It’s hard to understand others without understanding ourselves first. Conversely, the better we understand them, the more light they shed on us.
Fostering is particularly illuminating in this regard. At least, it has proven so for me. I’m living with a boy who comes from a background completely alien to me, who has behaviors that are completely alien to me. However, the longer I spend with them, the more I realize that they aren’t alien at all.
Jacob is a boy with an abundance of gifts. However, the trauma that he has endured has given him an abundance of issues that he needs to work through as well. Particularly, his behavior is marked by his anger. He greets provocations that seem minor to me (not being allowed to walk on his preferred side of the street, for instance) with outbursts of fury.
If fury doesn’t resolve the situation the way he wants it to, in his anger, he begins to look for ways to provoke Lauren and me. “Extremely intelligent” is certainly on his gift list, but in this case, it means that he is extremely good at being provocative. He knows better than I do what is most likely to infuriate me, and he will pursue his goal with creativity and flexibility.
For instance, the other evening at the end of church services, he didn’t want to be held anymore, and to communicate that, he stuffed the end of my tie in his mouth. I’m here to tell you, folks, if you want to make a man in dress clothes mad, just grab his tie and start chewing on it with a smirk on your face! I admire the ingenuity of Jacob’s solution even while I don’t appreciate being its object.
Many of his mental processes remain a mystery to me, but I think I have this one figured out. Jacob seeks to provoke anger when angry because he has learned that it will generate empathy. If you have a rotten caregiver who ignores you all the time, the only way you can make them pay attention is to study them and figure out what pushes their buttons. Then, when you’re angry, you can make them angry too. The feeling isn’t positive, but at least you are making them share it with you.
Side note: it drives Jacob cra-a-azy when he’s angry at me but I tell him that I’m not angry at him.
Presumably, Jacob is more extreme in his attempts at goading others into forced empathy, but don’t all of us do the same thing, at least sometimes? There have been all too many times in my life when I was angry with my wife and said something to her not with the goal of avoiding hurting her, but intending to cause hurt. That way, she’ll be as hurt-and-mad as I am!
We are most prone to this with those we know and love the best. Hopefully we haven’t engaged in a Jacob-style search for weak spots, but the more time we spend with others, the better we see where those weak spots are. What’s more, we most desire empathy from those who are closest to us. When they show by their words and actions that they don’t get us, we feel hurt and betrayed.
That’s when, like Jacob, we seek to force empathy. We hurt, so they must hurt! We will make them experience what we are experiencing whether they want to or not.
When we consider the impulse in this light, it makes a perverse sort of sense, but it’s terribly destructive to relationships. Our loved one is indeed sharing an emotion with us, but the emotion is negative and corrosive. Anger used as a means of establishing empathy will lead only to rejection and indifference.
Jacob is 4. We aren’t, and we ought to do better. Yes, it hurts when those who are dear to us don’t understand us, but forced empathy isn’t the answer. We can make them understand, but it won’t benefit them or us.
We need first of all to recognize bids for forced empathy from others. Yes, they’re clearly trying to make us mad, but what haven’t we understood that is leading them to do this? They really don’t want our anger. They want our compassion. Don’t react. Act accordingly.
Second, we must recognize the same tendencies in ourselves. Almost invariably, I get angry when somebody in my family or my church doesn’t live up to my expectations. I decide that they’ve failed me, and that they MUST understand their failure.
Once again, though, the bid for forced empathy doesn’t accomplish what I truly want it to. I can get them to share my anger, but I can’t get them to share my standards by being angry at them. That requires revisiting the moment when I failed to communicate my expectations or failed to persuade the other that they were important. As Proverbs 25:15 notes, it is the soft word that breaks the bone, not the harsh one. If persuasion won’t get the job done, anger won’t either, and I need to make my peace with that.
This all sounds very smug, but in real life, I’m a ways away from putting all this into practice, with Jacob not least. So far, I’ve concluded that traumatized 4-year-olds persuade very, very slowly! This I know, though: love and patience might get through to him eventually, but anger will only confirm the maladaptive lessons he has already learned. Only to the extent that I am able to avoid giving him what he seeks will I be able to help him.