How to care about people

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

People in general don’t grow up being taught how to care for each other — how to receive each other’s feelings, how to hold space for each other, how to make others feel cared for, how to meet our own emotional needs and assist others to meet theirs in mutual aid. So, as someone who really, deeply prioritizes giving care to others, and has been told time and again that I’m pretty good at it, I’m offering a free lesson.

First, I was not born knowing how to care for people. I’m still learning, and I still screw it up a lot of the time. But I want to hit home the point that this is something I’ve learned how to do because I’ve actively tried to. I’ve made learning how to care for people well a priority, because I believe it is the most important thing I can do. I know it is, because I’ve felt firsthand the pain of not feeling cared about by the people in my life over and over and over again, and seen on more macro- levels how a lack of centering care at all levels of social relationships leads to brutality around the world.

So, without further ado, I’ve written you all a lesson.

This is so obvious that I laugh at even having to say it, but it’s actually something not all people understand, or do. I forget it all the time.

If you don’t care about someone, don’t have them in your life. If you only talk to them to get something from them, don’t have them in your life. If you feel obligated to them but don’t actually want to be around them, don’t have them in your life.

Limit your sphere of association to the people you actually feel caring feelings towards, and focus on caring for those people better. Spoiler alert: you don’t have to care about everyone. You won’t be able to care about everyone. Quit making time for the people you don’t care about, so that you have time for the people you do care about.

“But what if I need this thing from them and pretending I care is the only way to get it?” Congratulations, you suck. The new way of being starts with you. Do better.

As ye olde Massive Attack adage goes, “Love, love is a verb. Love is a doing word.” The same is true for care.

You can like someone all you want, but if you don’t spend your thoughts or words on them, you don’t care. You can want someone to be happy all you want, but if you don’t try to facilitate their happiness, you don’t care.

Care without action is emotional masturbation. It’s telling yourself you’re a caring person but not putting in the work to be one. Action is our interface with this world: our movement, our thoughts, our speech, our silence. Other people cannot feel your feelings for you. They can only feel their feelings, which are influenced by your actions. Use your actions to care.

Ask from a place of genuinely wanting to know. If it’s not clear to them whether you’re honestly asking or just asking to be polite, make it clear. Go out of your way to make sure the person you’re talking to knows that you actually want to know what they are feeling, what their emotional landscape is like in this moment.

If you are asking just to be polite, don’t ask. Refer to Step 1.

Even if they don’t make sense to you right now.

Regardless of whether or not a feeling is rational, it is always logical. Rationality does not apply to feelings. A person’s feeling is always the result of some cause. There is no such thing as an incorrect feeling. Feelings simply are or are not felt.

Keep this in mind when you talk to people. Validate their feelings. Try to chart back their feelings in your own mind, and express to them that their feelings make sense. If you don’t understand where the feeling came from, ask them. Maybe they don’t fully understand, and taking the time to ask them will likely make them feel more cared about.

But please, never, ever, ever, say, “Well if I was in your situation, I wouldn’t feel that way.” Because you’re wrong. If you had that person’s biology, that person’s upbringing, that person’s history, that person’s experiences, that person’s tendencies, and you were in that person’s situation, you would feel the same way. Because you would be them.

Just because you’ve experienced something similar does not mean you have been in the same situation, because what we feel in a situation includes the whole of who we are and what we have been through up to and including that point.

Put on your own oxygen mask first.

Think about all the things that other people do that make you feel loved, seen, valued and cared about, and do them for yourself, too. Things like: genuinely asking yourself how you feel, because you want to know. Not giving emotional energy to others when you don’t have it to give. Giving time to yourself, giving energy to yourself, giving love to yourself in whatever form that takes.

We often seek support from others when we feel we cannot give it to ourselves. Some pains require external help. You don’t go to the hospital for a cut you can treat at home, but when it’s a broken leg? Yeah, you’ll want a doctor.

One of the best ways to learn how to give care to others is to learn how to give it to yourself. What do you feel? Ask yourself. Be present in what you feel, and validate yourself. Now, what do you need? Help yourself to get it, just as you would for someone you care about.

Take the phrase “Cheer up” out of your vocabulary. “Cheer up” is the cat-calling of emotional advice. Just as no one has ever gotten a “Heyyyy mama you look so fine” and thought “Wow, I would love to date this person,” no one who is feeling pain has ever been told tocheer up and thought, “What a great idea, why didn’t I think of that?”

You cannot work your way out of a feeling without going through it. If emotions are a hole, the only tool you have is a shovel, and that shovel is feeling your dang feelings. You cannot climb out of a hole with a shovel. What you can do is dig until the hole becomes a tunnel. You can ignore your emotions, or distract yourself from them, or drown them in substances, but your feelings will invariably come back, usually as misplaced hostility towards others, or addiction, or hip pain.

You cannot help someone through their pain without being present with them in it. This does not mean taking on their pain as your own; it means directing your attention, your energy, towards the person in the moment and receiving them as they are. Rather than thinking about what to say next, listen. Rather than talking about yourself, listen. Rather than letting your mind wander to what you’re eating for dinner tonight, listen. Actively. Watch their face.

Once the pain has been felt and met with presence, then could be the time for advice.

If you’ve asked someone how they’re doing, listen. Don’t talk about yourself. If someone’s coming to you in pain, listen. Don’t talk about yourself.

If you need to set boundaries, like “I can’t handle this right now,” or, “I’m not the right person for this,” then talk about yourself. Please, please do so.

But if someone you care about says, “I’m in crisis right now” or “I’m in pain,” or “I’m really sad,” stop saying things along the lines of, “Oh, I was sad yesterday,” or, “When I’m sad is listen to Jordan Peterson” (actual quote from today, and I can’t vomit enough).

If you’ve asked someone how they’re doing, then this isn’t about you. It’s about them. There are lots of ways to relate to someone and show that you empathize by talking about yourself, but these come after you’ve listened.

There’s a thing I talk about a lot, I call it “language of care.”* Everyone has had a different experience up until this point, and everyone has different associations, and everyone has different things that make them feel cared about. Everyone has different things that make them not feel cared about. I have a thing about birthdays. People not doing things for my birthday makes me feel uncared for. People telling me openly and honestly how they feel makes me feel cared for. For others, presents or surprises make them feel cared for. For some, certain words feel caring, and certain words don’t.

Mismatched languages of care are one of the easiest ways to leave the people in your life feeling unloved. You may do things for them that would make you feel cared about, but for the other person, these things fall flat.

How do you know what makes someone else feel cared about? You ask them. Maybe they don’t even know, but if you ask them, they’ll have to think about it and find out. Then, within your own boundaries, show care for them accordingly.

If you do something that hurts someone, and they tell you it hurts them, maybe don’t do it again.

If you do something that hurts someone, and they tell you it hurts them, and you apologize, promise not to do it again, and then do it again, you suck.

Pro tip: hurting someone’s feelings is not the same as doing something wrong. Don’t apologize for anything you don’t genuinely feel bad about doing.

If you actually feel bad about something, try your hardest to not do it again. Seek help in not doing it again. If you are not putting in the work to change your behavior after hurting someone, any apology you give is hollow lip-service at best, and at worst, an abject lie that just keeps the other person in a cycle of pain believing things might be different this time.

Not because you expect immediate reciprocity. Not because you think you “should.” Not because you’re tired of dealing with a crying friend, or a depressed roommate, or a despondent lover. Do not care for people because you want to change them. If you’re just trying to change them, you don’t actually care about them, as they are now. You’re just trying to be rid of them as they are now.

Instead, give care because you care.

Make the people in your life feel cared about because you feel care for them. Make the people in your life feel loved because you love them.

The point of this all is to have your actions reflect your authentic feelings — to stop things from getting lost in translation between feeling and action — so that the people in your life know that you care about them. If you don’t care about them, refer to Step 1, and apply the rest of these steps for the people you do care about.

Because God damn it, y’all are precious, and beautiful, and so, so special. So please, treat each other accordingly. Don’t let a day go by that someone you love feels unloved. Don’t let a day go by that someone you care about feels uncared for.

Start prioritizing learning how to give care. Learn how to care more, and care better. Lives depend on it.

*I updated this to reflect that, after talking for a while about languages of care, I have since learned that a “Love Language” is already a thing, and here’s a helpful place to find yours:

Level 5 Laser Lotus. Writing for a world where many worlds fit.