Thursday, June 20, 2013

Being Empathetic Towards Icky People

Earlier this year, I wrote a post titled Characters with Unlikeable Characteristics where I defended characters who have reasonable flaws, especially in the beginning of a story. I argued that it's necessary for a character to have some weaknesses so they can have room to experience growth during a story. 

Now it's one thing for me to be receptive to a fictional character who has unlikable characteristics.  It's completely another thing for me to encounter a real person who has unlikable characteristics. In this case, I'm not alluding to one who has a harmless but less-than-positive quality, such as stinginess. I'm referring to someone who is just plain icky in their behavior. Anyone who has ever been stuck in circumstances with a truly icky individual would understand that real life doesn't always allow you to simply slam the book shut on someone who scratches your chalkboard. 

For the record, I don't come across uber icky people super often. KNOCK ON WOOD! But when I do, sometimes I might try to quietly figure them out, but from a healthy distance.

Winking elephants in the room can shed light on a person's unappealing behavior, and it can come together like 1+1=2.  And at other times, I just have to spot out clues to help piece together a rough puzzle of someone's psyche. For example, I might learn that someone who is ruthlessly competitive might have once struggled with being constantly in second place. Once something clicks, I might consider what it could be like to be in that other person's shoes. I can be empathetic to someone exuding ickiness without condoning who they are and their behavior; that's why this post is about empathy and not sympathy. 

Knowing why someone behaves a certain way can help me to better understand people, in general, and then the ripple effect from that would be that I can use this knowledge to be a more thoughtful person as well as a better writer when I think about my own characters, especially my antagonists.

Have you ever felt like you were stuck in circumstances with an icky person? 

Have you ever tried to empathize with someone you found icky?

Update 6/21/13 5 PM : First, thank you, my readers, for commenting! From the thoughtful comments I've gotten so far, I am back to officially define my idea of what an icky person is, which I should've done when I first posted this. My bad! A few comments might've addressed people who have an undesirable or frustrating quality; I believe everyone have these things, and that wasn't what I had in mind when I was referring to icky people here. For me, an icky person is someone who is mean, nasty, abusive, dishonest, basically someone who actively seeks out opportunities to hurt others around them. And while I can practice empathy by putting myself in that person's shoes to understand why they might behave that way, experience has taught me that I shouldn't have to excuse their behavior.  So there it is! Have a great weekend. =)


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Understanding that person helps us tolerate him a little better. It doesn't excuse the behavior though. And yes, sometimes it makes us wonder if we have an issue that is just as annoying to others.

Jill Haugh said...

What--pray tell, is a "wimking elephant"? I'm intrigued.

Regarding those icky people: I surround myself with a pink bubble of protection, chant like a Buddhist monk and imagine Julie Andrews and what she would do/say.

~Just Jill

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Love this - "someone who scratches your chalkboard." :)

I try very hard to look at things and situations form others' povs. It helps me as a person and as a writer. I don't know that I always succeed, but I like to make the effort.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Well, as a teacher, I work with all kinds of children. And while I wish that I could say that every single one of them was cute and lovable, I am sorry to say that some of them have been nose-pickers, liars, thieves, and cheaters. They are, after all, people. Young ones. But they have as much variety in likeability as any adult.

But it's my job to find the potential in each of them, to teach them, and I try when possible to help them be the best person they can be.

I will say that a student who DID NOT make a good first impression on me last year (He meowed at me when I asked him a question.) became my secret favorite during the year. I worked HARD to get past his tough exterior and make a connection.

And it was SO worth it.

Mike Louie said...

I consider these 'icky' people as EGRs... "Extra Grace Required"

In the corporate business world, it's a huge 'no-no' to burn your bridges, no matter what side you are on. The primary benefit of that practice is that at some point in your life, you may encounter this again and have to do business together. Nothing is more dangerous and detrimental than to have a bad relationship in business.

On a more personal perspective, I encourage people to take the 'higher road,' and be a positive light. To dig deeper and inspire change - productive change. This is a passion of mine. I have a soft spot for outcasts because I used to be one... yes, I needed EGR myself and the sacrifices loved ones made inspire me to reach out more so.

Of course, we can't help everyone and if our efforts fail at first, keeping some distance may be wise. We don't want people bringing out the worst in you either. Takes practice, but what a great growing experience!

Mark Means said...

I think everyone has a 'story' and, right or wrong, it affects how -they- deal with life. It's tough, but we just have to try to overlook their 'ickyness' tolerate their bad traits as we celebrate their good ones.

Patience is the key :)

Pat Hatt said...

Yeah understanding can go a long way. Walk a mile in their shoes, then you have their shoes and are a mile away from the icky person hahaha

S.P. Bowers said...

Putting up with people in books is so much easier, you can just close the book if you need a break.

I have had to work with people that were icky, and just plain hard to get along with. Yes, I did empathize with them, and I understood why they were the way they were, but that didn't always help.

Julie Dao said...

It's easier to understand icky people when you're at a distance, but when you have to be in close proximity (like working with a really bad-tempered person) it can be hard to step back and understand why they are the way they are. I just try to distance myself from ickiness whenever possible!

Cynthia said...

Alex- Yes, just because we understand why someone might behave in an icky way, it doesn't mean their behavior is excused.

Jill- For me, a winking elephant explains the big "why." ;)

Madeline- I try to look at things from other people's POVs too sometimes.

Dianne- It is sooo worth it when you can make a connection with someone, especially a child, who you might not feel connected with when you first meet them. When I wrote this, I was thinking about adults.

Mike- You never struck me as someone who was an outcast!

Mark- I think certain frustrating traits about people can be overlooked, especially if they're harmless traits, but I'd rather limit my involvement with someone who is toxic.

Pat- Hahaha!

Sara- Yes, a work environment is certainly a solid example of a situation where you might get stuck with someone.

Julie- Me too, I like to keep that distance when I can.

John Wiswell said...

I won't probe into your personal icky situation, but I certainly have dealt with many unsavory people. Even the last week of #sfcivility fights have shown how many vile opinions are floating around the SpecFic field, and have stirred up quite a lot of unhappy encounters.

Arlee Bird said...

I tend to be a very empathetic person. In fact I rather enjoy trying to imagine myself in the skin of another to try to figure out how they tick and what it's like to be them, whether it be icky or otherwise. And yes, I've known a few icky people as you describe them.

Wrote By Rote

Mike Louie said...

Thanks for the clarification, Cynthia.

When someone is being intentionally malicious, I hope someone else has the wisdom and experience in effectively stopping that person in his/her tracks.

I have little patience with really mean people... mainly because I used to be one!

But yes, if I could change... anyone can change. I truly believe this. So when in doubt, I encourage people to hope and pray for change in hearts. An inspiration that drives someone to reflect on his/her selfishness and malicious nature and get that gut check: do you really want to stay this way?

Misha Gericke said...

I have been stuck in situations with icky people. Oddly, 90% of those times were in fact church-related. Which just made it a ton more of fun for me to try and get out.

Lynn Proctor said...

i think i used to try and figure out people a lot more than i do these days---very interesting!!!

Ashley Nixon said...

It's nice to be able shield yourself from icky people, and then it's nice to find their good qualities. Focusing on them really does help you appreciate people more...even if it is hard. lol.

Sherry Ellis said...

I just tell myself that I'm not in their shoes. Even though I don't understand nasty behavior, perhaps there's more to the story than meets the eye.

Empty Nest Insider said...

I know a few people like that, and no matter how hard you try they won't listen to reason. Sometimes you can simply walk away from them, while other times are wasted looking for a glimmer of hope. We all have to just try the best we can to not get dragged down with them.


Cynthia said...

John- Are you referring to online exchanges? If so, it doesn't surprise me that there are cyberbullies out there.

Lee- I bet the imagination work helps you with your writing.

Mike- Thanks for coming back here!

Misha- Nasty people can be found anywhere, even in places you don't expect to find them in.

Lynn- Thanks, Lynn!

Ashley- I love being able to find good qualities in people too. If it feels unhealthy to be around someone really toxic, I might still limit my contact with this person, even if they have some good qualities.

Sherry- I agree sometimes there can be more to a story. I don't think everyone wears their life stories out for others to see.

Julie- Yes, I think it's important to avoid getting sucked into a toxic relationship.

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