Two years ago, during a particularly isolating and low point in my life, I started a project called Craigslist Confessional. Through an ad on Craigslist, I meet with and anonymously speak to strangers about things that they can’t tell anyone else. What I want more than anything is to connect with people on a deeper level, to allow them to be vulnerable and open without fear. I do this because I felt then, and still do now, that there are so many things that we can’t talk about in polite society, so many important things that are shunned, kept quiet or muffled because vulnerability is often met with judgment.
By meeting with over 200 people (even a few from the Man Repeller community!) and listening to their stories, I’ve learned that vulnerability, unfettered communication and fearless oversharing about things usually relegated to the “personal” realm are positive additions to an often emotionally apathetic society. By fearless oversharing, however, I don’t mean the online facelessness that further dehumanizes us and makes easy victims, but rather the in-person connection we make when we allow someone to bear witness to our lives. The stories I’ve heard over the years, and the fact that anonymity is often the deciding factor on whether someone shares her story, only prove how uncomfortable we tend to get with emotional vulnerability.
What I’ve found is that true vulnerability, and, on the other end of the conversation, true empathy, is difficult and often emotionally taxing. Being vulnerable can be stigmatizing. Most importantly, I’ve found that it’s difficult to rationalize empathy — to provide it for some, and not for others; to remain open to a certain kind of pain, and unfeeling to another. Unsurprisingly, this is good news.
That being vulnerable and empathetic is emotionally taxing, on the other hand, is not news: A study found that men who tested high in emotional intelligence were more stressed out than lower-scoring peers during a difficult interaction, and took longer to recover from the stress. Another found that emotionally perceptive people tend to be more susceptible to depression, hopelessness and suicidal ideation.
When we’re walking down the street and see homeless people — or when we’re on a train and someone wages an appeal for money — we often look away. Why? It’s so much easier to recover from sadness slightly felt than from deeply internalized injustice. Sometimes we’re just too tired, too sad, too downtrodden, to make space for someone else’s pain. In short, it’s easier not to see.
Empathy and vulnerability are also often conflated with gullibility or inefficacy. Many argue that giving a homeless person money is less effective than donating time to a homeless shelter, or that fixating on one particular person’s pain is less effective, maybe even detrimental, to greater social justice. The case against empathy has recently been made by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom. In his book, Bloom argues that there are two main problems with empathy: the spotlight effect, and innumeracy. Bloom says that empathy tends to “spotlight” the plight of one person or issue — for example, the homeless person panhandling on the train — and causes us to lose sight of, and fail to pursue solutions for, the larger issue (homelessness in general). He also argues that you can only truly empathize with one person at a time.
There are other pitfalls to empathy — that sometimes it’s solely directed towards others like us, that it can “hijack reason” through an overly emotional appeal — and these are good points, ones worthy of noting. But I want to shy away from this trend of making empathy into a dirty word. Empathy is not irrational, it is not solely female, it is not weak and it is not detrimental to your health. It is not these things even if it is radical, that is, unconditional.
In these past two years, I’ve spoken to people who have tested the ethos of the project: to provide a safe space where people can be openly vulnerable without fear of stigma, judgment or retribution — where they can feel heard and seen, where they can halve their burdens by sharing them. Some of the stories have been truly horrific.
None of this has shaken my belief that vulnerability and empathy are good. Both are fluid states of being that contribute to an ultimate goal: to understand. By listening to others, by sharing in their stories, by trying to help (even if, at times, imperfectly) we seek to understand their lives, their stories, their circumstances. We become involved beyond our own worlds and allow them into our hearts and minds, and this — the struggle to understand, even if it is painful — makes us better people.