Coming across apathetic people can really push our buttons! Laura Gilmartin explores what’s behind apathy and options for healthy and productive responses.

blowing-questions-photo-by-brian-yapOne of the most troubling aspects of being an activist in my experience, is offering information to someone about a pressing issue and an opportunity to act on it, and being met with apathy.

I think the reason I find it troubling is because I have always assumed that people can be apathetic about an issue if they don’t know know enough about it, but as soon as they do, they will realise how important it is for them to get involved. But some people can have all the information in the world about an issue, and still appear uncaring.

When this happens it can bring about feelings of immediate anger and frustration, which, when they have mellowed, can leave sadness and despair in their wake. When I experience sadness it is very important for me to sit with it and to acknowledge how challenging my work is. For me, talking about the challenges of my work has been important for helping me avoid feelings of despair turning into feelings of existential depression.

You may think it is odd to talk with activists about existentialism, as I’m sure many would argue activists’ desire to improve the world proves that we feel life has meaning. But because activists are often idealists, we can both envisage what the world could be, and feel the pain of recognising how far that world is from reality. James T. Webb describes existential depression in gifted young individuals as bringing on thoughts like ‘Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others?’ (1) If we focus solely on people’s capacity to be uncaring, and we don’t seek to understand why people behave the way they do, the fire that burns within us to bring about change can start to be enveloped by darkness.

For this reason it is important for our health to sit with each and every moment that someone chooses to engage, and every moment that we successfully move someone to greater education and action. By doing this we acknowledge that while lots about campaigning is hard, there are wins – no matter how small they may seem – and our work makes a genuine impact. Even taking a couple of seconds to pause and smile about a small win is worthwhile. It is also very important to give people the benefit of the doubt. We can never be sure that we have not helped to move someone just by being in the right place at the right time and by giving our cause greater exposure, even if they won’t acknowledge this to us.

It may also help our mind state to have a better understanding of what is really behind apathy.

I come from a family in which we talked about politics constantly and debated things until exhaustion, and I loved it! It was one of the ways my family stayed close. This approach to family life has upsides and downsides. I was taught critical thinking skills early, but my family members and I have not seen eye-to-eye on everything, and this has at times resulted in arguments, some of which have been unsettling for me. I know that families function in many different ways, some of which, whether consciously or not, discourage discussion of political and social issues, which may indeed help ‘keep the peace’. Having our consciousness raised allows us to see the wrongdoing in the world that needs addressing, but it can also expose us to greater pain and suffering. Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration suggests the psychological development required to bring an individual to the realisation that the world is not as it should be can involve a period of intense inner conflict. (2) Webb suggests that once we have been through this process, we cannot go back. (3)

When I think about what it must feel like to have a child and to want to protect them more than anything, I can understand how some parents might feel that it is better to keep their children away from the media, so that they are not forced (at least at an early age) to confront the shortcomings of the world we live in. Some parents may encourage their children to avoid engaging in causes for fear they will be let down, knowing that they will be more exposed as adults and wanting to give them the freedom to form their own opinions then. Or, they may not place any value on political engagement, simply because their own parents did not.

So for many people, what may look like apathy could be a need for greater information and education – a lack of understanding. Even though we may have given a person snippets of information around our issues, they may need lots more information over lots of time, before they make the decision to engage. We must be mindful of putting too much pressure on ourselves to move someone straight away – for most people this is simply not how it works. It can take years and many, many conversations. Even then, many people will need to feel a personal connection to a movement before becoming part of it is worthwhile for them.

Perhaps one of the hardest things to do is to try to engage someone who has lost all hope that change is possible. Rather than walking away from us, this person may harshly criticise our suggestion that by coming together we can change a situation, even going so far as to be insulted by it. It may be that this person has been taught that they do not have the power to change things, and this belief is enduring in them. Or, it could be that they have tried to change things before, and they believe they have failed. Investing in a cause is a risk, because we don’t have control over the outcome, and it is always less scary to be cynical than it is to be hopeful. There is no doubt that it is a challenge to move someone who believes their negativity serves them well, as if they are smarter for having taken off their rose-coloured glasses. It may even be that it is not worth our time and energy to engage them, as it only brings us down.

Existential depression leaves us isolated. To overcome this we can seek to understand.

Existential depression leaves us isolated. To overcome this we can seek to understand.

We can also encounter situations that masquerade as apathy but are, in fact, something entirely different. I know so many amazing young activists who are doing some of the best work moving people to build a more progressive Australia. But I have also met young people who appear to be too cool to care. I remember being a teenager and believing in people, and being hurt and let down. So I consciously disengaged – from everything.

I wanted so badly to be liked by my peers, and that meant being easygoing and not getting too intellectual for fear I would be seen as different. I was so busy protecting myself that I could not come to the aid of anyone else. Similarly, if a person is suffering from a mental health problem, they may be unable to see outside of themselves right now. That does not mean that later down the track they will not open their mind up to issues outside of themselves and recall details of the conversation we had with them.

To an extent, existential depression requires us to see ourselves as one person in isolation, separate from the rest of the world – a ‘me against the world’ mentality. It requires us to label people as just that – people, rather than to see each individual as a whole person, and to be curious to understand how they got to where they are now. When we seek to understand we naturally empathise. We are forced to acknowledge our shared humanity, which tempers feelings of isolation. And when we understand the reasons for a person’s apathy, we are better able to make sense of the world. We do this by asking the person in front of us open-ended questions. ‘Why do you feel that way?’ ‘What led you to that conclusion?’

During this process I imagine that rather than pushing against my environment, which is hard work, I am pulling information out of each person which will better help me to understand them. I have found that focusing on this motion of pulling rather than pushing requires far less mental and emotional energy, meaning I feel more relaxed in the process and can sustain the work for longer. As is always the case, that which is good for our mental health makes us more effective in our work, and asking a person open-ended questions about themselves also helps us to understand what that person feels is important, and what may ultimately motivate them to take action. And before we know it, it’s time to pause and celebrate another win.

(1) James T Webb, ‘Existential depression in gifted individuals’, Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG).
(2) Sal Mendaglio, ‘Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration: Some implications for teachers of gifted students’, Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted,
(3) James T Webb, Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults.

First photo: Brian Yap; Second photo: Henry Dacquin.

lauraAbout the Author
Laura Gilmartin has worked in international development and human rights in Australia and overseas. She currently lives in Melbourne and works in the union movement. Her passions are her family, swimming in the ocean and being a feminist killjoy. She is contactable at laurabethgilmartin [at] gmail [dot] com


What impact does engaging with apathetic people have on you? What have you figured out – about managing the impact, or engaging them in action?