Wedding Woes

Mommy dearest broke my empathy

mrsconn23mrsconn23 member
Knottie Warrior 10000 Comments 500 Love Its First Answer
edited May 18 in Wedding Woes

Dear Prudence,

My mother has always been a high-strung and dramatic person. Most of my childhood involved having to manage her emotions to some degree, and this got progressively worse the older I got. My teenage years were especially difficult, what I now understand to be an extended and severe Borderline Personality Disorder cycle. I’ve come out of it bruised but whole, and I’m a happy and functional adult with a good grip on my own emotions. Except for one admittedly large issue: I think she used up all my empathy reserves. If friends are struggling, my default response (albeit inside my own head) is anger and annoyance. It’s a defense mechanism that protected me from her instability as a teenager, but I seem to apply it to everyone. I know this is unfair, and I know my friends aren’t doing the same “I WANT to be unwell!” (a direct quote!) thing my mother did. I know if people are grieving for an animal or relative they aren’t going to take it to the same bizarre extremes as my mother did. I know that nobody is going to do any of the abusive and manipulative things my mother put me through. I am extremely empathetic in the abstract, noticeably more so than a lot of people when it comes to issues like addiction, mental illness, homelessness, etc.

But when it comes to people I actually know and care about, I can’t seem to muster up any actual empathy or even much sympathy. I’ve done therapy on and off over the years and come to terms with my childhood and been empowered to call it abuse, but this seems to be one hurdle I can’t get over. More therapy isn’t an option, both financially and logistically. I want to be a better friend and a better person, and while I try to be supportive I’m sure my internal emotions are limiting my abilities to do much more than material help like sending care packages. I just can’t seem to switch off this reaction or even have a more caring reaction alongside the initial anger/annoyance!

—Son of My Mother

Re: Mommy dearest broke my empathy

  • I mean more therapy is the only actual option to fix this. Until then fake it til you make it. Literally write a list of nice empathetic things to say. 
  • If they can't or won't go to therapy to work on this more, then they need to fake their empathy so as to still be a good friend.  At least they know what it is and what it looks like.

    Allow themselves a few minutes in their own mind to feel their anger/annoyance.  Then try thinking of how they would feel if that circumstance happened to them or if they read about it happening to a stranger.  If that produces feelings of empathy, try to move that feeling of empathy to their friend.
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  • VarunaTTVarunaTT member
    Knottie Warrior 10000 Comments 500 Love Its First Answer
    LW is already doing the work for this by recognizing it and keeping it in their own head and offering material help.  Continuing to work to reframe it and doing what they're doing is really the only answer.  This might be a thing that LW struggles with all of their life. They need to stop being so hard on themselves for this.
  • kerbohlkerbohl member
    Knottie Warrior 2500 Comments 500 Love Its First Answer
    Work at an inbound call center, lol.  You get empathy training daily, and it's often how to feel empathy over seemingly minuscule things.  You might think it silly that someone is calling in to complain about, say, a $5 pair of gloves that they purchased, but if it's important to them, it's important to the person in customer service trying to help them!

    That's my joke answer.  For my real answer - communicate with the friends at least for now.  Let them know that you do care, and you don't want it to seem in the heat of the moment that you don't.  Experience the empathy they might direct towards you about the fact that you are struggling with this.  I've had similar conversations with people close to me - not about empathy but about needing my space and just because we don't hang out weekly doesn't mean I don't cherish our relationship, that kind of thing.

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