My life is hard. Really hard. I have to care for my husband in many ways because he is not well, and I work in order to pay the bills. I have a grandchild with special needs. And these are just some of the very large challenges that I deal with on a daily basis. It’s been like this for a while, and I do what I have to do. I don’t expect anyone to pity me. I try not to complain much, though I do go through periods of times when I feel really angry and sad for myself and my family. Sometimes I’m downright depressed.
I find that I have no patience to listen to people complaining about issues that are not really serious. When people talk to me about feeling cooped up because of COVID, and I know that they are living in a beautiful home and can get everything they need delivered with a click of their finger, I have no compassion for them. When people tell me that they are bored, that they miss their pre-COVID life, I couldn’t care less. When my neighbor tells me that she’s worried sick because her 21-year-old daughter is single, I seriously want to hit her.
I have no patience for these people who don’t know what a real worry is all about, and I think to myself that if they lived my life for more than five minutes, they’d be thrilled to take back their lives, with big smiles on their faces.
Last week my cousin Tzippy called me to talk/complain. We’ve always been somewhat close and usually talk about once a month or so. After our usual chitchat, she started complaining to me about her job. Apparently, she works very hard, isn’t appreciated, doesn’t get paid enough, yada, yada. As I was listening to her, I felt ready to bust. Who cares about her stupid job! Just the other night I had to call Hatzalah for my husband. It was a very, very scary evening! I really don’t have the patience for her issues — and for once, I told her so. Her response to me was that I lack empathy.
So my question to you is: Do I lack empathy? If I hear about someone getting sick, losing a job, struggling with challenging children, or getting divorced, or issues of that nature, I have all the empathy in the world. I deeply care and try to help if I can. But when I hear people complaining about what I consider to be nonsense, I really don’t have any. Is that a problem? Does that make me a bad person? Should I be working on my lack of empathy, of all things? Or am I correct not to coddle people who don’t deserve coddling and not to encourage people to think their lives are so awful when in fact they are downright lucky? What do you think?
Let’s first take a closer look at the word “empathy” and see if we share the same understanding of what that word means. Technically, having empathy means having the ability to figuratively walk in the shoes of the other and feel what that person is feeling. In reality, this is very hard to successfully achieve. Because we don’t actually know whether that person we are attempting to empathize with has blisters on the bottom of his feet, or maybe the shoes she is wearing are way too tight … in other words, we probably can’t feel exactly what other people are feeling because we are not them. We don’t have their history, their baggage, their level of strength or weakness; we are reacting from an entirely different set of realities. And so, if one subscribes to the notion of empathy in all its glory, a tall task to achieve, one most lose all judgment regarding whether another person’s challenges are particularly noteworthy. In a perfect world, if they are hurting, we are hurting — no matter the cause, serious or absurd.
Though you are dealing with way more than your share, and I certainly can understand how it leaves you with less than a ton of patience to listen to other people kvetching, the fact of the matter is that we can never truly measure another person’s capacity for coping with problems, large or small. And we also don’t always know what other challenges may be going on in another’s person life and if what they are sharing is simply the tip of the iceberg. We just don’t know a lot.
I do sometimes have to wonder about certain people who find it appropriate to talk about, for instance, their lack of cleaning help to a friend who can’t even afford a house to clean. Maybe that’s what a lack of empathy really looks like. What are such people even thinking? Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they are thinking that their chatter will serve as a form of distraction, though I believe they are missing the mark more often than not.
In your case, it sounds as though some of the people you talk to aren’t in tune with the realities of your life. Maybe they are clueless or way too self-involved to consider what it might feel like for you to be listening to them go on about “narishkeit.”
Frankly, if someone goes on and on about some problem that to you seems like a day at the beach, I don’t see anything wrong with telling her that you really don’t have the patience to hear about her issues right now. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about her or wish her anything negative, but you’re dealing with much larger issues that make it hard for you to get too invested emotionally with her story. Hopefully, knowing some or all of the challenges you’re grappling with, she would immediately understand and appreciate that it’s a good idea to back away from that conversation.
In answer to your question, no, you are not a bad person. I’m guessing you’re doing the best you can to hang in there, show up for everyone who needs you, and work on staying sane and, hopefully, at least some of the time, positive. Your time is precious, as are your conversations. You don’t need to talk to everyone. Pick and choose carefully who belongs in your inner circle, who truly gets you and gives you what you need. This is one of the key ways in which we humans can take care of ourselves — by surrounding ourselves with kindred spirits who truly understand us and instinctively know what we need.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.