by Bri Castellini
About a month ago, Quinn and I were having dinner with a friend who was discussing a personal situation that had gone sour fast. He was explaining the story and the various causes for the souring, including the personalities and quirks of each person, and gestured to me saying “you know what I mean, Bri. You also don’t have a lot of empathy.”
That’s not a direct quote, and it also wasn’t by any means an insult, but what he was saying was essentially “you, Bri Castellini, do not appear to be a person whose behavior is motivated by and taking into account empathy and the concerns or opinions of others, so you’ll understand why this personal issue got out of hand due to what I’m assuming your own experiences have reflected.” This was very interesting to me, not the first time someone has made this assumption in New York (important: only in New York. This had not been a problem previously. Back to that later), and the most hysterically false statement of all time.
It’s also not overly surprising that this has become a fun new personality trait ascribed to me by people who I’ve only become friends with over the past two or three years. In part it’s a victory- a major contributor to my former mental health spirals has been vanquished! It’s also very much a symptom of a concentrated campaign of overcorrecting.
Let’s back up and make clear that I do not lack empathy. As a child and into my college years, I was an emotional wreck due to my inability to separate my feelings from those around me. I would alternatively brag and complain to my mom that I felt like my whole school’s therapist, because everyone I came into contact with would end up spilling their dark secrets to me within an hour of us meeting. I knew about the suicidal thoughts and cutting practices of four separate girls who I had a single class and no further contact with. We weren’t friends, I was just there, seemingly trustworthy, and overly interested in carrying complete strangers’ burdens.
With actual friends, it was even worse. Almost all of my energy was spent worrying about friends, giving them a 24/7 ear to chatter to and replacing the time I knew I needed for myself with their sadness, their pain, their worries. I’m not saying I was some amazing martyr who sacrificed “me” time to those around her (because being a martyr is almost always as destructive as being a narcissist), but I spent far more time pretending I was ok to spare those around me from further pain than actually being ok. I was obsessed with being the group mom, the rock, the personified safe space. I had two high school boyfriends who I dated for far longer than I should have because in both cases, I knew (correct or not) breaking up with them would remove a vital, non-girlfriend-specific position in their lives for a while.
It wasn’t that I wanted everyone to like me, though I was a teenage girl so of course I did. What mattered more than that, though, was for everyone else to be “ok” in the way I defined it for myself. That’s not how the world works and it certainly isn’t how teenagers worked, but I wanted it anyways, and I silently drained myself in situations I was uncomfortable with or relationships I knew were toxic because I saw pain and distress in their faces and couldn’t bare to be the one to cause them more. I never wanted to end friendships, for me, but more importantly for the position I assumed I was filling for THEM. Maybe they needed a punching bag. You know, for their emotions. And I was strong, right? I was strong enough to take a punch and be that release for them, wasn’t I? I was one of the few kids in my immediate friend group whose parents were not only together but seemingly happily so, so what the hell did I have to be sad about? Because of my familial structure, I assumed I was best built to be the sturdy, stable one, and I took that incredibly (and dangerously) seriously.
Then, in what was a surprise to me at least, my parents separated the final semester of my senior year of high school, divorcing officially my first semester of college. My dad moved out on Valentine’s Day. Suddenly, the “stable” one wasn’t so stable anymore.
That’s when things started to shift, because for the first time, I had an external source of distress I could pile my years of intangible anxiety and depression onto. As if I’d pre-stocked misery just waiting for something appropriately externally bad to happen. And what happened with all my friends who I’d spent almost a decade supporting in whatever way they required? Predictably (in hindsight), they got impatient.
See, that’s the thing about being such a martyr that you don’t divulge your own feelings for fear it would make you a worse support system for others. You set a precedent that your problems, if you even have them, are secondary. You train the people around you to take what they need and give nothing back, and a lot of the time, it’s not even their fault! How can you expect other people to set your boundaries for you? Literally constantly I was assuring people that I was fine, I was stable, I didn’t need anything from them, I live to serve. And we all got used to that system, as toxic and destructive as it was in the long-term.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t see it like that. I saw everyone else as selfish users who were entirely at fault for getting impatient with my pain (because suddenly it competed with theirs when previously theirs was uncontested). I was furious that no one was asking me how I was or if I needed anything past the first week or two. Couldn’t they see I was in pain? My entire worldview and the way in which I understood love and relationships was crumbling around me! The stability and foundation I’d used as a central pillar of my identity had been demolished! I didn’t know who I was or where I fit in the world anymore, and yet they were going about with business as usual, a business I was no longer qualified for. The first 75% of my emotional resume was no longer accurate.
Over time, as I moved away from home, met new people, matured, and went into the world a bit, I took stock of my own behavior and my mental health. I learned that therapy wasn’t a bandaid for weak people but an important and sometimes permanent fixture of peoples lives that did not in any way influence their internal God-given “strength.” I learned to pick my battles better and leave room in a relationship (platonic and romantic) for both parties to grow and change and mature instead of insisting we pick our roles and stick with them from the moment we met. I learned to start seeing my identity as fluid without being wishy-washy, I got more confident in my voice and my skills and my place in my own life. More importantly, though, I learned to leave a little space for myself.
I own that much of my past interpersonal misery is a mess of my own making. I recognize my own position in the destruction of codependent relationships I’d previously blamed solely on the other party. And somewhere along the line, a mix of confidence learned during 6 years of competitive public speaking, confidence learned from healthier, more balanced friendships, and confidence in my own opinions completely overhauled my outward displays of emotion and empathy.
No longer did I rely on tearing myself down to build others up or give up my own comfort entirely for the comfort and wishes of others. I got into comedy and evolved my self-deprecating humor into self-aggrandizing humor, along the way starting to believe some of the nicer things I joked about myself. I got better at judging the balance of power in relationships, taking myself out of those that seemed one-sided or ones that I wasn’t actually happy in. My own feelings were no longer taken for granted, replaced with making decisions not to help or hurt others but because I needed help or was being hurt. I didn’t stop caring about other people, but I did make conscious changes to the way in which I cared about them. If someone wanted to do something I was uncomfortable with or during a time when I knew I needed to recharge, I politely declined, and those who recognized thst it wasn’t a personal attack on their invitation or needs are the ones I gave more energy to. Eventually, I’d rebuilt a support system and identity not around my perceived stability lent by the idea of my parent’s marriage but around being honest and transparent about who I was, what I wanted, and how I was feeling from moment to moment.
I also realized that it didn’t matter what everyone thought of me, just what the people I respected thought. And this, friends, is where we meet back with the intro of this post.
Part of learning to pick my battles was learning I didn’t have to react to everything. Sometimes, even though reacting let off endorphins in the moment, the ensuing prolonged unpleasant interaction wasn’t worth it. So I learned to emote by necessity, not be default, which has led to many people making certain assumptions. I occasionally come across as cold or dispassionate when navigating complicated emotional terrain or professional decisions. It’s not that I feel cold or dispassionate about the situation, but I don’t have to weep to act with empathy, and sometimes I act with empathy and understanding while not myself being emotionally invested. Being emotional and emotionally invested is not mutually exclusive from (nor required pairing with) empathy. I can treat those around with me with respect and also not get emotionally involved in every moment of our interaction, and I’ve started to get pretty transparent about when I am and am not emotionally interested in continuing an argument or interaction.
Because another part of picking your battles is retreating from them not out of defeat but out of disinterest. This comes off as passive-aggression usually (and sometimes it is, because my default emotion these days is frustration, something I promise I’m working on). “Let’s just do the thing you were saying. I don’t care about this argument anymore so let’s just go with yours.” To me, that sentence means literally what it says. I, Bri Castellini, don’t care about this argument so I’m retreating and accepting your position or solution. If this is uttered in a professional scenario, it means “you care more than I do about your position and given that, I no longer feel we need to debate. If you believe in your side this strongly and I don’t, then let’s go with your thing. Otherwise we’re going to go in circles and that doesn’t sound interesting or productive.” Unfortunately, it comes across (apparently) as “I don’t care about you or your opinion but I hate being around you so I’d rather this argument ended so I can be around literally anyone else and seethe about you behind your back.”
And, well, sometimes that’s true. Except I’m rarely in those scenarios these days because I make a point not to put myself in situations or arguments with people or for projects I don’t want anything to do with. It’s safe to say that if I am there, I want to be. Outside of work I am being paid to do, I am not obligated to be around anyone, or do anything, so my making a choice to go out, or make a project collaboratively, or whatever, is a choice I made and stick by. I try not to do pity invites anymore because it’s a waste of everyone’s emotional energy. I’m more comfortable saying “I don’t want to go out/do a thing with you, not because I’m busy or because I hate you, but because I don’t want to go out/do that thing” and “This has been fun, but I’m ready to go home now, so I’ll see you later.” I’m also more comfortable saying “I have to go to bed” or “I’m logging off now” instead of spending eight hours long-distance consoling people because, and say it with me, I am not a trained mental health specialist and have my own shit to work out so I cannot be someone’s sole emotional support. Not because I don’t want to be, or because I hate talking to [insert whoever here], but because it is not my sole responsibility that other people are ok. If they are my friends, my responsibility is to be there when I can, be supportive when they need it, take them to the ER at 1am if the situation arises, and treat them with respect and kindness. My responsibility is not that their every emotional need is taken care of by me, specifically, or by a person I assign as the sole architect of their well-being. I am responsible for me, and sometimes me needs a damn break, and with as much kindness as I can, I have gotten a lot better about making that clear and setting boundaries as necessary.
And it has made some people describe me as cold or unempathetic. But I hope if you take away anything from this post you take away this: being externally emotional all the time and being available 24/7 does not equate to being or acting empathetic. I know who I am and what I feel and while I’m always open to being clearer about why I’ve said something or used a seemingly “dispassionate” tone, I think it’s a failing of the way we’re taught to interact that I can’t be taken at my word. If I have a relevant opinion, trust me, I will tell you, and in most circumstances I return the favor of taking people at their word. What do I gain from mining every communication for secret meaning? Wasted time I could be using to swoon over the epic love story that is Ryan Atwood and Seth Cohen (yes, I’m watching the OC for the first time and unironically loving every beautiful bromantic moment). You either say what you mean or don’t get upset when the other person takes you at your word. It’s not my job to DaVinci Code every interaction, and I will not apologize for that.
Life is about choices, and I have chosen to live mine for me, with other people. Not for other people. Important and healthy distinction.
Again, I am not offended or upset that people have started making assumptions about my ability to feel empathy, because those whose opinions I care about either don’t make those assumptions or will learn through knowing me not to. Either way, I’m the same person, and what other people think of me doesn’t factor into that. I don’t care what you think of me, not because I don’t care about you or your opinion, but because I cannot depend on external factors or opinions to construct my identity. That’s a recipe for disaster I’ve cooked up far too many times already.
I just think it’s interesting the way in which we define and perceive empathy in others, and think that perhaps as a society we should re-examine our labeling of those around us.
Or not. Life, I repeat, is about choices, and the only choice you can make is your own.
Bri Castellini is an indie filmmaker and Community Liaison at Stareable, our favorite web series hub. Watch the remarkable Ms. Castellini’s award-winning web series, Brains, HERE. See Sam And Pat Are Depressed HERE. This post first appeared on her seriously cool blog.