Monday, July 26, 2010

Article: On the Matter of Empathy

I just want to draw your attention to the following post on the "Aspie from Maine" blog.

It's called;

On the Matter of Empathy

It's a really interesting article because it not only talks about an aspie experiencing a profound moment of empathy but it also talks a bit about what that particular aspie wants from neurotypicals. I found this part fascinating because often I just don't know what I need.

Interestingly, the post talks about the possibility of empathy being a learned skill for people with aspergers. It's something that I agree with. My empathetic capabilities have increased significantly as I've gotten older mainly due to repeated prompts from my wife but also as a result of reading and understanding other people's positions on empathy.

Sometimes I'm so busy that I forget the most basic things.

For example, this morning, I drove to the bus stop but forgot to release the handbrake on my car. It's not the first time I've done that and I'll wager that it's probably not going to be the last. I thought the car felt a bit sluggish and made a mental note to check the tyres when I stopped. Of course, I forgot to do that too.

For me, lack of empathy is a bit like forgetting.

Apart from the most powerful raw emotions, like extreme anguish, love, hate and sadness, I often forget to consider other people's emotions. I'll see something and think of my own feelings but won't necessarily look beyond them. Examples being at school when I'd get good grades, I'd be happy about myself but wouldn't think to feel bad for a friend who didn't pass.

Sometimes it takes someone else to snap me out of this. I'll see someone else responding "weirdly" to another person and wonder why... then it will hit me and I'll realise why they're feeling bad. Sometimes the lateness of my empathy or the intensity of it is simply out of place. I will go and talk to someone and be empathetic hours after the problem. This can often make things worse because I'll be reminding them of something they've tried to forget.

Even worse, sometimes I'll have talked to that person about something else, work for instance, several times between the "incident" and the time I've actually offered empathy. It sometimes "weirds them out" and I'm sure that sometimes they think that I'm actually being insensitive but it's just that it sometimes takes me a long time to realise that empathy is needed.

At other times, my empathy is all wrong. I try to do the right thing but totally put myself in it. Once, several years back, a girl I knew got seriously embarrassed to the point of public crying. Public crying always gets me. It's a sure sign that something is wrong. In fact, often people have to cry before I realise that they're sad. Long faces and doleful looks (whatever they are) just don't do anything for me.

In this instance, I pushed my way through the crowd and had a quick talk to her, told her that nothing had changed and that nobody would think any less of her and gave her a quick hug - and I'm not a huggy person.

As I turned away, my wife was "starring daggers at me". How dare I offer someone else empathy! She didn't talk to me for hours later. It took me a long time, several days in fact, to understand what I'd done wrong. In all honesty, I'm still not sure if I've got the right answer.

Finally... sometimes when my mind is clear, my empathy appears out of nowhere and I find that it's my NT colleagues who are without empathy. This happened once at work when a lady was unexpectedly retrenched. My colleagues were all grumbling about how she didn't do a whole lot of work anyway and for some reason, I was the only one who thought about how she must feel. I went up and talked to her and I gave her a hug - and she burst into tears. It was only then that my colleagues started to fuss over her.

There's a pretty good chance that empathy can be learned.


Shae said...

Can I ask what you determined you did wrong? My guess is that your wife was upset that someone else got empathy and she didn't? I am just guessing, though. It's not at all clear to me.

Gavin Bollard said...

It's clear that my wife was jealous. As far as I can tell, I should not have taken it upon myself to offer support when there were plenty of other (unattached) people around who could do it instead.

Just another Mom said...

Gavin, you seriously made one bell after another go off with this post. It hits home more than you could imagine. "Weird"(emotional), "Thinking Clearer" (able to recognize when emotional support is needed) have come into play in a big way in our house just this morning. The words that you used in this post are all to familiar, they are words that I hear used in my house a lot! lol..

Regarding your giving emotional support to a stranger: As a wife in a similar situation... I would have been jealous of the other woman getting the emotional support that I needed and deserve, not so much that my hubby was hugging someone other than me.

Krokkie said...

I have an aspie daughter who is 11 years old. A friend of mine chanced upon your blog and I have been reading your achived posts and articles for hours. My daughter is going into puberty now and I am extremely anxious about that.

Thank you. There is a lot of information sites on the internet about aspergers, but it is very crutial to get information from someone who actually has it.

Your blog is a gold mine and I have learned so much today and understand a whole lot of things better now. Thank you especially for the piece about the effect of eye contact.

Anonymous said...

Mother of a child with Aspergers tells her story:

p.s. bohemian said...

Gavin - great post!

I posted an article about Aspies NOT being broken today in honor of my own dear Aspie - if you're interested you can check it out here:

This coming Monday i'll be linking to your post about tips for Aspies looking for work on my Monday Meanderings post :)

capriwim said...

I have Aspergers, and I agree with this - that it's more about forgetting than lacking empathy. For me, it's about difficulty with working memory and multitasking - I focus on one thing at a time. But I teach myself strategies to remember to switch to the other person's point of view and so I can have good empathy. And definitely it helps if my mind is clear - if I don't have lots of other things distracting me, and stopping me focus.

Anonymous said...

You describe so well the problems with how and when to show how much empathy and in which way. I immediately recalled many occasions where I have made the same kind of imprecise interpretations as the ones you describe.

I like that you also mention how neurotypicals can come across as non-empathetic. I've always felt that they lack empathy much more than I do, but I'm aware that it's a very subjective thing.

I've always thought empathy is something everybody has to learn. What you write suggests that most people are born with the capacity to feel empathy, and though I'm not at all sure I can agree with that, it is definitely an interesting idea.

That said, I believe it is true that we (people with Asperger's) have to work more at learning how to interpret cues, and we are probably slower at developing capacity for empathy than are neurotypical people - especially the more complex nuances thereof.
Since the ability to "read" other people's expressions (i.e. "long faces" etc.) is necessary in order to feel empathy because the feelings they express are the generators of empathy, we (aspies) are at a disadvantage, because we don't acquire it easily.

A vast area of neurotypical inter-action is to me - at the age of 50 - still a mystical realm full of secret and vague signaling, and that is even though I have had a special interest in fields of study such as sociology, neuro-psychology and psychiatry.

Yet, the fact that we can have very strong emotions - to a degree where others often think we're overly emotional - in my opinion clearly shows that we're not without feelings; quite the contrary, in fact.

That we lack capacity to feel empathy is a very sad misinterpretation, and it often leads to grim stigmatizations toward people with Asperger's.

Thanks for writing some good and informative entries - not least for neurotypical people, I'm sure!
I enjoy having the opportunity to see how others with Asperger's think and I am learning something new about myself while doing so each time I recognize an issue I hadn't seen addressed by others before.

Good luck with your son!... '^L^,


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. . . and I agree that empathy can be learned. My 16 YO daughter was just dx'd with Aspergers last month (HURRAY!) and my husband's reaction to the dx was very interesting. Before the dx, he was emphatically insistant that she wasn't Aspie; afterwards, he said that he had thought that lack of empathy was a defining characteristic of the condition.

Since he sees himself as being empathetic, and as using empathy for others as a way of deciding what to do in many situations, he therefore assumed that HE couldn't have Aspergers and, therefore, SHE couldn't either.

You can see where I'm going with this. Now that she's got a dx, he's begun to think that maybe - just maybe! - he might need to be evaluated for it as well. My daughter and I are overjoyed, because we have been sure for months that he is indeed a full-blown Aspie with some behaviors that have developed into bad patterns.

A dx wouldn't change those patterns, but it would at least give us all a place to start work on fixing them.

Anonymous said...

I found this post very interesting!

'I'll see something and think of my own feelings but won't necessarily look beyond them'

My husband has apsergers and he does this, but in his case he projects the way he feels about whatever it is on to everyone else. He doesn't always consider people may react or feel differently than he does.

About you giving the stranger a hug...It made me laugh and think of my own husband. He often finds it easier to express himself to other people. With me he often assumes I know he supports me and assumes I don't need to hear it from him. I actually find it rather charming, for the most part.

Andreas said...

I strongly believe we have empathy, and there are times when I forget to show All the empathy that is expected of me.
It has Always annoyed me that some NT's seem so incredibly heartless at times, and yet we are considered unempathic.

I believe there must be some subtle nuances that I (we) don't readily perceive, because there are situations (like your work situation), where it seems so obvious to me. I would have done the same, in your place. Also, hugging/comforting strangers is often much easier.

"Since the ability to "read" other people's expressions (i.e. "long faces" etc.) is necessary in order to feel empathy because the feelings they express are the generators of empathy, we (aspies) are at a disadvantage, because we don't acquire it easily." THANK YOU Puzelle!

I wonder if that happened because she was not 'displaying' behaviour. You said they made a fuss, when she cried, yet you assessed the situation, and deduced her sorrow. I think that may be the underlying cause of our differences: "Nonverbal cues vs Logical deduction"

Zhawq said...

Blog Author,

The description of your experience with the situation at your job, from what I've observed and experienced myself, is so very typical on many levels.

Yes, indeed: It is very typical!

No, not typical about you, in fact you were the non-typical participant here.

The typical thing was in how the other colleagues acted.

The confusion about empathy, what it is and who can feel it, learn it, etc. more or less than others, stems from what I see as something of a romantic superstition.

NTs feel empathy when all the other NTs around them feel empathy, and if they're alone they feel empathy according to the moral code they've had instilled in them from early on in their upbringing.

The scene at your office is a very good example of this.

Everybody 'knows' that it is 'good' to be empathic (read: to be friendly and show sympathy).

When you showed your sympathy with the colleague who'd been kicked, this made the rest of them snap out of their smug pleasure-taking in seeing others put down and being defeated.

As 'normal' neurologically typical individuals they then hurried to follow your example in order to make sure nobody would doubt the depth of their normalcy in regard to being empathetic.

From my personal experience I have had to conclude that empathy is a rare thing generally speaking, and more likely a romantic superstition that we use as a postulate to encourage the individual to behave socially agreeable beyond what is truly 'normal' for the human species.

It helps running society easier, and it instills in each individual a secret knowledge that they're in reality not 'good' because they can't produce the level and kind of empathy that they've been led to believe is 'normal' and defining of a 'good person', a 'good citizen'.

Guilt is a powerful tool when it comes to controlling others.

mlr3475080 said...
I thought you and others may find this article interesting. Would love some feedback on it.
While I definately relate to it, Im still confused. I can feel everything (im an empath) but at the same time, I dont know what to do about it... especially when NT's tell me theres nothing wrong but I feel there is.
Also, I cant watch embarassing moments on TV or violent- based on fact- movies...because I feel it and it makes me uncomfortable. However, they're actors. Wouldnt that be fake emotion? Am i feeling their emotions or their body language? Thanks so much!

Proprium said...

Interesting post.

Something I found that helped me was a course I did on people values and how it connects to their motivations. It has given me a very useful set of tools.

The theory this course was based on was something called SDI