Friday, August 03, 2007

Weekend: Desperately Seeking....

So.... last night I was going through my email, reading post after post. That often happens I wake up a lot during the night unable to sleep so I come to the computer.

Something has been gnawing at me. It's a bit of a sensitive topic so I'll be careful in how I present this.

It has to do with seeking sympathy for the purpose of bonding.

As I read through the mail from my Yahoo lists, it seemed the women were competing for the most dreadful, wretched situation. "My knees really hurt", one would say. Another would counter with "Wow... I wish only my knees hurt! My back hurts so bad, I can't even stand in line for ten minutes at the post office!"

A few posts later, most of them waxing poetic about their pets, another woman writes, "My husband's back was so bad that he was in traction for three months!"

I half expected someone to post "My husband's back was so bad that he had to get a fake spine!"

This roundtable competition went on for 30 posts or more, with most of the reply posts starting with the line "Oh, (name), I am so sorry you are going through that."

Now keep in mind that the women on the list, while we know each other a little bit, are not close friends or relatives.

I wouldn't be writing this post if they were. When it comes to my friends, Internet friends included, I definitely want to know when something is going on in her life. I'm an empathetic, compassionate person. I might not get gushy about it ~ but I do care. Overall, I am not a particularly sympathetic person, more of a practical "what can I do" type. My automatic response is to want to "fix".

I resent being emotionally manipulated. That is the feel I get from the women on the mailing list.
It also occurs with some people I meet casually. Occasionally when I go to the restaurant on the corner, I invite someone to sit with me if she or he happens to look lonely sitting alone. I'm usually alone but I bring a book. The company is purely optional but I do feel weird leaving someone sitting alone if they look lonely. So I ask. Sometimes they say yes. Sometimes they say no.

Invariably, by the end of our lunch I know every bit of bad luck, every betrayal and every stored-up resentment that person has carried around. I hear about every ache and pain. I hear about every boss who's a jerk and every husband/wife who doesn't meet up to the expectations of my lunch companion.

It seems that many people have gotten the notion that inflicting their misery on the world has no consequences. All of us need to whine on occasion. It's like purging negative energy. But with complete strangers in a coffee shop or on an Internet mailing list?

That is strange.

It could be that so many people simply long for meaningful conversation. It could be that many people find it easier to bond over adversity than over anything positive or uplifting?

What do you think? How does this strike you? And truly, I don't have a heart made of stone. I just want an opportunity to develop a basic knowledge of someone, grow to care, rather than to be dumped on.

What say you?



bohemiangirl said...

I know exactly what you mean and it's something I'm working on myself. I've been in situations where all I've done is complain and it just rots you from the inside. That is not the person I want to be. It is very ugly. So I keep myself in close check. I share the positive because it brings light into the world. And if there's something this world needs, it's light. Thank you for this reminder.

slouching mom said...

No, I don't think you have a heart made of stone.

I think this is a common dynamic among women. I don't quite understand why. It bothers me, too.

And I think there are too many people in our society without enough social support, and that's the reason for the "spillage" you see in restaurants. Too many lonely people desperate to be heard, with no one to hear them.

It's lovely of you to ask a stranger to sit with you in a restaurant. Lovely.

liv said...

I don't know because I typically see this in two slightly different situations: there are the senior citizen types who compete for who has the most/worst illnesses, and then I see the women who compete with talking of who has the most amazing life from the best kids to the best car to the best husband. Both are annoying to me. To a point I care about your irritable bowels and great kids, but after a while the topics get worn out.

Z said...

Maybe, sometimes, people can tell a sympathetic (or anyway polite!) stranger something that their friends have heard already and they don't want to burden them with further? Or it could be that they have no one else to tell.

I agree with you about the competition element, but I think it goes with any subject - cleverest child, most success in their job, most painful childbirth, most unsympathetic husband - good or bad.

I think Bohemiangirl's attitude is a good one - act positive and you are more likely to feel positive and make other people feel better. Then everyone gains from the exchange.

Snoskred said...

Amen to Z's last paragraph.

My sister does this. She also has the habit of blurting out all the things wrong with her life to people who simply ask "how are you". There are cashiers at supermarkets who got the condensed version of her life story in the time it takes to scan groceries.

I don't know who she's calling to tell her tales of woe these days, but I'm glad it's not me. Does that sound terrible? You try spending an hour on the phone listening to her! ;)

She never takes any advice I've given her, so I do not know why I wasted my time trying to give it. :(

Me, I prefer a positive outlook, if we sat down in a restaurant you'd not hear about the bad things in my life.. Sometimes there are bad things there, but I'm not going to share them with someone I've only just met. :)


Susanne said...

"It could be that so many people simply long for meaningful conversation. It could be that many people find it easier to bond over adversity than over anything positive or uplifting?"

I think you hit a nerve here. And I dislike this very much. While I do want to know what is going on in other people's lives it would be nice to hear something happy from time to time.

Maybe I'll follow the advice I heard in a radio show and ask people to tell me something good. Ask them what they have particularly enjoyed today. Maybe that will help.

KC said...

I think sometimes, it starts innocuous, but then people are trying to make others feel better by- look at me- I'm worse off than you! Misery loves company right?

jen said...

i have been thinking about this lately too. how to share when i am struggling but as not to invoke the sort of reaction you are speaking of. and how to genuinely support someone else in this situation by doing more than "feel better!"

i think we've learned to get attention through suffering and we perpetuate it in the media, by shows that depict it on TV, etc. We need to feel heard and aren't taught to say "hey, check out the coolest thing I just did. I rock" but rather through "hey i am having a hard time".

it's a pickle. and i, too love that you invite others to lunch.

The Atavist said...

I am a sympathetic listener if I have seen evidence that remedial action has been taken by the complainer, or that there is a plan of action in place or even just being considered. The fact is, it is much simpler to whine than to do something constructive about any bad situation so, predictably, people whine. It is a destructive, annoying and completely useless process which serves to do nothing else but to spread the misery around.

Emily said...

I'd comment, but my back is hurting too much to sit. And my index fingers have blisters. Which burst. And are infected. Puss everywhere.


flutter said...

This makes me nutty. The most toxic of friendships have had to come to an end because of this very phenomenon. I've been feeling like I do this a little too much on my blog, and I am getting upset with myself...

Catherine said...

I agree. I think it has a lot to do with emotional and social intelligence. I think the average person really does not have the skills needed to express trouble, or accept the expression of others, in a sensetive and appropriate way. So, one's expression sounds like whining, and the other's response sounds like competition. It makes for dull conversation, and yet it seem to be the bulk of most social gatherings! I agree that intimacy much include vulnerability, which includes sharing the good and the bad...but I also agree that this is not what we're talking about here!

QT said...

This is interesting, Chani. The majority of my clients are older and I listen to their health issues all the time. I always try to ask about grandchildren, or trips, etc.

I just think it is easier to complain or point out the negative than anything else. But I agree with bohemian girl & zee - I try to find the bright side if it is a stranger. With a close friend I might wallow with them for a bit.

Carla said...

Wow! That happens to me sometimes, but not so often. But I see it almost akin to negative gossip. Many people seem to find it easier to concentrate on the negative rather than the positive. Perhaps it's just habit. I try not to buy into it. Don't get me wrong, I'll be sympathetic, but I am solution oriented. Have a great weekend.

meno said...

You think THAT'S bad, you should hear what happened to me one time.... :)

My mother is famous for this. No matter what you have done, she has done it longer, had it worse and she knows JUST what you mean because one time....

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I've been guilty of that on occasion, and have been disappointed with myself at such times for inflicting personal drama on someone I don't know well.

Everyone yearns to be completely understood, and in this instant gratification culture, we sometimes try to take shortcuts to that most satisfying state.

It's natural for you to feel uncomfortable with the darkest secrets of people you barely know, and they shouldn't put you (or anyone) in that position. In fact, after this kind of thing happens often enough, it makes one less able to feel genuine sympathy.

Yet it's hard to determine sometimes how much to disclose online, for example, when a fellow blogger whom one likes asks a question, the answer to which is a traumatic experience one has survived. Perhaps it's easier to relate such things in the relative anonymity of blogging and emails to people we don't actually spend real life time with. Anyway, it can be a tough call -- to be completely honest or to hold back. I know that I sometimes err on the side of giving too much information.

Christine said...

it's a fine line. like others have said we want to share and be open with others and we often simply need some support from friends. but sometimes it just becomes a big pity party. it is especially hard with strangers or people you don't know well. we have a neighbor who goes on about their horrible situations FOREVER. i feel for them, but i feel trapped, too. know what i mean? like if i were needing to vent a little or was feeling down my sadness would never ever compare to their misery. it is a tough question--how to connect, share, and sympathize with out it getting bogged down with it.

Christine said...

flutter you don't do that at all. i really feel blogs are different in a way in that they are like diaries we choose to share. we are allowed to let things out and ask people for a little encouragement or advice.

Laurie said...

I'm a fixer by nature myself, Chani, so I can relate to that very much.

I have been doing a bit of whining myself lately, so I don't think I can really comment on the rest of your post other than to say I think that my talking about my trivial problems is creating negative energy that is drawing more problems to me.

I need to stop it! Thanks for this post, I needed it.

slouching mom said...

flutter, i agree with christine. i don't think you do this. i really don't.

Anonymous said...

I think there's some value is sharing the bad times. It helps me live my own life to know what happened to other people, and how they dealt with it.

I've written about my struggles with depression, because before I was diagnosed I didn't know anyone else who had the problem. I want other people to know what it is and what can be done about it.

I think that's the key: are they looking for a way out of the hole, or do they just want to hear someone say, "Ah, poor guy, it must suck being in that hole."

Sort of along the same line, my favorite song writers are the ones who can write a song that makes people happy or smile. It really doesn't take much ability to make someone sad or angry. That's what made Woody Guthrie and George Harrison so special.

flutter said...

Thank you guys and for the email as well, Chani.

Aliki2006 said...

I agree with what's been said. I do think that there's something about sharing the negative that makes people feel "safer" in an odd way. Like they just can't make themselves look at the bright side, for fear they will jinx themselves. This is a different kind of vulnerability, not what I see in blogs, where what's shared is done in a very different way.

Does that make sense?

crazymumma said...

I say that you have an empathetic soul. One that makes others feel they can.....unload is a ghastly word...yet...maybe it is the gift you are giving them.

I also think many people are so unused to being heard, and they just need an ear.

and Chani. I am sure you would be wonderful at that.

maybe perceive it as a gift?

River said...

Thank you to "susanne". I am a supermarket checkout operator and from now on after I say "hello, how are you?", I am also going to ask "what are you enjoying about today?"

Julie Pippert said...



I think there is something to be said for the fact that it seems easier and safer to vent the spleen to a writing group that way. In fact, there is a lot to be said about venting via writing...the ability to get it all out without distraction, without interruption, without additional senses, etc.

I think that's why people let loose.

I think there is also something to be said about difficulty with expression.

I think people can feel that talking about the good can be bragging (which is frowned on). I think people feel like expressing their own similar concerns is expressing empathy.

I think what it reveals is that we have a lot of people with pain (all of us do at some point), without adequate avenue for expressing and dealing with it, and without the necessary tools for listening, hearing and understanding when someone else expresses pain.

I used to take it on, a lot, too much. I wanted to step in, be involved, show my care, fix it. When I stepped back and quit that, it didn't bother me.

Ravin' Picture Maven

Hel said...

It is such a delicate balance. When someone I care about and respect show me a sliver of their hearts and their pain it is a precious gift of trust.

When someone who I don't know or someone who I know do not want to change dumps their stuff on me I feel grom.

I suspect it also has to do with the way someone shares. Are they searching and sharing or bitching while actually thinking of other stuff?