Is this too much unwelcome empathy?
October 29, 2020 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Please help me not send a card to an ex-online date with mental health issues. My own history of depression and family trauma is hijacking my break-up feelings.

A week ago a man who seemed very committed to moving us into relationship territory suddenly dumped me after less than a month of dating, citing depression. I have no reason to disbelieve him about his mental health, since I've observed it first-hand. I also know he has been trying to overcome the breakup of his engagement (which happened just under 2 years ago).

This is giving me horrible flashbacks to when I was traumatised and depressed in my teens and twenties and having to deal with protracted family problems that involved overseas lawsuits and a search for a missing/estranged family member. I no longer have depression, and for the most part the family issues have reached a natural if temporary resolution.

My feelings of being hurt by the break-up are now mixed up with the rollercoaster of remembering my own depression, and now I am struggling to keep both these kinds of intrusive emotions at bay. I came to the realisation yesterday that I most of my young life was taken up with having to look out emotionally and logistically for my parents (mother especially) and I frequently lived in a state of hypervigilance at home. I have been trying to work on myself and listen/read to a lot of therapy and self-help.

So partly because of my history of poor emotional boundaries, I now can't seem to shake the need to write a card to him to express how sorry I am for the pain he is going through. I know he won't come back (I know what depression can be like) and will not be writing anything to that effect, but I do not want him to think that I didn't care about him or that I am completely heartless and have no consideration for his suffering.

The rational part of me knows this would probably be unwelcome, and I recognise he doesn't want to be contacted (I tried to text and email him and he has blocked me). He has a good support network of friends and also sees a counsellor, but is also a workaholic and lives by himself (and was all alone during lockdown). I know I am an outsider still and so think my attempt to reach out would be misplaced, but I am haunted by a deep need to give some even tokenistic gesture of comfort. It does not help that I know depression makes people isolate themselves from others.

Please reality check me and help me decide what (not) to do!
posted by radiantsquirrel to Human Relations (14 answers total)
Do not contact someone who doesn't want to hear from you.

Do turn that desire to comfort toward yourself. Do you have a support network and/or counsellor? Can you work on getting a human therapist in addition to reading and listening to things?
posted by momus_window at 2:46 PM on October 29, 2020 [26 favorites]

Go ahead and write the card, address it to yourself and put it in the mail. If you still have the urge to send it when it comes back, you can revisit the idea, but I strongly suspect the urge will be gone.

Your rational brain knows that while the guy would benefit from support, you are not well-placed to give it to him. If this is reactivating memories of how you needed comfort in the past but didn't get it, now might be a good time to reach out to a trusted friend or therapist to talk about that time.
posted by rpfields at 2:46 PM on October 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

He's set a really firm boundary by blocking you, and the thing with other people's boundaries is that sometimes they go against what we would prefer to do with/to/for that person. ending a letter, or making other contact, is a definite breach of his boundary and your projecting inner voice is going to create excuses for why these are special circumstances and you should reach out. That's totally natural, but you should not contact him.

Instead, I fully agree with the idea that you should turn this comfort toward yourself. You speak of your depression as being in the past, and I believe you, but it also seems this breakup has triggered an emotional state, whether it's depression or not. Take some time to honor that, explore your own feelings, and take good care of yourself. Maybe write yourself the letter you wish you'd gotten at a time when you were feeling low.
posted by assenav at 3:08 PM on October 29, 2020 [14 favorites]

this is such an invasive, disrespectful thing to do. you are no longer in a relationship, so this is all none of your business, and it sounds like this is more about assuaging you feelings than making his feel loved. (i really do understand the impulse, this is just not the thing to do right now)
posted by megan_magnolia at 4:46 PM on October 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

you can't send a guy a condolence card to tell him you're sorry he broke up with you. it is not done.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:12 PM on October 29, 2020 [10 favorites]

He has blocked you because he finds contact from you upsetting. Sending a letter is a form of contact, and thus will be upsetting.
posted by Anonymous at 5:30 PM on October 29, 2020

No, please do not do this. You will not feel better about yourself or him or your relationship with him. You will feel gross and worse when he doesn't respond. I know this is bringing up all these emotions in you, but he doesn't care. He has moved on and been very clear about this. You want to keep that connection alive by reaching out. This isn't about comforting him. This is about what you want and need, which is connection with him. He has been clear about what he wants: to not be in connect with you. Your communication will cause him stress and discomfort, and it will make you feel the same.

Write a letter, by hand, and then tear it up or burn it and say goodbye and give yourself that ritual to end this. It is over. You must accept that. Eventually you will move on.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:36 PM on October 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I tried to text and email him and he has blocked me

my emphasis on the "and." this suggests that you tried to contact him, either discovered you were blocked or received no answer, and were not content to leave it alone; you already tried a second alternate way to get to him after the first way didn't work. that was bad and this will be worse. I doubt he is afraid of you but if he was, unwanted text-->email-->letter is a progression whose next step is showing up in person. even if you would never ever, don't make him have to worry about that.

or if you tried two contact methods because he blocked you immediately after sending you a goodbye message so that you couldn't even reply once just to say OK, that is a dick move on his part. but if that is what happened, he is a bit of a jerk, and annoyance would serve you better than pity.

"unwelcome empathy" is the one thing this is not. I think you mean to be kind, but you are not being empathetic; because you have your own intense feelings about the situation, you are not able to imagine what his are likely to be.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:10 PM on October 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

I tried to text and email him and he has blocked me.
That is very clear signal that ANY communication from you is not appreciated. You need to respect this. While there may possibly be a version of reality where your gesture would bring comfort, he has already told you clearer that this not it. Sending messages to someone who doesn't want them puts you in the wrong.

So, as many people suggested, this impulse is about you, not him. You need some comfort, some closure, maybe wanting to do for him what you needed and was never done for you. Take this a chance to be kind to yourself and figure out how to get yourself what your heart needs in this moment of painful memories.
posted by metahawk at 6:10 PM on October 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

The three-step test for any proposed course of action:

1. Does this need to be done?
2. Does this need to be done by me?
3. Does this need to be done by me right now?

All three steps must pass. If any test fails, the outcome is likely to be very poor.

I am haunted by a deep need to give some even tokenistic gesture of comfort

A card expressing sympathy fits that criterion so it passes step 1, and as an empath you're undoubtedly keenly aware of that; I imagine you're spending quite a bit of time picturing the guy opening the envelope and reading the card and taking comfort from it.

But the tricky part about empathy is that devoting so much processing power to modelling somebody else's experience can make it quite hard to account correctly for oneself as a responsible, autonomous, consequential participant. From outside your circumstances it's super easy to see that the sympathy card you really and legitimately want this guy to receive fails step 2: as a dumpee with whom he has chosen to go no-contact, you're simply not in a position to send such a thing. From inside, not so much. So you've done the right thing by seeking advice from people less involved.

Because the action you're contemplating fails the three-step test, it will almost certainly not have the intended outcome.

And this sucks. It sucks to have a clear idea about what needs to be done and an equally clear knowledge that one is not in a position to do it.

The point you need to keep reminding yourself of until it becomes so internalized that you don't have to do that consciously any more is that doing stuff that fails the three-step test is never going to make things suck less.
posted by flabdablet at 9:24 PM on October 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

The very fact that you describe it as tokenistic is (among other things) a clear demonstration that this about you, not him. Comfort yourself and leave him be.

Being able to respect someone else’s boundaries after having your own traversed and not enveloping others in your personal dramas as had been done to you demonstrates a measure of personal/emotional growth, compassion, and respect for others and I encourage you to follow that path.
posted by sm1tten at 10:41 PM on October 29, 2020

The desire to give him the comfort is your anxiety because you need closure, and perhaps to defend your ego. You might be feeling like writing the card will prove that you really are a good person who cares for others and worthy of having a partner.

Your instincts are good. You are asking for support not communicating with him. I am going to suggest you sit right down and write a letter to yourself, commiserating for the break up as if it were written by a close friend of yours, or even as if it were written by him.

You need to address your own anxiety and loss and ego wounds, not his. He is looking after his own and doing so in a sensible manner. Turn the focus on yourself. Show yourself some supportive affection and validation. Do something tangible out of your ordinary routines that takes about an hour.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:16 PM on October 30, 2020

I've been thinking about your question and wanted to share something else, based on this:

A week ago a man who seemed very committed to moving us into relationship territory suddenly dumped me after less than a month of dating, citing depression. I have no reason to disbelieve him about his mental health, since I've observed it first-hand. I also know he has been trying to overcome the breakup of his engagement (which happened just under 2 years ago).

I think you might be putting a bit too much stock into his cited reason for ending things. People give all sorts of reasons for ending relationships--it's not the right time; it's not you it's me; I'm not over my ex; etc. But I don't think the specific reason someone gives is either necessarily the whole truth or something worth stewing on. The relationship is over because he wanted it to be over. It seems like the reason he gave you has set you down a whole path. The real reason could be wildly different: I have an avoidant attachment style and am scared of intimacy; I met someone else who I also want to date; I'm not sure you are the right person for me; etc.

I think it's good that you asked us for feedback. I also think it would be good to try to move past the specifics of the break up and just accept that it is a break up, and not concern yourself so much with the reason.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:03 PM on October 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Seems like you want to send a card so here's how you can fulfil your card sending impulses without hurting someone who clearly doesn't want to have contact with you any more.

Delete his address and any other contact info you still have for him, write a nice card to a charity that helps people who are suffering about how you are donating anonymously in honor of an (unnamed) friend who is suffering that you are not able to help, put donation for charity in card, mail to charity.

And just because he told you something about why he was breaking up doesn't mean it's true. Move on.
posted by yohko at 9:12 PM on October 30, 2020

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