Thursday, August 28, 2008

More on Empathy (Empathy versus Emotion)

Today, I'm returning to the subject of Empathy because it's a very important part of the Aspergers condition. We lack empathy, but we're not incapable of it. It's just a lot of hard work for us.

My previous post on Empathy is linked here

I've just answered a fascinating question on WrongPlanet about the difference between Empathy and Emotion. It took a fair amount of thinking but I feel that I've captured the basics -though, as usual, I'm quite happy to be corrected. I was so happy with my thinking that I've expanded the whole thing here to become my topic of the day.

The Difference between Empathy and Emotion
Empathy deals with understanding (and in some cases, replication) of someone else's emotions or state of mind while emotions are focussed solely upon your own feelings.

As a result;
  1. You can be empathetic without showing emotions.
  2. You can show emotion without being empathetic.

Example 1: Empathy without showing Emotion
A neighbour loses his wife in a car accident. He's walking around feeling quite sad, perhaps blaming himself because he was supposed to make the trip but left it to his wife to do instead.

You can understand exactly how he is feeling even though you don't personally feel sad about it - or if you do have some emotional response, it's not the same. Understanding your neighbour's emotional response is much more than "oh, he's sad because his wife is dead". Proper empathy would include understanding his feelings of guilt/remorse, why he's blaming himself and how it's tearing him up inside.

If I stand back and think long and hard about these things, I can eventually get there - from a storytelling perspective but I don't automatically feel that deeply about these sorts of things when they happen in real life. It's hard for me to say if this is a "man thing", a "human thing" or an "aspie thing".

Example 2: Emotion without Empathy
Your wife has had a bad day, she feels lonely and depressed being at home with just the kids to talk to. You come home to find dinner isn't ready and you get angry (showing emotion). She tries to tell you about her day but you just get angrier... after all, you think, she doesn't have to do much at home by herself.

In this case, the husband is showing a lot of emotion, though it's mainly negative emotions like anger. The emotion he is showing is not in synch with his wife's condition - in fact, he's not even thinking about her condition because he cannot understand how and why she feels that way.

A variation on this response with less negative emotion could be that the husband doesn't notice anything or carries on as if it were all a big joke. Humour is also an emotion but again, it's inappropriate for the occasion.

This particular scenario is very familiar to me personally. I often come home after a rush-rush day with my head reeling from all that has gone on. I never stop thinking and I'm often reviewing and deciphering the days events and conversations in my head or following my own particular mental agenda. Sometimes I just need time by myself to unwind. Unfortunately, the minute I set foot inside my own house, I'm expected to switch gears and fit in with a different mental picture.

Depending upon how my day has been, and the atmosphere inside the house sometimes I can and sometimes I can't. Sometimes I try to be empathetic but between the kids and telephone calls and chores it all gets lost. Sometimes I can't relax enough to concentrate on the feelings of other people around me - even though I know they need me. In neruotypical people, I think empathy takes a bit of work. In aspies, it's certainly possible but it takes incredible dedication and effort.

Examples 3 & 4: Empathy and Emotion Together
Let's look at how different the above two scenarios would be if emotion and empathy were working together (and in the same direction).

In the neighbour case above, you feel sad for him. You say, "I know how you feel... that must be awful". You resist the temptation to offer advice of "don't blame yourself, knowing that he wants to feel guilty". Perhaps you try to help him by inviting him over for a meal.

In the wife example, you walk into the house and immediately realise that something is wrong. You ask her what's wrong and you give her some love and patience. Perhaps you tell her to relax while you cook dinner - and perhaps you arrange a weekend without the kids.


If nothing else, buying flowers on the way home can often show that you are thinking about your partner and that you do care. I think about my wife and how she feels a lot but sadly, the only times I get a chance to do so are the times when I'm not at home and not at work. (eg: when I'm going for a walk during my lunch break). So by the end of the day, when it's all rush-rush again, it's hardly at the front of my thoughts.

A Couple of Other Points to Consider
In order for empathy to be truly successful, you have to offer up a bit of eye contact. I know it's hard but it's a matter of trust. You have to really feel empathy and you have to mean what you say. If you're prone to stupid stray thoughts, you also have to be aware of your facial expression. A big cheesy grin during a period of sadness is the same as laughing at someone who is in pain.

Not Necessarily Goody-Goody
In the above examples, it makes you look like a saint when emotion and empathy work together. This little paragraph is here just to show you that it's not necessarily always the case. Suppose that someone has been particularly nasty to a good friend of yours. You can empathise with your friend and feel hurt for him/her. You can also feel angry towards the protagonist.

Sometimes just agreeing with your friend that the protagonist is a b*tch or a b*st*rd is enough. Sometimes helping them plan (and sometimes execute) revenge is also helpful. Not all revenge's have to be carried out. Sometimes just talking about what you would do - or plotting, is enough.

3 comments:

LizzieK8 said...

I'm grateful for this post. When I tried to get an adult diagnosis for my AS, I was told I have Narcissistic Personality Disorder based on my lack of empathy. How far from the truth that is....

Khelben said...

Well written!

Damo said...

This is a topic that I have great difficulty with. I have no emathy or emotion. My thought over-rides my emotion/empathy.
Your annecdotes to me are just words/facts/data.
If i envision that situation and me being there, I am simply going to look at it as a series of facts and data. So, they had a car accident. people do. I have no attachment or self projection. It's just more data.
To the NT's this may seem cold or callous but it's the way I see it.

A deeper perspective, I observe the world and don't live in it. (like an NT watching an ant nest). I'm trying to learn how to live in it but I am yet to learn all the social rules and nuance's so I can then attribute my rules and rituals to them.
Something along the lines of If someone is sad, I should comfort them. How? I don't know yet.