On unempathetic headfighting

I have a handful of friends I very (very, very) rarely see in person. We live too far apart and our lives don’t collide on any kind of regular basis. Instead, we write (and now that corona’s struck, we have more time for more in-depth writing). Technology is a wonderful thing.

Except.

Except, regardless of all the emojis and jokes and stories of our days and silly photos of things we find share-worthy, sometimes words fail to convey the emotion behind the keyboard.

Things that sound harmless in my head occasionally snowball down my arms and through my fingers, so that by the time they reach the screenpaper several latitude lines away, they’ve built up a dangerous energy and explode through my friends’ eyes and send splitters of bad feelings into the furthest corners of their minds, pressing all the niggly buttons as they go. The buttons I would never intentionally poke. The ones my friends are aware of but still, after all this time, haven’t worked out how to disconnect. The ones that are hard-wired into the central nervous system and which set off their own trails of destruction like dominoes or the mouse-traps in comedy films, except fully lacking the humour.

The same reaction can be sparked by the lack of a response.

I know how well these automatic reactions work because I have enough buttons of my own. Buttons my friends press, as unwittingly and unwillingly as I press theirs.

Harmless isn’t always harmless. Sometimes it really hurts. Sometimes it’s the memories of past hurts that come to haunt us, sometimes, but luckily far less regularly, the hurt is new. The ‘battleground of past hurt’ is one of our most frequently but unintentionally visited places.

That we’re still friends is something of a miracle and I’m grateful for them and their patience and ability to work things out.

***

Accusations

My About Page starts with the following story:

Once upon a time, someone interrupted my rant about someone else, with the words, “you do that too!”. That stung for a while, but it’s proved helpful since then. It makes me stop and check my position before getting stressed about others.”

That accusation feels like an eternity ago. Since then, there have been (many) other stinging comments from various people, but nothing quite as soul-shakingly succinct or ‘for general-purpose use’. Things happen, people say things, we work through them and they’re over. Rinse and repeat.

Recently I received the following general-purpose slap-round-the-face-with-a-dead-fish type comment:

“… [you] like to win arguments through domination and tone, not solve anything in any factual or sincere way – it’s all unempathetic headfighting.”

BAM.

*breathes*

Ok.

I would argue (!) that I aim for factual more than dominating, but I can accept that I miss the mark (and hit the wrong tone) more often than I’d like to admit.

“Headfighting” is a word I’d never heard before it was thrown at me like a grenade, but it’s a good word, one I can live with. It fits me and the way I argue more perfectly than any other word I can currently think of. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

Of all the uncomfortable words thrown at me in one sentence, it’s the “unempathetic” that really stings.

No matter how much I tell myself it’s unlikely to be true, that I’m probably not completely unempathetic, the idea lingers that it doesn’t really matter how empathetic I am or think I am; if it’s not felt by the people I care about most, and this person I care about is obviously not feeling it or they wouldn’t have found it necessary to say such a thing, then it doesn’t count.

That’s kind of worrying.

***

Empathy

Wikipedia says: “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states.”

If anyone had asked, I would have said I often sense what people are feeling. I would have said I regularly ‘know’ what kind of mood people are in before they start talking. Once upon a time I was even proud of picking up mood changes by the punctuation people used when writing to me. I would have said I could pick up differences in the atmosphere like a people-y barometer. Sometimes I get so caught up in other people’s emotions that I lose track of my own.

Turns out that none of that’s worth very much if you lack the words or the ability to do anything with that knowledge (thinking of it as “know-ledge” when really it’s “feel-ledge” might be part of the problem…) and I lack both, to varying degrees in varying situations.

***

Emotional Vocabulary

When Kate asks me how I feel about things, I tell her what I think about them. I lack vocabulary for feelings and emotions and even when presented with a list (!) I have a hard time matching them to myself or other people. I once told her “I don’t feel.” In return, she sent me a quote that I instantly identified with:

“Others of us come equipped with a somewhat more basic emotional vocabulary that […] consists primarily of ‘good’, ‘not so good: and ‘I already told you’.

When […] asked what they are feeling, they usually say ‘Nothing’, and when they are asked how they are feeling, they usually say, ‘I don’t know.’”

– Stumbling on happiness

This is me.

This is so me, it’s weird reading it from someone else.

I might have a few more words than the person in the book, but it’s not a long list.

I’m working on it, but it’s a sloooow process.

***

Talking about feelings (and cats)

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, this lack of emotional words is only an issue when it comes to things involving people.

Inanimate objects, with the possible exception of glass, don’t care or talk about feelings. (The washing doesn’t care how aggressively I load it into the machine. My bike doesn’t care how I’m feeling when I cycle it. The weather doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it, it does its thing regardless of who hates it. The wardrobe doesn’t care how indecisively I get dressed. Glass, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered, does care what mood I’m in, at least enough to only cooperate when I’m being nice to it. Even then, it doesn’t talk to me, so words aren’t an issue.)

(Many) animals can sense moods and intents and act as they gauge appropriate. A cat might curl up on your lap and let you stroke it, or it might hide and avoid you, but it won’t talk about feelings, neither its own, nor yours.

People do. Especially people you know. In the best case, they care what you do and feel and they have their own doings and feelings which need considering and reacting or responding to. A while ago, when I was seething about something, but willing to admit that it wasn’t a rational something, and not wishing to explode all over the person I deemed ‘responsible’, a friend suggested I give my hurt a bubble bath. That is an idea I would never have had in a million years.

When it comes down to it, my approach to feelings (and empathy) is much more cat-like than people-like. Approach cautiously, then, if I like you, and/or I think you like/need my company, I’ll stay close and listen and maybe hug depending on the person, or if I don’t like you or I feel disliked or unappreciated or hurt or scared, I’ll distance myself (maybe after I put my hackles up, hiss, scratch or bite). I might well talk, possibly too much, but I am unlikely to talk about feelings.

***

Private thoughts and Button pressing

I love good words when they’re directed at me, but I’m more likely to return my sentiments in a hug than an equal outpouring. I don’t ‘gush’. It takes me forever to tell people I love them (if I ever do :/). I try not to get angry. I rarely cry in public. I don’t shout at people (in public or otherwise). I don’t (like) kiss(ing) in public. I don’t go in for public displays of anything. Private things are private, and even then, even in private, opening up to what’s more than just below the surface is something I don’t do easily. Stirring up what’s below that, is something I hardly do by myself…

Against that, when my buttons are pressed, and they are unfortunately quite easy to press, especially when I’m tired, and even more especially in writing, I can get hung up on something secondary, something unimportant and not at all the point of what was being said. If I feel hurt (or angry or any of the ‘not-so-good’ emotions) I have two main go-to ‘programs’ either retreat-and-sulk or claws-first, reasons-after. Reasons, especially badly explained written reasons (or any reasons at all when aimed at heart-people), aren’t particularly useful as either bridges or bandages, and sulking doesn’t solve anything. If I’m very aware of myself and my own needs, there’s a third option – to accept that I’m not able to respond to something constructively ‘right now’ and say so, but that is something I’m still working on, very very slowly. (NB: I’m open for advice on further options..)

***

Robotic self-awareness

Awareness is a hard beast to tame. Sometimes, when I try to focus on not stressing, not hurting (you or myself), not getting angry, not being unreasonable, not saying anything that could be misinterpreted, I end up sounding robotic. Getting rid of the perceived negatives sometimes seems to erase the humanity in the positives. I’m sure there’s some way of striking a happy balance, but I haven’t found it yet.

In primary school, we were read a story about someone who built a wall around their garden so they could stay safe and wouldn’t be harmed by anything. It took them quite a long time to realise that they were also keeping out the good things. I don’t remember the details, but at the end they took down the wall, and let everything in. That’s something I’m working on too.. Unfortunately, I still have overly-enthusiastic antibody-like guards to warn me that ‘bad things’ are coming and to defend me from them, and there are far more of them than celebratory-messengers to let me know about ‘good things’.

***

Dodging deep feelings

On a related note, when I’m scared by the deep deep feelings in myself, I’m liable to skirt round yours, partly because I don’t know how to help, but also partly so I don’t have to deal with my own. Sometimes I’ll actively pick out the bits I’m confident I can handle, and ignore the rest, sometimes it’s more subconscious than intentional. Sometimes I get stuck on the first bit of new information and don’t register the rest.

If you tell me Ghandi survived on a grain of rice a day and that you know that it’s possible because you’ve been close to death [by starvation], there’s a good chance I’ll focus on Ghandi and the rice. That’s something I don’t know and which causes an instant “need to know more” reaction. Death (and related suffering) is not a topic I’m good at talking about, at least not on a personal level, so I, mostly unconsciously, skip it. I’m not trying to reduce your experience, or imply that you’re not telling the truth.

If you tell me you’re so scared or worried by what someone told you that you won’t be able to sleep, and then, almost in the same breath, ask me how I prioritise what I keep in my too-small freezer, I’ll be 3 lines deep in frozen soup and fishfood before it even registers that there are deeper and more important issues at stake. By the time I’ve discovered what’s happened, we’re buried in superficialities and the potential for sharing (and possibly eradicating) the “can’t-sleep-tonight,-help-me” moment is gone. I don’t want to think about how many similar moments I’ve missed ;(

***

People pleasing

Being responsible for other peoples’ unhappiness is one of the worst things I can think of. Yeah, there’s all that stuff about everyone being responsible for their own reactions, but I think if you punch someone, or bash them with your suitcase when you rush past in a packed station, you’re responsible for the physical pain they feel, even if it wasn’t on purpose. I don’t see that it’s all that different for mental pain. If I say something that hurts someone, regardless of whether I did it on purpose or accidentally, it’s still something I did. Apart from not being a good thing to do, it hurts to see other people hurting and if I can avoid it, I will. I think this is kind of normal.

My problem, if it can be called a problem, is that I’m not really sure where ‘actively hurting’ stops and ‘not actively making them happy’ starts. I don’t think it’s my duty (or even actually possible long-term) to make people happy but I still feel bad if I do something they would like me not to do, or could do something but choose not to do it.

This makes it difficult (not impossible) to create and protect my boundaries or organise my own priorities.

It also makes it difficult to know when to object to the way things are said to me, especially if I can appreciate that the person saying them is stressed about something else. Awarding myself the same right to remain unhurt often comes second to being understanding.

Choosing to stand up for myself, at the cost of not siding with the other person, not being accepting, not being ‘nice’, is really hard, especially if that person isn’t happy as a result of it.

The ‘easy’ version of this, as something to practise on, is arguing about things of no consequence.

***

Self-criticism and slippery slopes

On top of that, I am ridiculously self-critical, to the point that if I think you’ve criticised one thing on my list of Things-I-criticise-myself-for, I will probably assume you would also agree with everything else on my list and more, and come to the conclusion that you think pretty much everything about me needs changing and that you’d be better off if I wasn’t inflicting myself on you. This is not logical or rational. I know this when I’m happy. On a not-so-good day, I can often recognise what’s happening and think my way out of it. On a bad (or very hormonal) day the slope is very slippery.

If you, for example, tell me you didn’t enjoy playing a game with me and that you would have preferred to do something else, that is entirely reasonable from your perspective because you’re letting me know something I couldn’t otherwise find out. It’s a knowledge transfer. A sensible reaction is probably to file that information and offer to play a different game next time. And yet, given the right circumstances (tired/hungry/upset/hormonal/whatever) it might well set off a chain of negative thoughts that are almost entirely unrelated to you or the exact game in question but entirely logical in my head, and before either of us know it, I’m having a pity-party that you didn’t see coming, and don’t understand when I try to spell it out, if I even try.

***

Words, in person and in writing

Words are tricky things. They evoke different feelings and meanings in different people. Nuances aren’t always minor. Explanations don’t always explain anything. What I say isn’t always what you hear (and vice versa).

In ‘real life’ face-to-face interaction it doesn’t really matter so much if we have words for things or if we don’t agree entirely on the meaning. Assuming I can remember the numbers correctly, the actual words people use make up something like 7 % of face-to-face communication, the other 93 % is all the non-verbal stuff; tone, gestures, facial expression, the way you’re breathing and standing and and and… We can wave our arms about and make faces and work out if we’re happy or sad or whatever. Happy is easy. Happy just involves existing and being interested and joining in the rejoicing. Sad (etc) is harder, but when I can’t offer words, I can offer hugs, or ice cream, or sit in the kind of silence that [I hope] isn’t oppressive. If there’s something that needs doing, I can join in with doing it.

It’s (much) harder on the phone, but I’m pretty good at hearing how people say things (I think), which makes it easier to know what they mean, and easier to change track or explain what I originally meant as soon as it’s obvious that something didn’t come across the way I intended it to. It’s instant too, like in ‘real life’, so you can work through things as soon as they happen (that’s simultaneously a potential bad thing, because you have no time to think out an answer, but on the whole still good).

In writing, this becomes horrendously difficult. If you can’t easily express what you’re thinking and feeling in person, when you’re face-to-face, with the whole range of possibilities, you have very little chance in writing, when you’re stripped to nothing but words and a scattering of small, round, yellow faces. Small gaps or differences in understanding can turn into a huge, ravenous canyons seemingly instantaneously. Even emojis, which are supposed to help, are subject to interpretation. I spent a long time using one smily as a ‘guilty-as-charged’ stand-in, later, I was told most people use it to indicate eye-rolling. That’s quite a difference. I use the monkey covering its eyes to represent situations when I would cover my face, apparently there’s a different one for that and the monkey is for ‘see-no-evil’. I can’t even begin a similar list for words. Ice cream doesn’t travel well, and since no-one knows what you’re doing when you’re not writing, silence can be taken as avoidance or lack of interest when you’re actually desperately scrambling to choose a fraction of what you’re thinking and feeling, and arrange it into something that can be read and understood by someone who doesn’t inhabit your head. Or you’ve just been phoned. Or your battery’s just died. Or your computer/phone’s frozen and you can’t make it unfreeze.

***

After all that introspective rambling, I think this is what I’m trying to say:

When you, whoever you are, are upset about something, I would love to be well-grounded and stable enough to wait out the storm and be an island if you need shelter before heading off again. To put myself aside and make a space for you until things are better. That….is not always a realistic expectation :(.

Sometimes I’m not strong enough for both of us, sometimes I’m in the middle of my own storms. Sometimes the way you talk to me hurts and I concentrate on my pain and not on yours. Sometimes I focus on ‘facts’ and not (your) feelings. Sometimes I try to see the whole story and miss that you need me to see your story. Sometimes I miss the whole point and think we’re talking about something else.

Sometimes I don’t have the words I need, to say what you need to hear.

Sometimes I let my words get in the way.

Sometimes I put them in the way on purpose.

Sometimes I suck at being a good friend, not just at being empathetic.

I’m sorry for the times I’ve been a lousy friend. Will you help me become a better one?

On changing jackets and beds

I have a cycling jacket which I wear when I go cycling.

I have a coat which I wear when I go anywhere (outside) without my bike.

If I am likely to be going anywhere after cycling, or cycling when I get somewhere, I wear one and take the other one with me.

Today, I cycled to work, worked, walked to the station and caught a train to where my driving instructor picked me up. I came straight home after my driving lesson.

Guess which coat I was wearing when I got home this evening?

Guess which coat I put my house key in when I set out this morning?

Bonus points if you also guess who was out and who was asleep when I rung their respective phones and doorbells.

***

I luckily have a

<Ok. Life is crazier than I could make it up. I got to here in my write-up before Unexpected Things happened. I’ll go back to telling the story in the right order tho..>

I luckily have another set of neighbours who don’t have a copy of my key, but DO have a big sofa. L was in and still awake when I phoned (around 9:30pm I guess).

“Yeah, no problem, come in! I’ll find you a duvet.. Do you want anything to eat? What happened?”

Within very few minutes I had a huge sofa, a blanket, a duvet and half a million cushions.

And it was warm and dry and I didn’t have to go back to work to get my key (which would have been my backup option).

And I could finally go to the toilet 🙂

L finished unloading the dishwasher and fed her animals and we yakked for a bit and watched the dog for a bit before it was time for bed (or sofa).

Instead of instantly falling asleep (which my body wanted), I started writing (because obviously the world needs to know about how I lock myself out..) and then this happened:

L knocks on the door and comes back into the sitting room.. “Jess? I’m really sorry about this.. E (her boyfriend) just phoned. He’s bringing a guy from work home for the night and I don’t think there’s enough room on the sofa for both of you…”

Oh. Well that’s great, I guess I’ll go back to work after all….

“…but I phoned the landlord and he was on his way over anyway so I asked him for your key..”

Uh.. What..? He wasn’t there earlier.. But cool! Am I asleep? Did he really just give you my key?!

“..I’m really sorry to wake you up and bother you..normally you would be really welcome to stay..I didn’t know anything about this guy coming over until just now..I’ll put your key on the table and let you get dressed..”

***

And that’s how I came to be sleeping in my own bed after all.

Zzzzz

On learning to drive again

Once upon a time, a handful of years ago, I learnt to drive. I was given a car by a friend of now ex-DB’s which I drove until it (more-or-less literally) fell to pieces. Then I sold the pieces and started riding my bike instead.

It’s been a couple of years since then, and I haven’t driven more than a few km on a short round trip to the local garden centre for compost. That mini-trip was almost 2 years ago.

Next weekend, I have to hire a car or van to pick up some things I can’t carry on the bike. I’ve been putting it off for a while but I’ve decided it’s time. Having decided that I am finally going, I have to admit to myself that I am also going to be responsible for driving the aforementioned car/van through or round Berlin.

Eeek.

I figured it was a bad idea to just hope for the best.. Especially as I’ve heard people don’t appreciate you closing your eyes while driving.

So… I’m about to have a driving lesson.. with my old driving instructor, just like old times 🙂

Whee!

***

Later:

I survived and the driving instructor survived and the car is unscathed and no one/thing was hurt at all.

All things considered, I consider it a success 🙂

Motorways and parallel parking next week…

On adding to the pile

You know what the best thing to do is, when you have a to-do list a couple of miles long and more deadlines than you can remember?

Yup. You add something else to the list. Something with an even closer deadline, and with even more at stake.

Not going to say what it is yet, but I will if/when it works out.

Until then, I’m going to keep on keeping on 🙂

On belated new year news

Happy Newish* Year people!

I realise I’m a bit late to the party.. (if I were Chinese I would be only be days instead of weeks late..) ..but I hope you can and do choose the kind of new year you want to live in and then really live in it.

While we’re talking about new things..

..I have news.

Lots of news.

I’ve been meaning to write since about November, except it wasn’t quite public-ready, and then there were more things that needed writing about but there wasn’t time for everything, and then I wanted to catch up, and then there were even more things and I still didn’t have time..

And here we are.

Almost a month into the new year and I haven’t written anything at all.

But I will.

In the meantime, while it’s still only marginally embarrassingly late, I wish you all a fantastic 2020!

Until soon!

:p

On reconnecting

I’m back at my parents’ house for Christmas.

The friend from school I hadn’t seen in something like 16/17 years was home for Christmas too, making this the perfect time to meet up again in person.

The original plan was to go to a pub for a drink, but I’m not a big drinker (or any kind of drinker worth the title) so we needed an alternative plan..

Walking was what we did most when we knew each other before, so I think it fitted well 🙂

***

The weather wasn’t on our side, it is December in England after all, but what’s a bit of rain between friends? We ignored the gloomy overcast sky and set out anyway. It was still dry when we parked the car – the rain waited until we’d started walking. 🙂

Then it got windy.

Berlin is never windy. Not like home is. It’s not something I notice missing until I’m reminded.. This was a horizontally wet reminder..

Whoosh!

The track was boggy and/or flooded almost all the way but it didn’t matter at all because luckily I’d borrowed mum’s unholey wellies so I didn’t have to think about where I walked.

There is something kind of awesome about wearing wellies in puddles.

Splosh!

When we got to the top of the hill we decided it was time to head back to the car.

A couple of hours isn’t anywhere near enough time to talk about all the things that need to be talked about.. But it was a start. A good start 🙂

I feel like I not only reconnected with a friend, I also reconnected with the version of myself who used to wear wellies all the time 🙂

On the seventeenth..

Today started with a Christmas lecture held by one of the professors I work for sometimes.

It ended with me handing my notice in.

These two things are completely unrelated, except for their joint ability to make me smile when I think about it 🙂

About to celebrate with chocolate ice cream.

More another time 🙂

On waiting for parcels

I recently bought a couple of things from ebay. Having the tracking number is part blessing, part curse.

I would like to say I’m a patient person but in reality I’m not.

I refresh the DHL app’s tracking page as if that would make it arrive more quickly. As if it knows, the delivery date changes from Thursday to Wednesday. Amazing.

On Wednesday (today) I hang around at home instead of going to work. From a previous (very annoying) encounter with the parcel delivery system I know the undelivered parcels are unloaded at around 10am. I assume that means delivery has to be attempted before 10. My house isn’t the closest to the parcel depot, so I imagined it should be getting to me at about 9, maybe 9:30.

When I finally leave for work, the parcel is apparently still on a scenic tour of the town.

When I get to work, I’m not sure if I want to check the app.

There are two possible outcomes: either it just missed me (which would be annoying because I could have stayed a few minutes longer) or it still isn’t there (in which case leaving late was entirely pointless).

Neither is a particularly positive reaction, maybe it’s better not to know at all…

***

I picked both parcels up from the depot in the drizzle when I got home.

On asking the other questions

“I was talking to my brother earlier. He’s like you, he asks all the questions I don’t want to be asked..” – S (but slightly paraphrased by me)

I think this is a good thing. In this particular case, and also in general.

I think we should ask ourselves, and others, the difficult questions. And then be open to the answers.

I also think “why not?” is often a much better question than “why?”.

On a related note, it’s interesting how sometimes people face (or find themselves facing) the same ‘life questions’ although their situations are seemingly very different. At least on the outside.

On love and phone theft

I phoned a friend yesterday.

Half an hour or so into the conversation her partner came into the room..

Friend’s Partner: is that Jess?

Friend: yes..

Friend’s Partner: I want to talk to her, give me the phone *takes phone*

Friend: (in background) ..but..

Friend’s Partner: shh! Go away, I’m on the phone!

Friend: ..but.. (in background) ok Jess, let’s talk later..

Friend’s Partner: *takes phone outside*

Can’t say anyone’s ever fought over the chance to talk to me before.. *loved*

On Jesus and the Billy Goats Gruff

Has anyone else noticed the similarities between the prophets, John the baptist and Jesus with the three Billy Goats Gruff?

“Me? Nah, I’m not tasty/big/important/mighty enough – you want the next guy, he’s much tastier/bigger/more important/mightier than me!”

(the small part where Jesus dies can be overlooked as part of the biggest-billy-goat-kicks-troll’s-butt scuffle – coming back to life presumably counts as winning overall).

On balance

It seems that it’s impossible to add purely Good Things to a life.

Great news? Bam! Bad news.

Good mood? Bam! Some reason to hide.

Have lots to do inside at the weekend? Bam! Have a couple of fabulously warm sunny days so you either feel guilty about missing them by being inside or about not doing the things you’d planned.

Finally get motivated enough to practise running? Bam! Do something to your ankle and need to take it steady for a while.

Finish a project at work? Bam! Get a crazy migraine headache and have to be rescued because there’s no way you’re going to cycle home.

Find a friend you haven’t seen for years? Bam! Someone you love is taken to hospital….

The great universal scales seems to need balance.

Banal or super-important, nothing is safe and even if nothing is actually related, sometimes it seems to be.

On tears and tablets

I need to go shopping.

The tears fall heavily, the breaths juddering and irregular, my thoughts spiralling and my face getting steadily more puffy.

The tears have nothing to do with my need to go shopping. They’re just there. And their presence is a hindrance.

I want go back to bed. To hide. To cry until all the tears are gone and there’s nothing left inside me.

I know that if I do that, the shops will shut before I resurface. Tomorrow they’ll stay closed, and by Monday I will be ravenous.

Instead of hiding, I take the tablets*, pushing them out of their blister packaging with shaking fingers, washing them down with big, greedy gulps of cold water.

I still need to go shopping.

Whatever magic is in those tablets, they’re truly incredible – the tears dry up almost instantly. I pull myself together. Pull myself back into this world of doing not being.

Then I wash my face, pick up my shopping bag and go shopping.

While I’m out, I buy postcards. The wordy sort my family don’t approve of. I’m going to put them on the wall with the others. Regardless.

The tablets might dry tears but they can’t reduce puffiness. The shops don’t care though. My money has the same value regardless of what my face looks like. This, I think, is probably a good thing.

* they’re just vitamin D. They contain more placebo than anything else 🙂