For all its benefits, being an empath does have its downsides. I tend to absorb the troubles of other people, and I don’t always do a good job of separating my feelings from the feelings of others when they are going through extremely trying times. That’s a skill I’m still trying to learn.
A few months ago I got a bit overwhelmed by how badly people I love were being treated by the people who used to be their most reliable networks of support. What made it all particularly difficult was how thoroughly the perpetrators of this mistreatment kept couching their actions in the language of love, as if everything they were doing was “for their own good.” I wonder how many wounds are inflicted within the span of a single lifetime, all in the name of love?
In response to what I was seeing, I wrote a piece entitled “Your Love is Toxic,” laying out four displays of love which aren’t really love. In the end what matters most aren’t the feelings that inspire you to act, but whether or not the actions you take cause real harm in the life of the person toward whom you’re attempting to show love. Because I think that list deserves to be repeated often for the benefit of those who haven’t yet encountered it, I’m sharing it again today.
What follows are four ways that I have seen families treat their loved ones, especially in response to their leaving the faith of their upbringing. I’m including a few personal examples for the sake of illustration, and if you notice an acerbic edge to my words, I promise it’s because it was thoroughly justified.
Four Displays of Love That Aren’t Really Love
1.) Shunning. It’s not just for the Amish. If you don’t come from an evangelical/fundamentalist tradition then you may not realize how regularly this is the advised course of action. People write books and release videos counseling Christians to turn away their loved ones and cut them out of their lives as a show of love. Are you out of your @#$%&! mind?! That is the opposite of love, and if you don’t understand that, something is wrong with you.
Lately, I’ve seen more of this as a suggested response to friends and family who are gay. Popular evangelical preacher John MacArthur advised it in this video and not too long ago the second-in-command at the Vatican advised the same thing. But I’ve seen shunning used against atheists, too. For example, a local friend of mine was kicked out of her home by her parents as a demonstration of “tough love” after she “came out” to them. Perhaps they were mimicking Paul’s instructions to “expel the immoral brother” from the church in Corinth in order to “hand him over to Satan” in hopes that his soul would be saved in the end. People who do this don’t understand that they are damaging their relationships with their loved ones, perhaps irreparably.
If at any level you harbor the notion that God intends to use you as a source of blessing in the life of your “fallen” loved one (so condescending, btw!), then consider the very real possibility that in choosing this course of action you may very well be permanently ending your relationship with this person. To be rejected in this way by a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a spouse, or even your own child is to experience harm at a level so deep that you may spend the rest of your life working to heal that wound. You never forget the ones who kick you while you’re down. And well you shouldn’t, for the way people treat you in that moment shows you what they’re really made of.
No matter what the motive that inspired the wound, harm is still harm. You may call it love, but your love is still toxic.
2.) Withholding. This is the passive-aggressive version of cutting off your loved ones. Where I’m from in the Deep South, we have mastered the art of passive-aggression. We can lace our sweet voices with the loftiest declarations of goodwill even as we stab our loved ones in the back. It’s almost an art form for us. And what better way to punish those of whom you disapprove than to sit on an abundance of resources but withhold those resources even as you watch your loved ones suffer under the consequences of falling out of everyone else’s good graces?
This way you’re not actively harming us; you’re just choosing not to support us as long as we’re in the wrong. This kind of mistreatment is so subtle it can even be done without you yourself becoming aware that it’s what you’re doing. It’s brilliant, really. It’s sophisticated. It’s a powerful and effective way to punish someone you love while remaining above blame yourself. “They brought this upon themselves,” right? Brilliant! And yet equally disgusting to watch.
Years ago I unintentionally intercepted a message intended for someone else, someone in a position to help me at a very difficult time in my life. A well-respected advisor to many enjoined this person to refrain from doing anything that might lessen my suffering because—and I’m almost quoting verbatim here:
It’s actually a good thing that Neil be made uncomfortable at this time. Perhaps it will wake him up and cause him to come back around.
He should be ashamed of himself. What an awful thing to tell someone in a position to ease my pain at a difficult time in my life! I’ve often wondered how many people he’s counseled in that same manner. I wonder how many people close to me have followed advice like that, whether they heard it from him or read it in a book or heard it from a pulpit? What a pernicious and hypocritical course of action, especially for a group of people claiming to be all about love! This isn’t love, this is harm. This is punishment for leaving the tribe.
I don’t doubt that you feel love toward the people from whom you withhold your blessing and your resources. I don’t even doubt that it sometimes pains you to do it. But your love is toxic, and you should know that. It claims to be love, but in the end it only hurts the ones you say you want to help.
3.) Crusading. Some people go the opposite direction of shunning: They bombard their loved ones with sermons and exhortations and threats of Hell, hoping to scare them back into compliance with the faith. Quite the opposite of staying away, these people run roughshod over personal boundaries and ignore everything their loved ones tell them about themselves, what they think, and how they feel. Even though all the scare tactics have already been used on them before, people will reach for the same weapons and verbally bludgeon them all the more now as it appears the previous amounts of force were not enough to keep them in fear.
I’ve had this tactic used on me as well. Someone very close to me once cornered me at a vulnerable moment and said:
If you don’t get off the path you’re on, you will lose your family. Your wife will divorce you and your kids will hate you. You’ll probably lose your job because no one wants to hire an atheist. You’ll lose all your friends and eventually you’ll die alone, then you’ll burn in Hell after that.
Not one for subtlety, this one. But this isn’t love, this is control. I can’t even count how many of my friends have endured almost the exact same speech from their friends and family. It almost becomes numbing after a while. It’s not that these people don’t feel love for us. It’s just that they’ve been taught to behave toward us in ways that aren’t loving even while being couched in the language of love. “I’m only saying these things because I love you.” That may be. But your love is toxic. In the end it causes harm, and your love must be judged by what it does, not by how you feel.
Of course, not all crusaders preach hellfire and brimstone. Some show just as much disrespect for boundaries and personal autonomy by showering their loved ones with more “positive and uplifting” (but still unwanted) proselytizing despite repeated requests for personal space. “I just want to tell you, again, that God loves you. Please don’t reject his love.” Yes, thank you; you’ve said this many times before. Never mind the fact that we’ve said we don’t believe you’re talking about a real person. Rather than showing us the basic respect of acknowledging that’s how we see it, you continue to egocentrically preach at us, never grasping that your unwillingness to respect our boundaries is unkind and inconsiderate. It fulfills what you feel is your responsibility toward God, yes. But each time you ignore our boundaries you teach us to avoid interacting with you. The never-ending proselytizing will eventually have the opposite effect from what you want.
I know it’s frustrating to see someone close to you no longer identify with your tribe. It’s natural for you to want us to remain “one of you.” You’ve also been taught to fear that something bad is going to happen to us now that we’ve left the fold. But we need to see that you don’t think less of us for not thinking the same way as you. We need to see that you care about our own individual dignity enough not to treat us like wayward children, always communicating a sense that we are wrong and you are right, and that we need “fixing.” When that’s how you see us, it’s apparent to us whether you mean for it to show or not. More than anything I wish you could learn to see us differently. Stop defining us by whether or not we think the same way as you about this narrow field of metaphysical questions. We are more than the things we believe about religion.
4.) Gifts with Strings Attached. Ah, now we’re getting to the truly clever forms of manipulation. If you openly shun your loved ones or cut them off, you have to live with the guilt of knowing you pushed them out of your life by your own hand. That’s a lot to take with you to bed each night. On the other hand, if you preach hellfire and brimstone, threatening your loved ones with eternal torture, that clearly demonstrates an emotional coercion that feels equally icky. So what’s a person to do to exert the most guilt-free form of control over others? You can give gifts and do nice things for them, all the while making it clear that receiving these gifts obligate the recipients to comply with your accompanying expectations.
I suppose if I had to pick one of these not-loves, I’d pick this one because at least it brings some kind of benefit to the ones being judged. I’ve noticed my Christian friends will capitalize on other people’s needs by swooping in at just the right moment to offer help as long as it brings with it an opportunity to preach the same message one more time, or invite them to church one more time, or maybe proselytize their children one more time.
In time we learn to refuse these gifts because we can sense the strings attached. But at least for a time we get something we need out of the arrangement. As sad as it is to say it, some religious friends and family require ulterior motivation in order to show love for others. Say what you want about promises of posthumous rewards and punishments, but some people simply need that kind of thing in order to be kind and considerate of others.
Learning a Better Way to Love
I don’t know how to convince people who think these displays of love are healthy that they need to try a different approach. If they’ve already reached mid-life or even their golden years and they still haven’t learned what healthy relational boundaries look like, it’s going to be extremely difficult to pick that up at that stage in life. Old dogs and new tricks, etc.
But I know where the learning should begin. It would go a long way toward improving these relationships if the people who want to demonstrate love could learn to give others the space they desire to figure out for themselves who they are going to be. Letting go of the need to control the other would be an excellent place to start.
Long before Jesus showed up there were multiple world religions and philosophies which taught that you should treat others the way you yourself would want to be treated. In time that has come to be known as “The Golden Rule.” But some have suggested an updated version that I think greatly improves upon this. Some call it “The Platinum Rule,” and it makes one key revision:
Do unto to others as they would have you do unto them.
Did you catch the difference? This is a bit more demanding, isn’t it? The earlier rule doesn’t require that you learn to see the world through the other person’s eyes at all. In fact, the Golden Rule leaves our own egocentricity untouched, teaching us to act as if everyone else in the world were merely extensions of ourselves, wanting the same things that we want in life.
Clearly that is not the case. So my recommendation is to learn to listen to the people you love, and learn to understand the ways in which they are different from you. If you really care about them, learn what matters most to them, and endeavor to respect them enough to appreciate their need to be their own person, independent from you. You may be certain you know better than they do what is best for them, but I guarantee you that if you cannot lay that down, you will be teaching them to resent you. They may eventually disconnect entirely from you, and then what can you do?
In your compassion and care for the people you love, learn to show respect for their own personal agency, and quit trying to play God in their lives. If you are unable to do so, you will have to forgive the rest of us for concluding that you believe he is unable to act apart from you.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]