Today we are going to look at three areas that I have covered previously, but specifically where they intersect. That intersection is the melancholy corner of “I have a ton of empathy and my heart aches and yearns for other people, but I also have unreasonable standards that few people meet and a natural inclination to lose energy in the presence of others.” Do you know it? Of course there is a Starbucks there.
I think the best way to cover this though is not to address any of those items directly. We need to discuss this in a broader, anecdotal sense that best captures the essence of the interplay among factors. Before beginning though, allow me to establish some critical definitions to these terms. People can be ambiguous about them, which leads to ambivalence and finally to misunderstanding the person.
First, OCPD is a personality disorder concerned with order, control, perfectionism, attention to detail, principles, and the like. It is not OCD. A relationship may exist between the two, but I will not get into that here. I do not have OCD – do not meet the diagnostic criteria though I have both obsessive and compulsive tendencies. Those do not interfere with my life. I do have OCPD.
Second, the social aspect of this. We have a few different factors at play here:
- Anti-social: this has a variety of flavours as well, including a mental disorder, and all revolve around the idea of not wanting the company of others. Anti-social people, do not want other people in their space.
- Social Anxiety: this refers to anxiety brought on by having people in one’s space and it likewise can progress to the extent of a mental health disorder. Like OCPD, I meet the diagnostic criteria for this.
- Introversion: these are people with an inward focus, and demanded focus on the external drains their energy. They tend to be shy and are always introspective.
Now, one may be any one of these things, any combination of these things, all of these things, or none of these things. They are mutually exclusive. I, for example, am not anti-social, but I do have social anxiety disorder and I am an introvert.
My relationship with others, as we will discuss for the remainder of this piece, is not born of dislike for people. Some often mistake elements of what I will describe here as being anti-social. It’s not. It is the interplay of social anxiety, introversion, and OCPD.
Ethics and principles matter to me. You say they matter to you, but which one of us has the personality disorder characterised by an obsession with them?
Now, I am not saying that I am an expert or that my moral philosophy is flawless. It remains a work in progress as I work through things and test out principles. Look at the state of social awareness today – I was not nearly as tolerant of some groups when I was younger. We played “Cowboys and Indians”. We used politically incorrect terms for groups of people as insults for others. I do not lament the innocence of those days. It was wrong. Society progressed from doing those things (somewhat).
In fact, the idea that my moral philosophy is imperfect and that I am still doing things that are objectively unethical plagues me. That’s part of the disorder. Some things are clearly wrong, other things are potentially maybe okay at times. Life is black and white with shades of grey in the middle, but for me the grey gets pushed entirely to the “Maybe let’s not” side of the line.
Introspection is my favourite activity. I live in my head, writing stories, and grappling with things like my sense of principle. Hours spent trying to work out whether a particular behaviour is ethically correct or not is time well spent.
The moment some Other person comes into the frame, some of my attention must go to them. That’s an unnatural state for me, so whereas an extrovert would draw energy from that interaction, mine begins to deplete.
I still introspect and analyse: what are they saying, what are they doing, what else is happening? I examine body language and tone of voice, not because I have some clinical fascination in people but because a lot of what people communicate is non-verbal. My mind makes a conscious, cognitive effort to study as much of the information as possible to understand things beyond the literal. What motivates you, what do you really want, what are you trying to get out of this interaction? This is not about ulterior motives but about true motives.
Consider Pulp Fiction. Samuel L. Jackson enters an apartment and begins talking with the residents about…fast food. As the audience, do we question it? That is not why his character is there, why are we allowing all of this dialogue about fast food? Because we understand the intimidation behind it. He controls that room and intimidates the residents. We are not questioning why he chose to talk about fast food, but we are intimately aware of what we wants – to intimidate big-brain Brett.
So when someone comes up to me to talk about my corgis, I do not assume the worst about the person. I do, however, take in what I can to determine the real cause: do they have an interest in corgis? Dogs in general perhaps? This person is a neighbour, maybe the entire thing is occasion to build a friendlier relationship between the humans. The cause may be even broader – maybe this person desperately wants connection of any kind and is reaching out from a place of loneliness. I have personal boundaries that we need to respect, but it may indicate that I need to reach out to the humanity in this person more than if they simply saw a cute puppy.
I do not hate the person for approaching me, but it will take energy out of me in the form of all that introspection and anxiety about managing it successfully will accompany the introspection. “What if….what if….what if….”
This makes me selective about people.
“It would be easier, in terms of distance and convenience, to walk the dogs down that path and over to the park. I could encounter any number of people that way though, as all of the units open up onto it. If I take them behind the building, it’s a more complicated walk but with no interaction. No anxiety.”
That’s strangers and the general public interaction. I like people though, and relationships are important to me. So phrase two of this is building friendships with people, and that means a more gruelling screening process. Those relationships are going to require way more energy than brief interactions with strangers. I want friends, but it will extract a price on my personality. Those people will need to justify that cost.
When I say “justify that cost,” I do not mean that I expect people to prove themselves to me. No one owes me anything. What I mean is that I have to assess their character and needs to determine if it fits well with me. Time spent with one person who I find particularly draining is time not spent with someone else or pursuing another activity (like my introspection).
In other words, most people meet the standard of “good enough to spend time with me.” One would have to be of rather egregious character for me to express an explicit desire not to be around that person. To that end, I have always gotten on well with most people and found, in school, for example, that I could transcend cliques. I belonged to everyone and no one.
The irony of my personality is that I attract people. People love talking with me and sharing things. I know part of it is that no matter how “not in the mood for this” I might be, I make myself friendly and accommodating while looking for the polite way to break away.
The Sweet Ones
Of course, there’s something to be said for personal preference, too. Everyone has a type, right? Rather than this vague notion of “I meet whomever and do a sort of cost-benefits analysis about being friends,” what specifically acts as a beacon that attracts me to a person?
If I had to encapsulate the idea in one word, it would be “sweetness.” To me it reflects a combination of intelligence (and full intelligence at that, social and emotional intellect as well as the cognition we usually consider), empathy, and kindness. It’s a complex term applied to complex people who display both strength and fragility.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this often tends to be women as I have discussed before, and that owes itself entirely to gender stereotypes. Society teaches women to be agreeable and men to be assertive. You know the ‘mansplaining’ thing? It drives me crazy even though I am not the target. The general tendency for men to interject themselves and be aggressive eliminates many of them from consideration. And I cannot abide boorishness. Even when that is not a matter of principle, it’s a matter of personality – too “boys will be boys” and I hate it.
These are people who respect others. They have opinions and strong beliefs, but they express them with grace, patience, and consideration. They handle disagreements maturely. They provide other people with reasonable latitude to make mistakes, but hold themselves and others accountable for their actions – bonus points for transparency to get out in front of accountability. They have an intellect they use wisely, not seeking to be more clever than they are or for what the situations requires.
The Charlie Chaplin speech from The Great Dictator encapsulates this well.
“Reasonable latitude to make mistakes.”
No one is perfect. I do not satisfy all of this all of the time. I obsess about it and try to satisfy my standards all of the time, but, alas, I am human. It feels important to mention this because I sense some readers thinking, “How does this guy have any friends with these standards?” In fact, it hearkens to an exchange from one of my all time favourites:
“Then,” observed Elizabeth,”you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished women.”
“Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it.”
“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”
“Are you so severe upon your own sex, as to doubt the possibility of all this?”
“I never saw such a woman, I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Hobbies are irrelevant and I’m not concerned with one’s “air and manner of walking.” The point is one of character and one’s ability to keep within a reasonable, human degree of my principles.
You know that person who thinks people have gotten way too rude with one another but then turns around and is rude with someone because reasons? That person – I want to see people do better than that. I want to do better than that.
The blatant transgressions are easy to spot.
“He abandoned a puppy on the side of the road? What a jerk!” No one likes that guy.
What about the guy whose napkin accidentally blows off the outdoor table and he doesn’t then go retrieve it? Is that a severe character flaw? No, but littering is wrong and something of a global issue. Here’s one piece of litter easily rectified. He chose the easy thing over the right thing. That weighs on my mind. All of the little things that add up to big things.
I appreciate the person who is nice to their friends, but if one’s definition of character is how it holds up when untested, when one has a vested interest in the other person, then I am less than impressed.
And that character should not be the random, intermittent act of kindness. “I did not say anything mean to that person.” Why are you saying something mean to any of the people?
Because that cycle tugs at the heart of my social unease. I was discourteous because they were discourteous and I have to stand up for myself. Everyone fights a righteous war because no one fired the first shot. Everything is the justified response to shots fired by some other party. People excuse their transgression of what is right because someone of what someone else did or might do.
People should not be doormats for other people, but one can go about standing up for one’s rights in several ways. Many people opt for whatever is easiest.
I know this sounds immodest to those who don’t know me, but I opt for what is right. My friends and loved ones mock me for it. “Just _______, James.” Yeah, that’s not how it works. If people do it that way, it will cause problems for other people. It doesn’t become okay because we are not the people who have to “deal with it”. I have the mental disorder.
My father once told me a story about a childhood friend of his who decided he was going to throw a snowball at the ice cream truck driver. They tipped off the driver. When the boy approached the truck, the vendor leaned over and sprayed him with whipped cream before pulling away slowly, gleefully smiling to the music as the angry child chased behind him.
The reason that story stuck with me was not the slapstick. The boy felt anger, embarrassment, shame – some negative emotion at having had this happen to him. Yet he intended to snowball the driver. Had he been successful, he would have had a laugh and gone on with his day.
Some readers might feel judged by this. I often worry that my sense of principles comes off as self-righteous or holier-than-thou – that is not the intent. The intent is being a decent human being at all times, and I see no “good enough” in that respect.
Remember that time you saw the inconsiderate person at the store, and you went home and mentioned that idiot to your friends? You think you’ve never been that person in someone else’s story? I know, I know, “Who cares what other people think?” That’s not this though. This is, “I did something that person found objectionable and I should assess if I did breach some standard or if that person is being unreasonable.”
Remember the earlier point about needing to analyse people? All introspection – and if the person is reacting unreasonably, why? What can I do to improve that situation?
This process includes assumption and error. For example, I know I idealise and romanticise some people unfairly – they seem to meet that standard for sweetness that I described earlier. I may not know that person as well as I think, or I may not even know that person at all. Sometimes it comes from my impression of how they seem publicly or based on those nonverbal cues referenced earlier, which I can read incorrectly.
Examples: Emma Watson, Chris Evans, Lorde, Chelsea Clinton, and Lindsey Stirling are celebrities who fall into this category. In an older sense, Jimmy Stewart and Aubrey Hepburn. Are they as I have gleaned? Perhaps not, but it’s a benchmark.
The most telling sign of “sweetness” is the protectiveness I feel when I detect it in others. It’s not a life-and-limb protectiveness, as though the person has a naivete or profound weakness that makes them prey for others. In that sense, they exist as any other person would where if one were to see them in trouble hopefully one would render aid. I’m not talking about starting a bodyguard service.
The protectiveness is a desire to insulate their character against the world. Situations may present people with the easy choice and the right choice – it gets taxing to take the right choice every time. The temptation to take the easier path may be intense and it becomes more severe as the frequency of the situations increases.
Look at the political situation in the United States just since 9/11. The gap between Left and Right widens, more people are unable to converse diplomatically with people on the other side of the spectrum. The result has been more situations online and in public where a person finds all the reason they need to berate, disrespect, or otherwise be unkind to another.
One of my greatest struggles and fears with my sense of principles is how to move forward in this current state of affairs. As fraud and misdeed (seemingly) becomes more ubiquitous, more otherwise good people seem inclined to transgress and take the easy option. They have enough grief with which to deal, why should maintaining the high ground all the time be their responsibility, too? Where is the responsibility and accountability for these other people?
I don’t have an answer to that. I wonder myself where it is at times. I do know, however, that I cannot control them but I can control myself. I can demand responsibility and accountability of myself (which has the peripheral benefit of painting the what-abouters into a corner).
This is not even about being able to sleep at night or to live with myself. This is about identifying problems and being part of the solution.
“People are losing their capacity for empathy.” Be empathetic. Be one of the people who refuses to lose that capacity.
“People are unable to have civil discourse or disagree.” Be that person. Let those with whom you disagree talk without interruption. Offer your position without judgement and discuss the subject rather than debate it. If they are incapable of doing that, walk away. Do not be discourteous and then lament the absence of civility though.
This is a critical distinction – the issue is not the hypocrisy. It’s not that one says one thing and does another – it’s that one is doing a specific thing. Being discourteous and welcoming the lack of civility is also wrong because the hypocrisy is not the issue, it’s the act of discourtesy. While people struggle against the sludge of incivility in the world, one is pumping out more of it.
When I see these sweet people in the world, my sense of protectiveness is one of wanting to spare them the sense of conflict I feel, to pave the path before them and allow them to exist sweetly with as little resistance as possible. I want them to wake up tomorrow resolved to be that way again and not to entertain the idea of doing things an easier way just so they can get through the day.
I do not judge or pity those people. I lament them. People do not wake up in that place, they discover it slowly one discourtesy wrought against them at a time. To be sure, some people discover it through privilege (a sort of affluenza defence) or through psychological impairment that precludes the person from understanding how they affect others, but the majority learn it from being trodden on themselves.
The thing I find most unnerving about my ethical outlook on life is that I have a disorder. My friends and family sometimes tease my wanting to do things the right way, because it would be so easy to things a more convenient way that does not cause any serious injury. That’s the evidence right there – the flaunting of a principle while someone is in the course of acting in favour of it.
“Just leave it there.”
“We aren’t supposed to leave it there. You know that. That’s why you’re addressing my attempt not to leave it there the way you are.”
“It’s not hurting anyone.”
And yet, it is. Because that’s not the way it’s supposed to go and I could have done it the way it was supposed to go with minimal effort. Because I chose not to in order to make my life nominally easier, someone else now has to go out of their way to correct that. Their excess effort must be made up elsewhere, at the expense of some other person, and so forth until one day I am at work thinking, “Why couldn’t this person just do what they were supposed to do? Now I have to do extra work.”
It’s a sort of karma, except that we all pay it even if we do follow the rules. It comes from a majority of people breaking the mores and folkways of society in little ways that benefit them while causing grief for the rest, and recognising it only when they receive the grief. We want accountability except for when we don’t, when accountability feels like too exhausting a concept.
In closing, I sympathise. This is all quite human. I am trying to be a better person than what is convenient or even natural, and at times that is a Herculean effort, especially with introversion and anxiety as concrete blocks on my feet. Nevertheless, I persist because choosing not to persist guarantees that these problems we all see continue. Much of that is human nature. I do not expect I will see any grand change to it in my lifetime.
It does leave me feeling isolated at times though, as I try to seek the attention of those who seem like such genuinely sweet spirits for whom, in the words of Olaf, it’s worth melting. Oh, and of course balancing that with the anxiety of, “This person is way too good to waste their time and attention on me” because I’m aware of all the ways in which I am imperfect while focusing solely on the ways in which they excel.
Nevertheless, I persist.