"Some people have REAL problems"
April 12, 2016 10:02 PM   Subscribe

Is it normal for misfortune in your own life to decrease your sense of empathy towards other people's problems? How can I learn to be kinder?

It's a stressful time in the Ziggy family at the moment, with serious parental illness and a lot of big life changes going on. I've moved countries to help my family cope and am now living in the city I grew up in but haven't lived in for many many years. It is a huuuge change for me. Most of the caring burden has also fallen on me for Reasons. Most people tell me how well I'm doing. And I think I am doing well. But I've noticed one big change lately. I am way less patient with other people. I get angry much more easily at small things.

One of my biggest trigger is when I feel other people who shouldn't have anything to complain about, complain about things that seem to me trivial. I've lost my cool at my mom for getting what I feel is excessively worried about minor things like social faux pas etc, at my friend for complaining about her love life, and I've actually had to stop visiting certain city-specific internet forums (fora?) for expats. (I'm in a city in the developing world now with a lot of SHOCKING problems with poverty, huge gaps between rich and poor etc, but a lot of the expats on the forums have their bees in a bonnet about what seem to me minor things in comparison, like how hard it is to get organic sweetcorn and how the traffic makes them late to things. OH MY GOD. Even thinking about it makes me mad.)

I get mad because I feel like, how dare these people get so flustered and up in arms about such trivial things? How dare you bitch about not being able to find gluten free bread when there are people dying of starvation in the slums??? But my response feels disproportionate. It also doesn't really help me to deal with my own problems. And it certainly doesn't help the people in the slums. (I give money to beggars but I don't have the time to commit to helping out in any more meaningful or structured way.)

I know that it probably doesn't matter how I feel about anonymous internet forum people, but I should be nicer to my mom and my friends even when I feel they are fussing over nothing.

I've always felt myself to be fairly empathetic to other people's problems so I think this is a response to my own situation. How can I keep patient and kind to other people in this trying time?

Self-care info: I exercise regularly, eat a varied diet, probably don't get enough sleep, have a pretty good balance between caring for parent and taking time for myself.

Sorry this question is all over the place. It's been good getting it off my chest though.
posted by Ziggy500 to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you are certainly under a lot of stress -- coping with many major life changes and taking care of your parents is no easy task. Is it possible that this anger is simply an outward manifestation of your own stress levels and underlying resentment of your current situation? Possibly you feel guilty about this resentment and instead of confronting it, it's coming out in other ways.

Perhaps if you took some time to honestly assess your feelings about your current situation, acknowledge them, and let them go, you would be able to return to a more centered mind-state which would allow you the breathing room to be more empathetic. You might also benefit from just having some other people who are not involved in the situation to vent to and express your feelings with. Check out 7 Cups of Tea, it's a free one-on-one online therapy chat service.
posted by ananci at 10:29 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

What you are describing is a normal stress response. A lot of things are dipping into your well of resilience and tolerance. You just have less patience to go around than you normally would.

You're doing what you can do for self-care, and that's good. Keep that up. Try to remove yourself from situations that trigger you unless they absolutely require your attention and no one else's attention will do (no internet forums if they bug you).

Mindfulness is trendy to suggest, but it's useful here. Try to stay present and notice when you're getting triggered and then cut the interaction short. Better to say a quick goodbye and hang up than to blow up. The last thing is to apologize if you hurt someone and then forgive yourself. Adding guilt to stress isn't going to help.
posted by 26.2 at 10:38 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I went through something similar and came out of it by looking at my own irritation through the same lens and asking myself whether other people's apparently petty concerns and trivial complaints really mattered to me. In the face of the real problems in my life, the answer was invariably no, so it became easier to be patient with others. This is not the kindest way out, but it worked for me at a time when I needed to keep myself together.
posted by tavegyl at 10:44 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here's the thing... someone will ALWAYS have it harder than someone else. It's really easy to start competing for the top slot at the oppression olympics, but there will always be someone who has it harder. The only barometer for stress is the individual, and there's so many axes that pain and hardship work on.

Really, complaining about stuff is how most people achieve catharsis and relief. Some people might complain about petty things while still struggling from serious and painful issues underneath. There's plenty of mundane complaining that people do in order to burn off stress from bigger things.

I'd recommend some form of talk therapy if you can get it. A chance to have someone listen, and for you to get things off your chest in a safe place. It can get all that frustration out and then set out a course of redirecting that energy to a good place for you. Having someone who's going to listen to everything you need to get out can feel really freeing.

For me when I begin resenting others for "having it easy" I have to repeatedly remind myself how it's felt when other people have reduced me to that in the past(I've had doctors who wouldn't treat/test my issues because I'm young, because in their eyes I couldn't have any "real" problems). Dividing people based on who's got it worse just means a lot of missed opportunities for real and open understanding. I've missed out on other's empathy by reducing them to stereotypes, and other people have missed out on mine by doing the same.
posted by InkDrinker at 11:20 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have found David Foster Wallace's commencement speech 'This is Water' helpful a few times when I've had trouble with this.

It is an excellent little speech on the nature of people's 'defaults' as they go through life and how questioning that default and trying to give people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible can make your own progress through life easier. I think the most important part of it is the assertion that when someone flips out over something minor, it is (not always, but often) actually a symptom of a bigger, less resolvable problem they may be dealing with. We bitch and moan about the minor things because we can't deal with the major things very well, basically.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:26 PM on April 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

It does sound like some form of therapy could be really helpful to you in figuring out how to cope with your stressors and directing all of that energy you are negatively focusing on others. At the same time, stepping back and contextualizing your own misfortune in relation to what others are going through could give you some much needed perspective. Others could be looking at you and scoffing that a change of location and an ill parent are nothing compared to X (death of a child, starving loved ones, domestic violence, etc).

In the end it doesn't serve us to judge what others are finding stressful; everyone's life experience is so different. If the worst someone else is experiencing is traffic, we should feel glad for them not suffering in a more terrible situation. Furthermore, just because someone is announcing aggravation with something mundane like groceries doesn't mean that's the extent of their issues. I'm sure you know all this but it bears repeating. Everything comes down to, though, you needing some kind of additional support with the stress you are going through. Once you have a healthy outlet I don't think you will direct negative energy toward others.
posted by JenMarie at 11:41 PM on April 12, 2016

When I get prickly like this, it's usually because I have some kind of pain or grief that hasn't been acknowledged, hasn't been validated by society or by other people, and this gets transmuted into outward annoyance directed at totally random targets. Maybe spend some time just idly contemplating what the source might be, the feeling buried beneath the anger (one guess: you have had to give up and reorder significant parts of your life-- not to mention moving countries!-- in order to caregive, but you don't want to be angry at or resentful of your parent, so the feeling of loss gets stuffed further down). Also, are you reaching out to your supports? Like, really letting your friends know what you're going through, allowing them to listen to you and offer compassion? I believe you're managing your self-care well for yourself, but you might need a little more in the way of care from others.
posted by thetortoise at 12:12 AM on April 13, 2016 [16 favorites]

You are re calibrating your sense of "what really matters". Totally normal and healthy. In future you're going to be more resilient when facing minor issues and able to empathize with people with problems. I don't think you need therapy, I think you just might occasionally remind yourself how seriously people expect their minor complaints to be taken.
posted by fshgrl at 12:29 AM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think this is very normal.

What has helped me (I teach, and a lot of my students are quite needy): when I received some devastating news last week, I honestly could not handle what seemed to be trivial concerns on the part of my students. I was constantly on the verge of snapping at them. I spent a lot of time talking to my partner, friends and family to process what happened. They allowed me to express my grief honestly. After this release valve, I found I've had a lot more patience for my students again this week. That said, I'm cutting way back on extra responsibilities where I can, because I need to conserve my mental and emotional resources.

Can you spend some time talking very honestly to good friends about how you're feeling? Can you cut back on extra responsibilities? These things might help.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:47 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Make a list of things you are grateful for. Think about all that is good that's still in your cup. When I clean someone's dentures, I silently thank God on the inside for my teeth. A lot of the time I take care of rich people who I know just want to use me for the things they don't want to have to do.

Keep looking around for the stuff that still makes you feel better about life. Sometimes it's just walking past Barcelona Red who's stretching out in some ridiculous position and that makes me feel happy.
posted by BarcelonaRed at 1:48 AM on April 13, 2016

People become egocentric under stress, and this is you becoming egocentric under stress. There's really not much more to it than that.

All I can suggest - other than reducing your own stress, for which a chance would be a fine thing - is that you remember you were once that person complaining about "trivial" things and you will be again.
posted by tel3path at 4:01 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

A saying I first read on AskMe that has stuck with me: "Everyone's worst problem is their worst problem." Or, from the now-classic Hyperbole and a Half depression post: "Did you know that some people have pets that are dead?" which I like to think whenever someone tries to play Grief Olympics.

Emotional pain scales to personal circumstances; sometimes everything's been shit for ages and you're used to making shit-ade, sometimes everything's going great and you lose your favorite hat and it's like the whole house of cards collapses. Sadness, anxiety, and frustration, like physical pain, are all individually felt, and can never be shared or quantified with 100% accuracy. Empathy gets you partway there, but you can never fully experience someone else's pain firsthand.

In other words, thinking about severed arms doesn't make a paper cut hurt any less.

When you're in the middle of conversation with someone who's got trivial complaints, frame it in terms of how they feel rather than why they feel that way. Most of the time, in that moment, the how is what they want to fix. And find your own space, some distance away, to comfortably dump your frustration: therapy can help with this, and a semi-anonymous blog or Twitter can provide an immediate vent.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:12 AM on April 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

I know what this is like! A few years ago I went through a major life and emotional upheaval. For many months it was a struggle just to keep myself together enough to deal with it as well as the normal everyday life stuff. It took a whole lot of inward directed emotional energy.

I didn't have a whole lot of energy and will to direct outward and it manifested in just not caring or wanting to care about others and other things. And yes at times I felt the same sort of frustration, was way less patient with other people and would get annoyed at things that just seemed so trivial. My sense of compassion and understanding was dulled. Then I would feel guilty because this wasn't 'me' and not like I was before.

As others have said this is normal a normal reaction to stress. I was able to recognize this but I also didn't want it to change who I was before with other people I cared about. So what I did at times was just act like I did before with the understanding that at some point in the future I'd get the emotional wherewithal back. So when Mom would relate her problems and I'd start feeling the' this is nothing, so trivial, oh God I just don't care right now' I would remember back to when I did care and what would I say or do. I'd do that and move on. So yes for a time I was fake caring but it did alleviate the guilt I would feel if I acted like an ass. And eventually the emotional energy did come back and I found myself actually 'feeling' like I cared.

I also became a lot more upfront and matter of fact with people about how much I had to give. "I don't have the emotional capacity to deal with this right now, I'm under a lot of stress. " I opted out of things when a could after going through an evaluation of what was the most important to keep up. I didn't make a drama out of it or anything. There was no need offer detailed explanations. The people closest to me knew what was going on and with anyone else it was none of their business anyways.

Of course these sorts of strategies won't work for everyone just thought I would relate what worked for me in case it helps.
posted by Jalliah at 5:11 AM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

The only empathy that you are lacking is that for yourself. You are being too hard on yourself. You are having a perfectly natural reaction to a stressful time. You will get through this. You are not turning into a monster. After all of this is over, you will be more empathetic to others than ever before. Just give yourself time. And no, you don't have to be nicer to mom if you aren't up for it but, someone should, so do encourage her to go out with friends and continue with her social groups. When one of your friends goes off on a whine, politely say, "I'm so sorry. I love you very much and respect what you are going through but right now, my stress level is so high that I don't have the headspace for this. Can we talk later?"
posted by myselfasme at 6:04 AM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I came in to say something akin to what thetortoise says above.

Anecdote: when my mother was dying of cancer, I drove to my university one afternoon in the hope of getting some work done, only to find that they had removed the change machine, and I didn't have enough coins for the parking meter so I couldn't park. I got angry, SO ANGRY, more angry than I think I have been in my adult life. I was too angry to problem-solve my way out of it (I could have parked in a nearby shopping centre; I could have stopped my car near the campus store and gotten change there). It was all I could do not to shout at the security guard and not to crash my car as I angrily drove home.

That there is some seriously petty shit, but perhaps it felt less futile than being angry at cancer. Sometimes the thing you are angry at is not the thing you are angry about.
posted by Cheese Monster at 6:07 AM on April 13, 2016 [12 favorites]

When I'm going through stressful/bad/trying times, I find that my empathy towards other increases. My own struggles remind me that other people are dealing with their own crap and that I should be gentle to them.

Yes, I'm dissatisfied in my job and my dog might have cancer and I'm worried about money, but maybe that person who is complaining about the lack of gluten free bread has celiac disease. Maybe the person venting about traffic is spending a lot of extra time in the car, shuttling between multiple jobs and visits to an ill family member. Maybe the person who is upset about the lack of organic sweetcorn has an anxiety disorder that makes little things seem dire to them. Maybe the friend complaining about her love life has a broken heart and is really eager to settle down with someone. And so on.

My point is, these people might be complaining about "trivial" things, but they might be dealing with much more serious issues. It sounds like you're in a lot of emotional pain right now - well, maybe they are, too.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:45 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

So you are seeing the inequality in your current milieu with fresh eyes, from a unique position, and you're investing it with the urgency of your personal situation and with the frustration of your sacrifice. People there take how things are for granted, they're used to it. Because they personally benefit from it, and/or because the task and cost of changing things are too great, or maybe inconceivable. I mean it's a hard problem, right? Multiple problems. People can't be expected to feel every minute of everyone's pain, all the time. That is dysfunctional, it doesn't make action more likely. And those who are motivated, inclined, and situated to do something about it probably have a better understanding of the local dynamics than you do. It's unreasonable to judge people for wanting to get by.

(I remember visiting family in a complicated country, some years ago. We went shopping. The mall had been bombed some months before, and everyone just walked around the detritus. Because the cleanup wasn't happening soon, and they still had to get groceries and pantyhose and whatnot. Were they supposed to stand and shudder at the hole and fragments (as I did), when they needed to get onions for dinner? I was shocked at some of the behaviour of police and officials. Shocked. Why didn't people rise up? Well, because things were just much more complicated than I could understand.)

Before all this happened, you probably bitched about things someone else might consider trivial, because those were the things that bothered you at the time, it was the worst you'd experienced. It's all relative. (As far as your friend's love life - people are allowed to bellyache about love, even during hard times. It's at least half of what people have bothered to write about in the history of ever. I mean, it matters. I think it's ok to retreat from other people's worries for a bit, though, if you're feeling you want to, and stick to dealing with your own necessary and immediate concerns.)

Also, you've probably given up a lot to be there for your family. I think you should find some more comforts, a few trivial and selfish things to do for yourself. Giving up everything doesn't leave you with a lot to give, after a while.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:27 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

probably don't get enough sleep

Also, working on this will probably help.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:32 AM on April 13, 2016

...politely say, "I'm so sorry. I love you very much and respect what you are going through but right now, my stress level is so high that I don't have the headspace for this. Can we talk later?"

I think this is really good, but might be more useful if it were shorter. Like "Sorry, I'm overwhelmed. Excuse me." At least for strangers. For mom, add back an "I love you" with a hand squeeze. (You may have to write your own phrase to get people to back up to suit your own style and circumstances. Mine may be too curt, but short phrases are easier to memorize and use effortlessly.)

I hope you get some respite soon. Illnesses are especially difficult as they are unpredictable and you don't know how many weeks a parent will be unwell before taking a turn for the better or not. So hard to plan and parcel out one's energy optimally with this kind of uncertainty.
posted by puddledork at 8:06 AM on April 13, 2016

Just another voice to say that I think this is normal and I have experienced it. I have also experienced feeling angry at people who were happy when I was devastated. How very dare they?

For me, it is easier to be angry about these small things than the big things. So I try to forgive myself for those petty ego-centric feelings. It's probably coming from a deep place of hurt. For me, finding ways to open myself to feeling those really bad deep down feelings is the only thing that really helps, but there's nothing easy about that.

You might be striving for balance in your caregiving day-to-day, but you completely up-ended your life to be there. I hope you can find ways to reach out and process what all of this means for you.

I'll also just mention that any suggestions to count or focus on the blessings in my life felt very invalidating and made me doubly furious during those times. I'm not saying that doesn't work for some people, but it sure as heck didn't work for me.
posted by ewok_academy at 8:58 AM on April 13, 2016

This is totally normal! Along with some of the great thoughts above about getting as much support for yourself as possible through this upheaval, I've sometimes found two things helpful: a) giving myself permission not to pay attention to other people's problems (ie, not even read askme!) and b) daily gratitude meditations, especially when I get angry at things I can't change.
posted by ldthomps at 10:42 AM on April 13, 2016

So, first I think this is a normal stress response and I would be gentle with yourself and not beat yourself up over it. Part of self care is forgiving ourselves for pretty minor things like lack of patience when we're in a crazy stressful period. It is FINE to decide you aren't up for going onto annoying online forums, and I even think it's ok to say to your close friend that you are really sorry but you need her to complain to someone else about her love life because you don't have the bandwidth right now (as long as it's like, I can't talk about it right now, not you can never talk about your love life again -- you don't want to permanently unbalance things). But I think those you are truly close to will understand if you go through a period of needing to take a little more than you give, and those you are not truly close to maybe you can take a step back from them if they're really bugging you/annoying you.

That said, one thing that you might try as a thought exercise here is trying to flip the perspective a bit. Sure, organic corn and a bad date might rank lower than the problems you're dealing with right now. On the other hand, some people are dealing with much worse than you are right now -- say, having their child die of a horrible painful disease before their eyes. I don't say this to minimize your problems -- they are really real and serious. This is just to say, everyone's problems FEEL very real and serious TO THEM, and yet, for pretty much everyone on the planet, there is SOMEONE out there who is worse off than us and has more serious problems. If you wouldn't want someone telling you "well, at least you're not starving to death in a prison camp in North Korea," then you should try not to treat other people's problems in that way. Sure, they may not be AS BAD as caretaking for an ill parent and adjusting to a new city (on some sort of scale of suffering, if you can even do that!), but things like romantic troubles can actually be really painful and difficult to deal with.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:28 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think this is absolutely a normal response to have. When my daughter was in the NICU for an extended time, I was downright rude to people who dared share their troubles with me. This wasn't fair; regardless of how traumatic the circumstances I was facing, other people's struggles are real. In addition, there were people whose experiences were far more horrible than mine, whose children didn't survive or who died in childbirth so following my attitude the whole way through would mean that I shouldn't complain or even feel bad about what I was dealing with.

Then I saw a comment somewhere on metafilter that helped me put it in perspective, I think it was from jessamyn: it's not misery poker.

And it's not. It sucks for everyone at least some of the time, and some people get more than their fair share of it. I can't fix most of it, but I can certainly avoid contributing to it. I can give people as much grace as possible, and be as clear as I can when it's too much (this includes asking people not to talk about their problems to me when I'm dealing with big ones of my own). Basically giving everyone the benefit of the doubt and reminding myself (and others, when necessary) that there are no winners when we play the "who has it worst" game. It sucks that we are dealt these cards, whatever those cards may be - let's be a supportive crutch rather than an aloof one-upper. Not only can you not win that game, but it feels better not to play anyway.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:44 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

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