I am starting to get some idea of how I got here, or at least how my family got to be the way it was and created me. Or at least some aspects of me.
I have no idea how my parents got to be the way they were (are) or the specifics of their particular issues. However, I am really sure they had problems with empathy. How they got to be that way, I don’t know, but it’s clear to me they did not have a good understanding of how other people felt and maybe how they felt as well.
People who can’t understand how other people feel routinely trample on the rights of others. They might not be aware of it, they might not realize it, they might realize it later and regret it, but an awareness of feelings helps us understand how other people want to be treated and my parents just had none of that. So, while I don’t really know how they interacted with other adults, I’m going to assume that this happened. That throughout their lives, they alienated other people in various ways. I’m not connecting this to abusing me, but it connects in an important way with some of the beliefs I grew up with. Bear with me for a bit here.
My parents lacked empathy, they frequently were not considerate of other people, and this created a hostile or at least very cold and unhelpful world. When we feel threatened the way that would tend to make someone feel, one way of reducing our fear about that is to find some way to diminish our sense of the power or magnitude of that threat.
We criticize. We find fault. We minimize it. It’s one way of coping.
In other words, we look for ways we are superior. Nations do this when they feel threatened. Ethnic and racial groups do. Sports teams do. Individuals do.
The thing is acting superior annoys other people. It’s circular. The world seems hostile, so we act superior, it pisses people off, the world becomes hostile towards us even if it wasn’t hostile to start with.
My parents were 2x2s. They thought they were superior to everyone else in the world. No wonder they felt persecuted. It pisses people off when you think you are better than everyone else and you really aren’t.
It’s a strategy that works only when we really do have power over the group that is threatening us. Then they feel bad, decide they can’t stand up to us and back off. It works pretty well, for example, when abusive spouses (who lack empathy and feel threatened easily) do it to a vulnerable spouse (who then internalizes the message and tries harder to please.)
That’s one thing. I grew up with this idea that the world could be expected to be a cold, hostile, unhelpful place and the thing to do was to try in some way to be better. Being better than everyone else was a way to be safe.
The other thing about having parents with empathy problems is that they had (have) crappy bonds to other people. You lack empathy, so you don’t consider the perspectives of other people, then you aren’t consider them. They get angry and you have a hostile world on your hands. Then you have weak bonds with said hostile world and you don’t get a lot of connection. There is a major source of joy in life that is largely missing, because connection is hugely pleasurable for social animals like us. (I’m saying you, but I mean people with empathy problems. I’m sorry my writing is apparently incorrectly unclear today. I can’t seem to do it.)
What can you get instead?
Well, admiration. Feeling superior makes you feel safe, so it feels really good when people admire you. You feel safe then, and it’s lovely to feel safe. Of course, we all like being admired, but when you don’t get a lot of good feelings from connection, admiration is kind of all that is left.
For many decades, I thought self-esteem was my own admiration and was really important. I think the people who really think self-esteem is important think the same thing, because the mental health world is shaped by people who lack empathy. I mean, people with empathy problems are the ones causing distress in others and themselves. They and their collateral damage (their unwitting victims) are the ones interested in healing the distress.
If you admire yourself suitably, then you will feel better. And you might. But learning how to think about your feelings and others feelings works a lot better. It allows for connection, which in the long-term is a more durable and more satisfying way to feel better.
Empathy problems can come about in multiple ways. You can lack affective empathy: there is just something kind of missing inside where your feeling don’t immediately mirror the feelings of others. I think this probably happens. Some people have stronger affective empathy in others in ways that seem partly inborn and partly learned.
You can also lack cognitive empathy. Kids lack cognitive empathy because they lack experience. They really just don’t know how other people feel yet. They’ve never been in that position before, or no one has taken the time to help them imagine how it feels. So they don’t know. We tend to lack empathy for people from very different backgrounds from ours. Like kids, we lack experience. We’ve not lived their lives. We don’t know what it is like.
Our cognitive empathy also tends to break down when we have very strong emotions. It might come back when we are calm, but in the heat of the moment, it’s really difficult to think about how the other person is feeling. When I have very strong emotions, I can’t even think about my own emotions. I doubt I would be able to think much about anyone else’s.
I don’t know what the point of that was, because the power sander started up and I completely lost my train of thought. Nonetheless, I think there is something worthwhile I could still say about it.
Whether we lack affective empathy or cognitive empathy and whether it’s a problem all the time or just when we get overwhelmed, it has the same effect: it weakens our bonds to other people. It creates a hostile world.
And it might be, because we feel we are in a hostile world, we do not expect others to help us or to want to meet our needs. We find ourselves preoccupied with meeting our own needs without outside help. Which might mean we manipulate other people into meeting them, or we take pleasure not in the relationship (because the bond is too weak to give that charge of connection), but only in being able to get our needs met.
That means we see people primarily as sources of supply: either people who can admire us and make us feel safer by indicating we are superior to others or as people who will give us what we want or need.
That seems to be how my parents lived. Those were the ideas I grew up with: in a nutshell, It’s important to be able to admire yourself because that will help you feel safe. This is the essence of “feeling good about yourself” and it’s the secret to a happy life.
My parents were maybe unsalvageably evil. I am not trying to say everyone with empathy problems is. They are not all evil and they are not all unsalvageable.
You can learn to understand feelings. You can learn to understand yours and other people’s.
Don’t get confused here.
My point is just I don’t think admiring yourself is important anymore. I’m unique, like everyone else. Maybe more different than average. Whatever. I am not better. I don’t have to be better. I don’t even have to be really great at any one thing. I might not be great at anything.
The joy in my life can come from the bonds I have to other people. It can come from that feeling inside I get when I see people who matter to me, that makes my whole self seem to light up and I think does that to them too. It can come from something not quite so intense from that, just a little warm feeling I get when I am with someone I feel connected to, but less intensely. I can get joy in my life from that happiness I get when I can exchange an idea with someone and we both have a sense of appreciation for that.
I am really talking about worth here. Not a worth that comes from being or doing anything great, but just having that feeling of warmth inside because I am connected to other people and there’s a feeling that goes with it. A nice feeling.
The other thought I had about worth, because this post is really about worth, is that I was never before the person I am now. To get to being this person, I really had to fight for the potential I might have rather than the person I already am.
It’s kind of a crazy thought. My value as a human being is, to a large extent, something that lies in the future. I work hard to heal not because of some person I am or have been, but because of the person I believe I could be. I don’t even know I could be that person. A year ago, I think I had almost no idea who I was going to be. It’s still quite vague. My effort to heal is about this hope that I can be someone who has something to offer to other people and who can contribute to my world. There’s no secret person trapped inside me waiting to get out. It’s someone I am making without even knowing what I am making.
I am worth taking care of and worth trying to heal, but not because I have proven my worth in the past, I am worth it only because I believe in my own potential. I believe in the power of human beings to learn and to grow and to change.
I liked that thought this morning and I wanted to share it: Fight for the person you could be. Don’t worry about who you are now or the things you have done in the past. You can do different things in the future. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week or next month or next year. But eventually, if you can keep trying, you can change.
I am such a different person than I was a year ago. I am certainly very different than I was a decade ago. One thing that really strikes me is I am just a lot nicer. I am probably less superficially charming. I probably connect more authentically, because I am making the world around me into a more helpful and less hostile places through my own choices, and so I am less preoccupied with getting my needs met.
It’s wild to think about.