For a handful of reasons, I’ve always cared too much what others think. This is a huge liability when you become any sort of public figure, as you might imagine.
I learned this the hard way over the years I ran a popular religious commentary website that, although it was not my conscious intention, catered to an audience that included some of the most judgmental people I’ve ever encountered in my life. The kind of people who, nearly a year after my departure from that business — in large part due to my disgust with this particular subgroup — still dissect my every public utterance, looking for ways to use them against me in order to diminish my credibility, and thus, the weight of my criticisms against their excesses.
Their worldview is a zero sum game, and thus, they cannot give an inch without losing one.
It has always been bizarre to me that people who have never so much as had an in person conversation with me, shaken my hand or looked me in the eye, think they have grounds to despise me with such fervor. People who spend much of their time extolling the practices that are supposed to increase Christian virtue, and seemingly claiming to be participants in such activities themselves.
But really, bizarre isn’t a big enough word. It’s actually a kind of evil.
It’s difficult to admit, but the knowledge that people who are essentially perfect strangers can nevertheless find the energy to hate you and want to see you fail tends to sting. They want to see you suffer, simply because you hold ideas they disagree with. Despite my own generalized feeling of misanthropy (which, if I’m being honest, is mostly a reaction to this kind of behavior), I actually care about other people. I’d much rather help than hurt. I criticize other public figures, too, but I cannot imagine fixating on any of them with the kind of bile and vitriol I have often received. It looks to me like a kind of sickness.
But maybe I’m just wired differently.
I recently saw a very interesting video clip from a childhood abuse survivor and speaker named Teal Swan. It’s about how trauma gives rise to the type of person we might consider an “empath,” and what that really means. I identified with it immediately, and the end of the video was a big epiphany for me:
Her conclusion — that empaths are people who were trained from childhood to look for the most dangerous person in the room, which is why they’re so good at reading people and so uncomfortable around others — really rocked me, because it was so obvious, but also something I’d never even considered.
That’s why I do that?!
When I took Dr. Jordan Peterson’s personality test a year or two ago, I was stunned to learn that my level of extroversion was actually very high. 82nd percentile high. I’ve always considered myself an introvert. I avoid people, even people I genuinely like, all the time. I’m notoriously reclusive. I hate crowds. I don’t answer my phone. I sometimes have to be reminded to come out of isolation in my office to spend time with the people I love most. I am extremely prone to sensory overload, like the noise that happens when all ten people who live in my house come together at the dinner table and are all talking at once. It makes me want to run for the door. I’m very socially adept, but when I do spend time around others, I need to take alone time to recharge. This isn’t a collection of traits I’m proud of. It’s just something I’ve learned I have to live with. Trying to force myself to be “normal” just causes enormous amounts of stress, which often converts into irritability and anger. So, it’s a balancing act.
But it never occurred to me that these were not aggregated symptoms of my personality, but rather reactions because of my being an “empath.” At least some of these characteristics would be identified in clinical terms as “hyperarousal.”
To reiterate what Swan is saying in my own words: when you learn from a young age that you have to walk on eggshells around someone with a volatile temper, you get very good at reading things like microexpressions and moods. I could always walk into a room and take the emotional temperature lightning fast. I’ve often realized something was bothering someone else even before they did. But there’s a downside to this ability: you also tend to zero in on problems and the people who have them, because, as stated in the video, “That’s where the risk is.” The result can be caring overly much what other people think, because your fear regarding what others are thinking and feeling, and the threat this sometimes represents, leaves a deep imprint. Equating the perception of negative emotion with an impending blowup from someone who is more powerful than you — and as a child, that’s pretty much any adult — trains your brain to see all negative emotion as threatening. Especially when the negative emotion is pointed in your direction. If you, like me, learned to respond to that threat with a strong counterattack, you tend to get into a lot of hotheaded arguments with people who give you a hard time — even if your deeper emotional response is still fear, because the person you learned this behavior from was someone you were legitimately afraid of.
There’s a lot of good, solid, positive motivational content being produced to try to help people get ahead in their lives and leave the growing culture of toxicity behind. But when someone who is a trauma-driven empath comes across advice like the following from business/media/success guru Gary Vaynerchuck, we nod our heads, knowing there’s a fundamental truth in “ignoring the negative energy” sent your way, but we also think, “If you only knew how much I’d like to get to that place, and how hard my programming works against it, you wouldn’t be so glib about it.” (Language warning on the following audio):
Again: I’m not saying Gary is wrong. I’m saying that it’s not a switch you can flip unless you’re a very specific type of person. Having high levels of self-confidence and little to no concern what others are saying about what you’re doing is a huge innate advantage that, in my experience, most people don’t have.
When it comes to the haters, Vaynerchuck has, in the way only a supremely self-confident man can, found a way to be compassionate to the underlying pain that drives them:
I’m not at a place where he is about having empathy for haters, but I have noticed that it helps to lean into the hate if you want it to bother you less.
What do I mean by this?
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CPTSD can make you fragile in some respects, but it can also lend you incredible endurance. Many of us with this condition may be simultaneously more sensitive to emotional pain but also more tolerant of it than those who don’t have these experiences. If you’re going to survive a traumatic environment where some form of abuse is happening, you have to push through it, so you learn how. It hurts, and you may very well cope in unhealthy ways, but you find a way to keep going.
I’ve got a pretty good profile in my head of the kind of person who used to read my religious writing and only cheered me on because I was confirming their priors, but turned on me the minute I started questioning, or saying unorthodox things. And because I’m good at reading people, I know exactly which buttons to press to get them spitting fire in my direction. I’m only a minor public figure, but I’m still well aware that everything I say in public gets dissected. Every Substack, every Facebook post, every tweet. Those engaged in this activity seem to think that it doesn’t occur to me that it’ll be used against me, as though I’m some oblivious schmuck who just goes through life divulging secrets his enemies will use against him because I’m too dumb to realize it.
The truth is, I want them to know these things.
First, because I’m saying things that are true, or that I believe are on the path to truth, and I’m not going to hide those thoughts just to avoid the disapproval of the self-appointed Inquisition. I don’t want to be a part of their little club and I don’t need their approval, and that’s the only leverage they have. Nothing would make me happier than for them to simply go away. My interest is in engaging with people capable of having respectful discussions with others, even when they disagree. People who can’t handle that kind of respectful interaction get pushed further away every time our ideologies come into conflict. The more of a lost cause they think I am, the better. Get off my proverbial lawn.
Second, there’s a certain satisfaction in exploiting their pettiness, their propensity to gossip, their inability to evict me from their minds, where I’ve lived rent free for so long it’s embarrassing. When concerned friends and acquaintances send me screenshots of folks I blocked long ago tearing me apart over some comment I made, what can I do except shake my head and laugh? Somehow I still have all the power in whatever bizarre relationship dynamic they think we have, even with zero effort from me. I think often of this scene from Grosse Pointe Blank:
Of course, every time my detractors do this, they continue to substantiate my criticisms of their purity spiraling judgmentalism as a group — something that runs contrary to the very virtues they claim to extoll. I’ve written before about the apparent inefficacy of sacramental grace. Why are those who are most performatively observant and act as though they’re the most devout often the least virtuous? When it comes to proving that their ideas on how we should live doesn’t enough produce positive results to be persuasive, they’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting for me.
The thing I’m noticing is that the more I voluntarily open myself to their pettiness, the more my interest in their opinions — just in that human way that many of us have where we just want to be liked — diminishes. If people want to see me in a negative way because of what I think, say, or do, let them. I’m not living for them, so I’m not changing for them. I don’t need their approval. I never did, and I wished I’d realized that sooner.
It all reminds me of one of my favorite childhood stories: Harry and the Terrible Whatzit.
The book is about a little boy named Harry who believes that something terrible is living in his basement. When his mom tells him she needs to go down there for a jar of pickles, he warns her not to do it, but she doesn’t listen. After a while, when she doesn’t come back, he grabs a broom and goes down to look for her.
And that’s when he runs into the Terrible Whatzit — a two headed monster that threatens and insults him.
But Harry is on a mission. His mother has been subjected to an unknown fate, and his own fear is forgotten as he finally faces down the monster, angry at the idea of what it might have done to her. As he interrogates it, he swats it with the broom, and with every strike, the monster grows smaller.
Soon, the monster is so small, Harry can barely see it anymore. Leaning into his fear was exactly the right medicine to take power over it. Realizing the monster preys on fear, Harry mischievously suggests, just before it disappears, that it go visit the next-door neighbor kid’s house, because “He’s afraid of EVERYTHING.”
He then goes out to find his mother, perfectly in tact, in the back yard, picking flowers. He wasn’t wrong to be afraid — there was something in the basement — but he conquered the fear by facing it.
I know it’s cliché. It’s a variation on a theme we’ve all heard a million times. But just because the theme is familiar doesn’t make it easy to do when it’s our fear that has to be faced.
For some of us, the fear of what other people think is rooted in the deepest recesses of childhood, and thus, it can be a life-long, at times debilitating obstacle. If there are good reasons for that fear, we may never fully master it.
But every victory, no matter how small, is still a win. And if we can get to the point where we care about others but don’t let their opinions of us shape and control our lives, leaving us free to chart the course we think is best, that’s the closest thing to a real superpower I can think of.