Hell is thinking about other people.
November 18, 2009 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Since childhood I've been a rather sensitive and justice-obsessed person, but also pretty interested in / attentive to the well-being and inner lives of other people. But I feel increasingly drained. In my field of work there is a lot of getting-ahead through nepotism/ingratiation rather than ability/ passion/effort, and it bothers me. In my life I have people whom I generally like and have opened up to, but who, at critical junctures, exhibit such self-absorption that I'm left feeling not only outraged but injured. I want to change the intensity and duration of my reaction to these things, as it's a huge waste of time, and sometimes upsets my own self-esteem. Please help me stop thinking about other people without becoming alienated and alienating.
posted by taramosalata to Human Relations (9 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I learned not to care too much about other people by concentrating on two ideas.

The first is that I can't control the world, I can only control myself and how I deal with the world. Other people will do what other people will do, and they'll do it regardless of how I think they should do it. They're not me. My idea of how the world should be is irrelevant to them.

The second is "karma in our lifetimes", which is the idea that shitty people are usually the authors of their own suffering. Manipulative people tend to spend their lives guarding against manipulation; liars have trouble believing anyone is telling them the truth. Conversely, genuinely warm, helpful people tend to find other people to be warm and helpful; politeness begets politeness. It helps with my sense of justice to think that people I think are being bad people are, in fact, being punished for it by the way the universe works. This frees me from the responsibility to correct them or somehow adjust them. It makes a "live and let live" attitude much easier. It also motivates me to examine how I'm acting, and what the consequences of my actions are on my own well-being, before blaming others.
posted by fatbird at 10:14 AM on November 18, 2009 [9 favorites]

(Caveat: what follows is also from the "you can only control yourself and your reactions" school of answers, and might count as an expansion of fatbird's first point.)

In my life I have people whom I generally like and have opened up to, but who, at critical junctures, exhibit such self-absorption that I'm left feeling not only outraged but injured.

From the sounds of it, these are folks who are mostly nice, and who you mostly put into the box labelled "friend". Is that right?

What do you label "self-absorption"? Could it help to analyze that a bit? You've said you are someone who is "pretty interested in / attentive to the well-being and inner lives of other people". That's a skill -- some of which comes naturally, that people can be good at and bad at. E.g. If you are really good at intuiting the pain of your friend Jane, you will reach out to her. But she does not reach out to you when you are in pain. It could be because she is self-absorbed ... or it could be because she's not as good at sensing pain as you are. The effect is the same -- you are not getting the support you need, and that is an obvious need to you. But the cause is different.

Sometimes I over think the well-being of others, so that I worry about it in a way that makes me anxious. But if I found out that someone was that anxious about my well-being, I might feel a bit like that person did not think I was capable of coping. But I am. This realization has aided me to not worry so damn much about everyone else :) not the same, but perhaps helpful analogy: I've just started a new job which involves a lot of me interrupting senior staff to get their advice as I learn. 60% of my brain is in a panic that I am being too taxing on their time. But I have to trust that these people will just let me know when they don't have time.

These answers might be way off base, and I'm sorry if they are. If so, please ignore!
posted by girlpublisher at 10:28 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hey, welcome to the club of the highly sensitive. You're empathic and feel everything to the nth degree - and lessening the intensity is Really hard to do. You can't control what others do, but you can control your filters - that's basically your senses - and beef up your boundaries.

Suggestions: read the Highly Sensitive Person
Find out how to Self Protect
Learn how to set firm and safe boundaries
Get into some kind of martial arts for groundedness
Take care of your body
Master a form of meditation to chill out. Breathing mantras are very helpful.

Know that you can't change who you are and this is a good thing. This sensitivity is a gift and blessing and comes with responsibility and sometimes challenges. The lessons are to learn how to ride out the storms and become the teachers of humanity. There's a lot of info on the web on the subject. Use your intuition and gut feelings to navigate through them. Oh, and when all else seemingly fails - prayer helps. Good luck and chin up.
posted by watercarrier at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

Seconding fatbird and adding another point. I was struck by this part of your question:

"but also pretty interested in / attentive to the well-being and inner lives of other people."

Understand that you are part of a minority there, and while that's not a bad thing at all (in fact, your actions in this regard are quite commendable), I think it's important to realize that there are far more people who DO NOT exhibit the same trait. You'll be a lot less surprised and offended when they don't reciprocate - and try not to fault them for it. It's kind of just who they are. If anything, just keep doing what you're doing and try to provide an example to others. Oh, and try to feel good about yourself for doing so. Clean living is its own reward - even more so when you're giving of yourself to others.
posted by Rewind at 10:48 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, you actually sound a little judgmental to me in that you're holding others up to a possibly unreasonable standard. For example, what appears to be "ingratiation" to you in a coworker may actually be "good social skills" and "easy to work with" to your boss. What appears to be "self absorbed" in your friend may simply be somebody who's overwhelmed or needs to attend to other priorities in life at that moment rather than responding to you.

Your desire that everyone exactly mirror your particular brand of values is also a little blind --- why, to be a good person, or a good worker, do they have to be exactly like you? Perhaps where they lack in what you perceive to be empathy, they exceed in other areas -- they could be extremely loyal, or financially generous, or funny, or loving, or whatever. Perhaps what you read as "self absorbed" is actually an attempt to give you a respectful distance/boundary during a difficult time.

So what I'm saying is, you don't need to "stop thinking about other people," but rather consider that people don't need to mirror exactly what you do to be "good," and understand that there are many more facets to their behavior than you might be considering.
posted by yarly at 12:17 PM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Related to what yarly is saying, I think part of this is that you may need to release a false ideal you've constructed. I think that's one of the ways we grow as we age - letting go of imagined ideals and working with what's actually in front of us.

getting-ahead through nepotism/ingratiation rather than ability/ passion/effort, and it bothers me

In that statement we see that you have an assumption for how the world should work, no doubt due to all the lessons in fair play and consideration and hard work and honesty you were taught as a child. But as Yoda might have said, there is no should. Each of us can choose how to act, but you will never, by yourself, compel people to conform to your ideal by force of will.

You get bothered when people don't act like you've decided would be best. Maybe it would be best, but you should expect to continue to be bothered for the rest of your life, because they will continue act as you've observed. So, given that immovable object, you have a choice. You can let it upset you for the rest of your life, which will suck hard, or you can simply note that down as an expected and predictable given, a feature of the world that is, which you can't control, which doesn't surprise you when it happens, and apply your emotional energy elsewhere. You have a limited stock of it and need to prioritize. You need to decide which punches you are going to allow to land on your sensitive soul. Consider each temptation to judge as a savings opportunity for emotional energy. Spend it on things unjustified and unuseful like judgment and anger, or save it for something better.

It's kind of like yelling at people in traffic. It's understandable, but you'll never fix them all, all of those horrible drivers. You probably won't fix any of them. So your horn, your glares, your tailing, your shaken fists, your shouts, they're not affecting anybody but you. All you get out of it is anger and stress. So quit it. I turned that corner myself and am much less stressed in traffic than I once was.

So in regard to the hostile environment you find yourself in, if you can replace the lens through which you view it, it will affect you less. Notice I didn't say it wouldn't affect you. I still have to turn welling traffic shouts into mini opera yodels in the car sometimes. But the point is that you gain a measure of control over whether you're going to let external events determine your emotions.

Continue to live in the way you feel is right and accept that others will do that as well, in a lot of different ways, some of them knowingly and deliberately crappy. That's a part of the real world that you don't want to acknowledge but need to.

I also like what yarly says about giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to shed judgment. Over and over in my life I've assumed nasty motives about people in various situations and have later found out I was wrong and that there was an explanation. And then I've felt horrible about it. And I've had that aimed at me as well. When that happens enough times, you start to let go of judgment, recognizing that the only constant is that you never really know what's going on in someone else's head or what they're dealing with, just as others don't know that about you. You don't know their background or their current situation or emotional crap they're dealing with or past trauma or mislearned lessons. If you did, if you knew others as well as yourself, you'd probably give them much more of a break. You won't likely get to know them that well, but they still probably deserve at least a lack of judgment from you. As an empathetic and sensitive person, you will actually be affording them more tenderness and consideration and mercy this way than if you get offended by them and angry at them.

This letting go, of ideals and of judgment, takes some practice, but is ultimately liberating. It makes you a more adaptable person, a calmer person, a wiser person, and ultimately a happier person. It's part of that loss of innocence motif, which is in one way tragic but in others world-broadening. Your ignorance doesn't sound very blissful right now, so have a bite of this apple and get to know the local reptiles.
posted by kookoobirdz at 1:25 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Murphy's law isn't just for the military and physicist. Truly, in your heart of hearts hope that people will surpass the ideals that were laid out before us as children. Expect no one to live up to those ideals and you'll be a much happier person.
posted by RawrGulMuffins at 2:14 PM on November 18, 2009

Maybe you just need different coworkers. I used to get really, really angry/upset at every prior job. I thought it was my problem, that I was just an angry/sensitive person. But for the past 14 months I have been working at a place that doesn't seem to have any jerks or idiots. I don't get angry at work anymore. I've realized how important the people you work with are to job satisfaction.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:54 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all responses so far, all of which have been instructive. I'd still love to hear more responses. To go through life with no expectations of those in whom one has invested time and trust is easier said than done. Watercarrier's links to "the highly sensitive person" were illuminating, although I'm not quite that "type" (and did not score as such on the test at Elaine Aron's website, although her definition is narrower than the range of people her advice might in fact apply to). And while the karma idea is a redemptive one, potentially a therapeutic one, life seems rarely to bear out its version of justice....
posted by taramosalata at 9:01 PM on November 23, 2009

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