Dear Carolyn: I’ve been with my boyfriend for about a year now. When he’s going through a particularly tough time, I find I have endless compassion for him. When he’s going through something more minor, though — a headache, say — I’m able to go through the motions of being compassionate but feel mildly annoyed/frustrated/disappointed by the situation on the inside, and lack that real feeling of empathy.

Is this … a problem? I want him to feel loved and supported, but sometimes I just can’t muster the energy to really feel the nice things I’m saying. This happened pre-pandemic, so it’s not just stress. I’m not sure if I should talk to him about it (he can’t do anything about it), or find some way to muster more empathy, or just accept it and move on.

— Missing Empathy

Missing Empathy: Is this something you’ve felt with others, or just with him?

If it's just with him, then maybe he's asking for sympathy beyond what you have in reserve, and maybe someone more stoic would be a better fit for you.

If it happens with everyone, then it's not about the boyfriend, it's about the face you think you need to present to the world (and why), vs. the genuine article.

It’s not wrong to go through the motions of sympathy sometimes, certainly — since sometimes you’ll be distracted by your own stuff, and since telling someone you don’t give a s--- about their stuff isn’t exactly the kind of honesty to strive for. (Except between consenting, mutually salty equals.)

Still, if you find yourself regularly faking empathy, then it's time for a deeper look at who you are, how you feel, and how you appear to others.

If the sympathy you express is often a performance, then you're not presenting yourself honestly to people — and that can be unfair to people closest to you, as you build your lives around perceived compatibility.

I've known plenty of lovable people who aren't afraid to say, “Don't interrupt me unless there's blood.” If that's who you are, then that's who you need to be. Out loud.

Re: Sympathy: Another point: I relate very much to the letter-writer. When my boyfriend and I both got strange, bad flus in early 2020, I handled my fevers and symptoms with my usual stoicism, but I thought privately that he was being a big baby with “man flu” (even though externally I pampered him). Turns out all that stuff he said about trouble breathing, etc., was quite possibly covid-19. We both recovered after almost two weeks, but I am remembering this next time I feel like he is being dramatic — and the lesson that while I was also short of breath, he may have been experiencing worse symptoms, and it’s better to take it seriously than risk not being there for them. Thank God nothing worse happened.

I also realize my parents used to minimize my symptoms and pains, which I’m glad made me tough but I’m afraid also may have made me stupid and insensitive — I’m working on it!!

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Great point, thanks. We can have biases in all kinds of ways. Any time we can catch them and commit to an open mind and better listening, the better.

Continued tomorrow.