The Plagued Parent

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My wife emailed me a link…

Likely you’ve seen the post.

Its been on Yahoo Parenting and on the Good Housekeeping site.

It’s titled: “Estrangement Doesn’t Just Happen to ‘Bad’ Moms — It Happened to Me Too”. In the post the author discusses her son’s engagement to a young woman, their wedding plans and how everything fell apart propelling the family to non-speaking terms hence the estrangement alluded to in the piece’s title.

Given our own “estrangement tale” she likely felt that the piece would resonate and maybe offer some solace. After reading the article I mentioned that the story was a sad one. I also added that it felt as if “pieces were missing”.

A few days later my wife told me to take another look at the article saying, “This time scroll down and read the comments,” my wife said. “Read them and then tell me what you think.”

The piece, as it appears on the Good Housekeeping site at least, had over 3000 comments. I started reading and began to notice something.

Patterns Emerge

For every positive-minded and supportive comment there were at least three condemning the author for her “apparent” shortcomings as a mother and a parent. Relationship guru Dr. John Gottman has noticed that in healthy relationships partners will offer 3 positive insights for every 1 negative. This golden ratio of his indicates how we value one another. Social media it would seem tarnishes that ratio into a weird and twisted pattern of boundless negativity.

Condemning concepts, values, perceptions and practices becomes the norm as though simply possessing “Twitter thumbs” gives us license to do so. Rarely, can be seen genuine support or actually cheer accomplished as often as we criticize and opine.

Offering empathetic support, without malice or rabid commentary appears impossible for most. It’s as if reaching out with empathy is somehow perceived as a cultural weakness.

When things go wrong, or even slightly wrong, in people’s lives our primary collective inclination is to lay blame.  At which point, holy crap, every troll on the World Wide Web jumps readily on the “I told you so” bandwagon emboldening other by-standers to claim a license of authority in situations they know little to nothing about.

With this particular post, a great many comments challenged the author. Allegations flew  with people asking things like: What did you do wrong? How are you responsible? What are you leaving out? This can’t be all that happened? Why didn’t you just give in?

True the writer glossed over certain events, however that in no way negates the genuine pain that the underlying story reveals. Some commenters even leveled accusations that the writer was whitewashing her own biases, her own judgement and to some degree her own crazy.

Why such cynical responses?

When someone bears their soul — speaks or writes of some emotionally excruciating event — why do we feel our opinion actually matters? How is it that we’ve been led (or misled) to believe in the sanctity of our own perspective as audience and critic?

In the comfortable vacuum of the blogosphere, critics abound in bringing forth the hate and the expense of empathy and understanding. In the veritable anonymity of the vast world wide web-o-rama more people questioned that author’s veracity, ethics, morality, parenting going so far as to point out her clear psychological flaws, apparent selfishness, petty groaning and manipulative nature.

“Why weigh in with such negativity,” I wondered aloud.

Of course this came after engaging in a twenty-two minute discourse — which my wife openly claimed she stopped listening to and which can be summed up quite simply in three words: we lack compassion.

That’s it in a nutshell.

These notions we cling to of “right” and “wrong” originate from a self-centered perspective, and that practice is given by pure ego. Often times that ego driven practice, this self-centered approach to duality, becomes an enemy of unity, balance and peace.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Our biases trick us using our perceived ethical architecture.

With respect to the vocal critics of the parenting post in question, why must they assume that the author, the mother is somehow “wrong”? Why assume she shares her story only to air dirty laundry and create a biased portrait to tarnish her son? Why assume she strives for cultivating a base of support so vast that she “wins” this round?

Honestly, how and when did the trolls’ “right” become the standard for rightness throughout the kingdom?  What these critics offer are sympathetic rather than empathetic responses. Sympathy is feeling for; empathy is feeling with.

Feeling for can take numerous and destructive shapes — that include anger, judgement and criticism in addition to what researcher Dr. Brene Brown refers as “sliver lining” events and circumstances which others are experiencing or have experienced.

Why are we like this?

Well, Brown has answers* for that question.

Brown says the following regarding the difference between sympathy and empathy: “Rarely can a response make something better; what makes something better is connection.”

Empathy is connection whereas sympathy is disconnection. Often when we express sympathy for someone we create an emotional distance between us and them. In a sense this foster a sense of false superiority suggesting that we are lucky enough not to feel the thing that someone else is feeling. Sympathy rarely enacts compassion.

That is all the author of the post regarding her estrangement from her son was seeking — connection. Pure and simple. She wasn’t looking for a lecture; she wasn’t looking to lay blame; she wasn’t looking for others to “solve” the mysterious relationships embedded deep within her family dynamic.

No, she wanted to be heard; she wanted to be see. To hear and to see are compassionate responses, not sympathetic reactions.

I’m sure that as a writer, a mother and a human being, she had to be aware that some readers would connect and others would not. To some degree every writer knows they will not reach every reader. However those that offered judgmental responses, filled with disconnection, bring little to the conversation.

When people choose to share, they are making a conscious decision to be vulnerable, to open themselves up.

As listeners — or readers — it does not honor their vulnerability by passing judgement. It does not honor ourselves to say anything less than, “I know what you mean. That really sucks.”

In the grand scheme of things doesn’t it make more sense to say “I hear you” rather than “You’re so wrong”?

And if we reacted as such what kind of world might we be creating?


*See Dr. Brene Brown’s talk in its entirety here.



Updated: November 21, 2017 — 10:09 am


  1. Anonymity is an amazing thing and funny thing. When I worked in Customer Service I noticed that in person, such as at a store or a bank, a customer will most likely behave because people can see them. Of course there are some jerks who don’t give a damn what other people think, but the majority of people will keep it together and even when they are unhappy, not make a scene for others to see. On the phone, more people will start screaming because no one can see them, especially not the person on the other end of the phone. They don’t care if someone has their name, the most important thing is that they can’t be seen.

    I tend to think that’s the same way with social media. We have two things going on. First, they can’t be seen or see the people they are attacking. Second, they are looking for the “thrill” of other people liking their comments or even vilifying their comments just as long as it’s a lot of people! I really don’t think they care about what they are saying or how it might hurt someone, just that they’ll get a reaction.

    1. Perfect comment Jennifer, thank you. Totally spot on.

    2. Those same customers prefer now to publicly blast a poor customer experience, defaming a company’s reputation over the direct and more effective forms of confrontation. They can build up their reputation, by building others down. It’s an easy mess to fall into. I almost blasted Panera Bread on my Twitter for a disgusting restroom and poor service at ONE location, that ONE time I went. I deleted it immediately in shock at myself, when did I become okay with this? When did I fall a part of this?!

      1. I applaud your reflective and disciplined nature. Feels good to catch yourself before you take an unnecessary leap into the Twit-o-sphere.

  2. I know what you mean, that really sucks

  3. I agree with Jennifer’s comment – we have a world where lack of face to face interaction emboldens people to be more negative. Would they say these things in person to a stranger? Probably not. It must have been painful to see all the judgmental comments.

  4. As my husband often says,”opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one.”

    1. His statement is both sociologically and physiologically accurate. Thank you Carol (and Carol’s husband).

  5. As someone who grew up on anonymous message boards, and as someone with (what I think is) above-average empathy, I still felt myself drawn to the troll and malice of anonymity and group-judging. Thankfully I didn’t but it’s pretty bizarre how people act online vs real life.

    Like, online I feel like Trump supporters are the literal worst people and I hate them and let them know, but my wife’s uncle is a Trump supporter and I love him, so in real life, none of that comes up. Just online, woof.

    1. All part of the Circus Maximus we’ve come to know as the World Wide Web I suppose. Deeply interesting, no? As always, thank you Tony.

  6. With a world “leader” constantly spouting “WRONG!!” rather than “I hear you”, I imagine this problem will get worse before it gets better. Just the other day I was talking to my husband about how there’s this one person that’s ALWAYS in our local news channels threads, spouting hate and nastiness. It’s insane. But I’ve decided that rather than engaging with those who spew ugly, I’ll just silently pity them and wish them the best. A lot less stress on my end, and far easier overall.

    1. I’m nearing the conclusion that people such as those you describe are in lots of pain which might explain their aggressive replies. Or, to be more precise these people can’t accept their pain which leads them to inflict it on others. I think your approach is fantastic to “silently pity and wish them the best” — I’m going to try that more often. Thank you for that reminder.

  7. It shouldn’t by now but it always amazes me how the internet comments feel like a crowd at a Salem witch trial.

    1. Great analogy! I intend to repeat that comparison. Thank you.

  8. I agree with the comments above wholeheartedly. I also think that there’s a herd mentality on social media which can be/is quite damaging. Again, probably relates to anonymity and lack of face to face interaction. It’s a throw-away culture too, you can write some horrible comment and then that’s it, it’s done with and forgotten about.

    1. My least favorite quality about the times we live in is that disposability factor. It bothers me that many things aren’t worth fixing to us, we simply discard and consume. Thanks for commenting and my apologies for the late reply, I’ve let myself get backed up but know that your commentary is appreciated.

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