Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Innapropriate Feeling of Dread

I've always been keenly empathic. As a kid, I would get genuinely upset when someone else hurt themselves, something E seems to have inherited from his old man. As I got older, I paid more attention to how the other person responded to what I was saying than to what I was actually saying. Part of that was the normal egotistic worry that the other person would reject me, but it was also a real desire not to make the other person unhappy.

This may sound weird to readers of this blog and those friends of mine close enough to have experienced the full brunt of my sense of humor, but even they'll probably admit that I'm a pretty good judge of what to make fun of and what should stay off limits. After all, I really only mock my friends and, for the most part, they're still my friends. I had a couple of friends in middle school who were not so kind in their ribbing. I drove one to attempt suicide and punched the other one in the face for stealing a french fry. I think it's reasonable to assume that my friends would treat me the same way if I were being an asshole to them.

Unfortunately, my ability to empathize with others and occasionally see myself through their eyes leads to some unhealthy behaviors. For one, I can remember every time I've ever accidentally offended someone and these memories will resurface at random times causing me to involuntarily and physically recoil in disgust. Seriously, I'll be sitting on the couch next to my wife watching Good Eats when I'll flinch from a flashback to that time a year ago when I told her dad that the shirt he was wearing made him look like a wicker cabinet.

That memory is actually a true story and I wasn't even trying to be funny. The pattern on the shirt was very much the interwoven bands of a basket. Unfortunately, I'm so much a nice person that I didn't even realize that this was so obviously a crack about the guy's weight. He didn't respond positively or negatively to the remark, but the comment has made me cringe ever since.

What's worse is when I have a conversation with someone and then come away with the feeling that I've somehow offended them even though our topic was something entirely innocuous like cheese or the best way to brush a cat's teeth. This one really bugs me. It doesn't happen with people like my wife or closest friends, people with whom I'm close enough to know that a slight slip won't ruin their opinion with me, but it does happen regularly with my mom for some reason, which is weird. The woman has listened to me rant on politics, religion, and society for fifteen years now and never criticized. She'd occasionally offer a differing opinion, but it was always logical and just part of a civilized debate, never critical. Why would I worry about what I say to her when I know I'm not going to be mean to her? Still, I often leave social situations with people with a vague sense of dread that I've said something that hurt their feelings. Why is it so hard for me to leave a conversation, especially those in which I was fully involved and interested, without feeling directionless guilt?


Sid said...

That's a joke right? You didn't actually drive someone to attempt suicide, did you?

Jacob said...

The phrasing is intended to be a joke, but something along those lines really did happen. In sixth grade a couple of kids I'm still friends with and I had a friend who didn't work out. He started out cool, but gradually started degrading us and making fun of us just to make himself feel better. By the summer, we were trying to avoid him. The next school year, one of my friends and I sat behind this kid in band and "accidentally" bumped our music stands into the back of his head a few times. We're talking maybe six times over the course of an hour. Not long after that he attempted suicide (within days of the event) and never came back to school. He went to a private Christian school after that.

I really think the fact that he'd been abandoned by all of his friends (because he was a jerk to us) was unpopular outside of the group to start with had much more to do with his suicide attempt than the music stand, but I've always felt guilty about the entire episode. There's no way I could have stayed friends with the guy. He was a jerk, and there was no way for me to know he'd take it that hard. Of course in retrospect, there were things he did late in sixth grade year that suggested he had problems, but it was nothing a 12 year could be expected to pick up on. I should probably turn this into a post one day.

Chris said...

You have written about the kid who attempted suicide, FYI. I think Sid just missed that post.

To a less severe extreme, I can relate to your "directionless guilt." I sometimes mentally cringe at flashbacks of things that I have said or done to people.

No vivid examples spring to mind, so this is a pretty shitty anecdote. But trust me, I can relate.

Jacob said...

I've mentioned it once before, but it was another in-passing reference. I could probably make it a readable stand alone story if I included more of the details. Maybe make it my on version of some of A Free Man's personal history posts.

courtney said...

I remember that post as well. I'm pretty sure you've written about it in detail, because I already knew that story and I know you didn't tell me in person.

I, too, am a people-pleaser. I want everyone to like me, so I avoid confrontation and I don't make fun of people unless they have been deliberately mean to me. This also means I'm pretty sensitive, especially in comments I receive on my blog where I can't tell if the person is kidding or not. I tend to assume people are maliciously making fun of me -- and yes, I've gotten that impression from you before. There was one comment "debate" between you and me that left me genuinely upset. But that's my problem, not yours. I just play nicey-nice most of the time, especially in writing since it's so hard to get sarcasm across.

Jacob said...

Yeah. I think that's part of the problem. I'm able to debate things without letting it get personal and grew up with friends who were the same way. I think I've had enough instances where I've somehow made someone upset without knowing how that I've just internalized that I have no control over how what I say is received and that my subconscious just always assumes the worst.

Also, just assume that I'm not being malicious. If I'm malicious, it means I genuinely hate you. A certain former boss of mine that you didn't know receives malicious comments. I hate that person.

I don't intentionally hurt people I like. There are people I try to avoid joking with because of past problems, but sometimes I forget when I'm in a good mood.

Jacob said...

Also, if I piss you off, please tell me. I genuinely don't want to be an asshole and will try to avoid subjects or types of comments with people as long as I know that it bothers them.

Julie said...

I'm sure I would be a much happier & more productive person if I could get over this particular problem. I relive disappointments in my head all the time.

I cheated once in my school career - in sixth grade and, of course, I got caught. I replay that one over and over although I'm pretty sure that no one anywhere cares that I cheated once in sixth grade. But it bothers me.

I'm sorry you suffer from the same problem.