Misery Pits

This is an at­tempt at a de­scrip­tion, more in­ten­sional than ex­ten­sional, of a phe­nomenon that can ad­versely af­fect com­mu­ni­ties. I’m try­ing to avoid hav­ing any­one spe­cific (es­pe­cially spe­cific-and-lo­cal) in mind while I write it; I just mean to define the phe­nomenon as a refer­ence point and wave ten­ta­tively at some pos­si­ble modes of ad­dress. Con­tent warn­ing: ex­er­cise cau­tion if prone to psy­cholog­i­cal spirals about your value as a per­son.

Some peo­ple are needy. Really, re­ally needy. Not so much in a “loan me fifty bucks” sense, al­though that can be an in­con­ve­nient co­mor­bidity. More in the “stay up un­til 3am re­as­sur­ing me that I have value… four times a week” way. In the “sud­den es­ca­la­tion to ro­man­tic ad­vances at tiny to neg­ligible signs of open­ness” way. In the “ev­ery life set­back is a catas­trophic trig­ger lead­ing to a monthlong men­tal health crisis” way. And this need­i­ness di­rectly re­duces how re­ward­ing it is to provide re­as­surance, ro­mance, or crisis sup­port. And if the needy per­son finds a source any­way, they’re un­likely to im­prove much be­fore the source is burned out and has to aban­don them out of self-preser­va­tion.

I’ve taken to call­ing the class “mis­ery pits”, be­cause you can throw enor­mous amounts of help and com­pan­ion­ship and un­con­di­tional val­u­a­tion into them and they look as deep as ever, but in gen­eral it’s not paradig­mat­i­cally ma­nipu­la­tive. The need is gen­uine. They’re re­ally suffer­ing! They ac­tu­ally need the things they ask for! It’s just that they need in­sane amounts of up­front in­vest­ment, amounts that in­di­vi­d­ual hu­mans can vir­tu­ally never muster and would gen­er­ally be ill-ad­vised to try to scrape to­gether, be­fore they be­come able to do nor­mal-per­son self-main­te­nance tasks so that any sup­port can stick, let alone be­fore they’re able to provide nor­mal-per­son friend­ship con­tri­bu­tions*. They are not, typ­i­cally, suited to be­ing paired off in mu­tu­ally benefi­cial code­pen­dence; they just don’t have the re­sources or skills.

Non-mis­ery-pit hu­mans have a wide range of sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to the des­per­a­tion of nearby mis­ery pits. Some peo­ple can’t re­sist them, or cer­tain in­stances of them, and pour their lives into try­ing to help a mis­ery pit; they’re so sad. (This is most of the ad­verse effect on com­mu­ni­ties I men­tioned.) Some peo­ple find them re­pel­lently pa­thetic and avoid them al­to­gether. (The effects of this on large so­cial webs are some more of the ad­verse effect.) Some peo­ple are good enough at set­ting bound­aries to avoid throw­ing any­thing they can’t af­ford to lose into the pit and can main­tain healthy con­tact with mis­ery pits for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time. Some peo­ple just take a long time to de­ter­mine that some­one is need­ier than they can han­dle, and make bad in­vest­ments and cut their new mis­ery pit friend off af­ter they’ve come to be re­lied on. (This is the rest of the ad­verse effect.)

Misery-pit-hood is not nec­es­sar­ily per­ma­nent. It of­ten re­sponds to a change in life cir­cum­stances (leav­ing an abu­sive house­hold; find­ing a (usu­ally) girlfriend, who has more love than the pit has depth; the straight­for­ward clini­cal abate­ment of a de­pres­sive epi­sode). I ten­ta­tively hy­poth­e­size that at least some could re­spond to co­or­di­nated love­bomb­ing from mul­ti­ple peo­ple each in­di­vi­d­u­ally con­tribut­ing sus­tain­able amounts of en­ergy, but have never seen it tried. Failing a way to fill in the pit, teach­ing peo­ple not to dump any­thing they’re go­ing to need back into such a pit seems like the next best thing.

*Some oth­er­wise-mis­ery-pit-shaped peo­ple man­age so­cial re­ciproc­ity more or less com­pe­tently, but I think they tend to do it in a weird way—more ser­vice-pro­vi­sion (“I’ll do your dishes”) than so­cial (“I’ll be in­trin­si­cally fun to hang out with”).

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