller and I always knew” or the “you should have listened to me” strategy to deal with the fact that a “wrong decision” was made. Now the listener is the one experiencing pain (and double the amount!). One: the “failed” experience by proxy. Two: you did not listen to me when I told you. This is a test of the ego and if you fall into this trap, the test is guaranteed to fail. The focus shifts from the person in pain to the listener. Many parents do not survive this test. It simply cannot be passed if “I told you so” is part of the interaction. Listen to yourself in these situations. If you have used this phrase in any interaction, you are sabotaging the relationship. Stop! And practice empathy. You do not have to agree. Just say, “It must be so disappointing”. Little girl crying
  3. Another way to fail the test is to show empathy towards the person who the speaker is complaining about. For example, in my case it would be like saying, “What are you sad about? They were right and they had to do it and you cannot take them to court”. Gah! I did not share this with you so you would increase my feeling of helplessness and devastation! For a relationship to work well, you do not always have to take the speaker’s side. But it is best not to take the side of the person causing the pain, at least not out loud. Even if you agree with it, it is more important to show empathy towards the person you are in a relationship with! “It is so disappointing to dedicate much time and effort and have to stop it all of a sudden”. You do not have to agree to with what they said.
  4. Another example of failed relationships is when the listener holds you in such high regard that your “failure” is devastating to them. Every time you experience pain, you have failed them and they are disappointed in you. This is a very typical parent –children situation. For example, children get a mark on a test and parents focus on their disappointment rather than showing compassion by offering to help, as if the child is an extension of them. In my situation it would sound like, “Ronit, I never would have believed you would fail. You are the Be Happy in LIFE coach, you cannot possibly be sad. How can you preach to others to be happy and positive if you feel sad when things like that happen?” Ouch! Massive FAIL.
  5. Another typical test is when the listener thinks he or she is there to give advice and solve all your problems. In their mind, your pain is so big you cannot possibly make good decision when you are sad and upset. They will tell you what to do now, or what you can do in the future to prevent it from happening (as if they are fortune tellers, they know the past and the future). Or worse yet, they get are really, really upset when you do not do what they told you to do. “So why did you tell me your problem if you did not do what I suggested?” This relationship dynamic was once believed to demonstrate the difference between men and women. Women were thought to show empathy and sympathy, while men gave solutions and advice. I do not want to go into the gender stereotype (this is a topic for another time), but regardless of what your gender is, this sort of response is not healthy in any relationship.Here is a way to find out if you are helping: If you have been asked to help! Ask “How can I help?” to make sure you are giving the person what he/she needs. Sometimes the person in pain will say, “I just need someone to talk to” or, “I just need to vent” or, “I want to spend time with you to make me feel better” or, “Let’s do something else that will keep me distracted”. If for some reason you cannot ask the speaker what they need, do not take chances. Stick to showing empathy. Do not make clumsy attempts to show compassion by slipping in suggestions. This is in fact hidden judgment of what would have been the “right” way to deal with or react to the issue. When trying to show compassion, you must be clear about what the person in pain considers help. Help them their way, not yours. Put yourself aside. Be a coach. Leave your judgment, feelings and solutions aside.
  6. Man hugging a crying womanA relationship test fails when the listener analyzes the situation so much that they shift the focus from the speaker to themselves. The listener then feels the need to justify everyone’s actions. “They did that because they did not have anyone to lead the project when the manager left” or “They did not want to pay you so they ended the contract quickly” or “they did it because they do not have courage”, “You felt sad because your expectations were too high”. Even though some of the “reasons” could be true, we will never know. We can never tell the motives of other. We can only tell what our own motives are, because we are closest to ourselves. The task of analyzing other people’s feelings falls to psychologist, and they have to study a minimum of 6 years in order to do it. Here is a rule of thumb: unless someone offers to pay you a lot of money to analyze their feelings and motives, do not be tempted to do it! Even if you think you are stating the obvious, this sort of thing is fraught with errors.

Join me next week for the last chapter of the compassionate relationship series, covering examples of failed sympathy.

Until next time, practice compassion!