Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
an Indifferent Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/indifference.htm

Updated  04-30-2013

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to someone you experience as indifferent to you. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

Perspective

      Healthy kids and adults are social animals. We strive to be accepted and liked by selected other people, and feel hurt if they disapprove of or reject us. It can hurt even more if others don't care about us at all - i.e. if they're indifferent to us. Is there such a person in your life now? If so, how does their attitude and behavior affect you?

      How about the other side of the coin. Are there people you know who offer friendship, but you feel no interest in them at all? If so, how do you behave? Pretend interest? Ignore them? Confront them? Endure? Avoid them? Be curt? Something else? Do you feel good about your behavior? Guilty? Irritated? Frustrated? Amused? Indifferent?

      You or they may have a version of Asperger's Syndrome, or were hindered developing a normal sense of social empathy.

      If someone you like or care about seems indifferent to you, how do you react? Hide your feelings? Become aggressive? Plead? Try to please them? Criticize them? Guilt-trip them? Demand? Persuade? Whine? Something else?

      The painful message that indifference suggests is "S/He thinks I am a boring / uninteresting / worthless / unattractive / unpleasant person." People who are comfortable with themselves can shrug that off without pretense or repression. Insecure (shame based) people may be significantly "bothered' by someone's indifference. Children can be specially sensitive to other kids' indifference.

       They also may be bothered if they expect the other person to like or care about them - e.g. "family and church members must support (like, care about) each other." Unfortunately, human reality doesn't follows that ideal, as eloquently expressed in Dr. Fritz Perls' Gestalt prayer.

      Note the important difference between indifference (I don't care about you), dislike (You aggravate / disgust / annoy / scare / me), disrespect (Your dignity, worth, and needs are inferior to mine), and rejection (I don't want you in my life. Go away!). Each of these deserves different responses - do you agree? It's often hard to differentiate these, so consider these...

Symptoms of Indifference

  • not returning calls or emails promptly, or at all;

  • making excuses to avoid talking or getting together;

  • avoiding eye contact when you are together (this can mean many things);

  • speaking or answering briefly, without extending conversations;

  • never asking how you are, and/or not seeming genuinely interested in your response;

  • never initiating contact, and making excuses about that;

  • showing no interest in past or current shared events or relationships;

  • often seeming distracted or bored in conversations;

  • showing little or no interest in improving your relationship.

      If someone presents you with behaviors like these, let's look at your...

Response Options

Prepare

  • Use awareness skill to notice the indifference. Alternatives: deny, minimize, ignore, repress, justify, and/or endure it.

  • Identify how you feel about the person's lack of interest (vs. about the person) - Hurt? Irritated? angry? Frustrated? Resentful? Sad? Guilty? Puzzled? Curious? "Nothing"? Fatalistic? Analytic? Something else? Your feelings point to your needs.

  • Decide what you need to do about this relationship now or later: Vent? Learn? Cause action? Set or enforce a limit? If you decide to respond, do so to honor your own integrity, rather than for the other person.

  • If appropriate, meditate on the Gestalt prayer.

  • If you feel the other person "must" or "is supposed to" care about you, identify where you got that expectation. By definition, genuine caring must be spontaneous, not dutiful.

  • Assess whether the other person may be wounded and ruled by a false self. If that seems likely, use this article to guesstimate whether s/he is unable to bond with some or all people - like you. (i.e. whether the indifference is really an inability to care). Then use these ideas to help you decide how to relate to him/her.

  • If you feel "S/He ought to care after all I've done with/for her or him!" suspect that's a well-intentioned false self making that assumption, and consult your true Self. Caring can't be requested or demanded - it can only be spontaneous!

  • If you need to assert something to the person after these preparations, select from the following options based on what you need:

Respond

"(Name), are you open to some personal feedback?" This is a courtesy. If you get a shrug or "No," go ahead anyway to honor your integrity, not to impose.

To Vent - these are meant as observations, not criticisms or complaints:

"(Name), I feel unimportant to / ignored by / you."

"When you don't return my calls and emails (or avoid my eyes) I feel disrespected, hurt, and unimportant to you."

"I'm sad you're not interested in friendship with me."

"You say you're concerned about / interested in / me, but your actions say you aren't."

"You rarely ask how I am or what I'm doing."

"When you send me a holiday card, I doubt that you mean it."

"(Name), I feel used and disrespected by you."

To Learn

"(Name), who's needs are more important to you now - yours or mine?" The best answer is "both of ours."

"Would you be interested in learning of some psychological wounds you may be suffering from without knowing it?"

To Confront or Set a Limit

"(Name), I'm going to stop initiating contacts with you. I feel you're not really interested in a relationship."

"I no longer believe you when you say 'We have to get together soon.'"

"I wish you well (Name). Goodbye."

"I feel you're being polite out of duty, not genuine concern for me."

"I need you to stop pretending I'm important to you."

      Expect the other person to "resist" responses like these - i.e. to deny, protest, excuse, explain, justify, blame you, go silent, leave, change the subject, or similar. When s/he does, use empa-thic listening to acknowledge that, and then calmly re-state your response with good eye con-tact. Your goal is to stand up for yourself and be heard, not to change or punish the other per-son.

Responses to Avoid

      All the examples above assume your Self guides you and you have a genuine mutual-respect attitude. If these aren't true, you may respond with combative "You" messages like these:

"You're really self-centered / a hypocrite / egotistical / inconsiderate / insensitive!"

"You're a real phony. You say things but you don't mean them."  

"You treat your goldfish better than me!"

"I try to be friendly and you walk all over me."

Responses like these risk lowering your self-respect and causing ongoing or escalating lose-lose conflicts.

      If there is an indifferent person in your life, can you imagine using responses like these with her or him? If not - why? Be aware - not wanting to hurt someone's feelings is a relationship based on fear, distrust, and guilt.

Bottom line - once you're aware of someone's indifference toward you, you have many proactive options - you don't have to endure or be a victim!

Recap

      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on "indifference," and (b) ways to respond effectively to an indifferent person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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