Sunday, July 17, 2011

Empathy and Perceived Empathy

Yes, it's another "empathy post". I'm sorry if you're getting sick of them. I'll be on a different topic soon.

Today I just wanted to say a few words about the perception of empathy.

Right now, my mother is in hospital. Her hospitalisation was sudden and unexpected but she is ok. I've checked. I've received an email from my father and my wife rang him later during the day.

I'm happily convinced that everything is fine and that for the immediate future her main priority should be rest.

She lives too far away for a "quick visit" and I haven't contacted her directly yet. Unless I hear of changes in her condition, I'm best off giving her time to heal.

No doubt once she comes out she'll rouse on me for not having gone to panic stations and talked to her directly. The thing is that I can't do anything and chances are that I'll end up calling during her nap time.

Does that make me less empathetic?

Some would say yes but I think that sometimes I put more thought into the physical well-being of people than I do towards self-serving information gathering exercises.

It doesn't mean that I'm not worried or that I don't care.

The perception of this empathy by others however is different altogether. Other people think that unless I'm waking her up and asking her how she is, then I don't care. She has doctors and nurses doing that already - and I've spoken to them. They're better qualified to give me a rundown on her condition.

Addendum: I wrote this post a few days ago but have been too busy to post it. I've since spoken to my mother a couple of times and she's home and getting better.

20 comments:

Dessie said...

I don't think that makes you less empathetic.

In a similar situation I was once accused of being completely without compassion.

I'm glad that your mother will be alright.

RaasAlHayya said...

I'm glad to hear that your mother is okay.

Anonymous said...

Im a bit confused now. I thought empathy was all about 'placing yourself in anothers shoes', so to speak'. What you are writing about here is a demonstration of 'concern' for another. I think there is a difference between concern for another and empathy. I can be concerned about a person and worried for them, but not really feel empathetic, if what they are going through is outside of my own experience. Im NT by the way. Not calling your mother may result in her thinking you were unconcerned about her condition, but I dont think anyone would have expected you to feel empathy unless you have had direct personal experience of her condition. In fact you actually demonstrate empathy when you think about how she is feeling, not how you are reacting to news of her ill health. Hope this makes sense, its hard to express.

Cara said...

Sympathy is for show, empathy is for real.

My own mother finds fault with me whatever I do. Even if she doesn't say anything(and she usually does) I can see her bite her tongue. After 50 years, I see it is a reflection on her rather than me. Maybe she has ODD.

Rawan said...

I don't think that makes you less empathetic, not at all. This is exactly how I react to the things that happen to my family and friends. It's not that I don't care about them, because I do. It's just that I feel like I'm more acceptive of what happens and I work to the bettering of it IF it is possible.

Happy to hear you're mom's doing okay now.

Anonymous said...

Had an ex wife call me once, or her relative did, stating she was in the hospital. Was concerned about my yound daughter and was told she was fine.

Told her seems everything is being taken care of and not much I can do 4 states away. Keep me posted.

They thought I was being cold.

Anonymous said...

There is a real difference between sympathy and empathy, they mean two different things. It seems there is no mention in the literature about people with AS not having sympathy for another. I hope we are not confusing the two. My AS daughter has lots of sympathy for others(i.e concern, noticing when others are hurt, helping friends in need), its just that she has difficulty putting herself in the shoes of another and understanding 'how it feels' to be that person. I think this is not exclusively an AS trait. Many many NTs have difficulty with empathy, I really dont understand what makes anybody 'tic' in any absolute way. Being empathetic is a learned skill for most I would say. AS people are probably a bit better at it given they are now given support to learn empathy through early intervention programs.

Gavin Bollard said...

Well done everyone who pointed out that this was sympathy not empathy! You're absolutely right.

Not everyone understands the difference.

The perception of empathy from outside is based on sympathy.

People look at how you react and how you express. If you don't express things the way that they expect you to, they will accuse you of having "no empathy".

Nobody can know if you, in your heart, feel a certain way. Empathy itself is your own interpretation of someone else's (mostly unspoken) feelings.

How can you know if you're empathizing correctly? If you're feeling how the other person is really feeling?

How wrong is it for people to suggest that someone is without empathy or without compassion?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous's post above about lack of empathy when you can't identify with the situation. I've been in that position before, and it's awkward when you're expected to comfort the person and you're totally foxed as to what to say or do.
Equally, though, the accusation of a lack of empathy may be simply because people are so used to seeing it expressed in one way that different behaviour seems alien. Sometimes a little clarification is needed. For example, the day it was announced the Coroner had decided that the Pike River miners had died immediately after the first explosion, I expressed no feelings for the fammilies when I was discussing it with a friend. Stunned and incredulous, she said, "Don't you have any sympathy for them?!" I explained that I had plenty of sympathy, but I didn't see why I should feel any more when the situation hadn't really changed. For her the bluntness and frankness of my explantion may have been a shock, but she did accept that my heart was in the right place even if my aspie view was somewhat unconventional.

Princess Morag said...

In this situation with your mother being in hospital, you definitely showed your concern for her wellbeing which is what is important. It really depends whether your mother would want to speak to you, her son, while she was in hospital that determines whether you are able to show empathy. If SHE would prefer to be left undisturbed to recover, knowing that you have spoken to the nurse enquiring after her condition then that is great. But it could be that she would have liked to talk to you, just to hear your voice, even though YOU might not understand why. Of course I don't know your mum so I don't know if that is true or not - maybe you could ask her what she'd prefer if it happened again in the future?

strebel said...

The point of empathy is thinking how your mother might feel. Might she feel you care more if you call her? Of course a call would make her feel thought of, and she'd KNOW you cared. SO why not call?

The fact that you don't know to call your mother...but you know she'll say something about you not calling, says there is an issue with empathy and the idea of how you're perceived.

Anonymous said...

I think people might mean well but can be so thoughtless and inconsiderate when someone is hospitalized. It's so hard to get any rest in a hospital, so, I think it's important to let the patient rest. I think you did the best thing of all.

Lonely girl said...

I'm a single accomplished athletic attractive Christian Aspie woman. Please tell me there is some way for me to meet other Aspies in person. I am the only one thus far identified in Hawaii, as far as I know. This blog has been a life-saver!

Anonymous said...

When my girl friends was upset because her boyfriend cheated on her, I told her 'well, maybe she's the right one for him.' I completely lacked empathy not because I was mean or cruel, I just am incapable of feeling jealousy or envy so I just didn't get it. It's not that I need to experience something to understand it, it's simply how can I understand an emotion I will never feel? I'm older and wiser and much gentler now. For those struggling with empathy like I did, I advise using our Phenomenology intuition & sensory perceptions to read the cues of others. No one taught me this. I figured it out when my friends complained I was 'too blunt.' Also remember Aspies tend to care more than others and you are still a kind person. Just asking the question demonstrates that.

Gavin Bollard said...

@Lonely Girl; The best way is still to visit an all-aspie forum, like WrongPlanet and browse through their forums, especially those which seem to be on topics you enjoy.

If you see the same names cropping up on several topics that you enjoy then it's a good indication that the person has similar "likes" to you.

If locations and ages are shown, take them into consideration but also look back through the past posts of anyone you think could be a good friend. Sometimes there will be clues which give away ages or locations.

Pay attention to what they say in forums but don't be too critical. Most people say a few things wrong - but if they "wrong-foot" in discussions all the time, they might not be a great friend.

When you find someone that you think might be a good friend (and you'll know because you "click" with them in discussions), you might want to PM (personal message) them.

BTW: A few things can help.

1. Don't use a name like Lonely Girl because it will affect how people perceive you.

2. Use a photo of yourself in your avatar. That way if people like or dislike your appearance, they've at least had enough warning that it doesn't cause embarrassing situations when you meet.

3. Don't pretend to be someone you're not. If you have a "boring" life. Just tell it straight. Most people there will have "boring" lives too.

Ellen said...

I've just written a blog about a book I feel caricatures Aspergers people cruelly by presenting them as without feeling at all, especially for others.

http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/haddons-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time/

I feel (yes I feel) it's a pernicious book.

E.M.

Ketutar said...

Empathy, sympathy, concern, compassion... not much difference in "real" world.
Then there's the cognitive and affective empthy, and obviously several other forms, and alexithymia and so on and so forth.
http://danielgoleman.info/2007/06/12/three-kinds-of-empathy-cognitive-emotional-compassionate/

I have a very strong affective empathy. I don't even need to have experienced "it" myself, I will feel what you are feeling, like talking about cutting oneself in fingers. I get the same physical reaction I get when I cut myself. One belief of Asperger's is that we feel so strongly it's painful, and we try to protect ourselves from the pain, so we avoid situations where people are hurt. I cannot watch news or "AFV", because of this.
My cognitive empathy on the other hand is almost non-existant. I need to be told what you are going through to be able to express my sympathy, except when it comes to situations I have encountered several times, like falling from a bike or people crying in distress. Recognizing certain emotions and body language is also a question of memorizing.
Also, I don't quite know how to express my compassion. Also "normal" for Aspies, and usually misunderstood by NTs to be lack of empathy, compassion, concern. This can be learned. Just watch enough movies and series where people express compassion to their friends and loved ones. It might seem like a petty job considering there's so much to learn and only a certain capacity to learn, but it makes the life of your friends and relatives much easier. You know, they aren't very good at using their social skills and understanding on us, and they are usually quite stupid and unable to learn... ;-)

Also, it is impossible to "put yourself in the shoes of another". There are too many variables, and most of them are unknown. How one feels depends on, among other things, situation, background, mood, the emotional package we all are carrying...
Also, there's the "alien reflex". All animals - and humans are animals - have the "sixth sense" on recognizing when someone doesn't belong to the group, and the suspicious and hostile reaction to those individuals is instinctive. It can save lives. That's why 99% of Aspies didn't have many friends in school. The human animal rejected the aliens... >:->
Because of it, we can do all the "right" things, say all the "right" words, do everything "right", but it will still be "wrong", because the "alien reflex" tells the NT there's something fishy there. Usually it's a warning sign of insincerity. So - do this or that, it's always wrong.

ZenEmu said...

Hi,

Firstly, sorry to hear your mother is unwell, I hope she makes a speedy recovery.

I have been thinking about Empathy for some time now and it is a subject I occasionally touch upon on my blog. I have come to the conclusion that as an Aspie, I am perfectly capable of empathy, but the problem tends to be Theory of Mind. In short, I have difficulty putting myself in someone else's shoes.

Take your example. If the roles were reversed and it was you in hospital, would you want your mother to go out of her way even if there was nothing she could do? I suspect not, because you wouldn't wish to inconvenience her and nothing would be accomplished. However, from her point of view she may see things differently and have wanted you there. I am as poorly equipped as the next Aspie to comment on what those needs may be, but let us say for arguments sake that she was scared of hospitals and you visiting may eleaviate that anxiety, would you have gone then? I suspect so.

My point is that in general, it is the 'Theory of Mind' that is lacking and not the Empathy.

Ralph Doncaster said...

@Gavin: "How wrong is it for people to suggest that someone is without empathy or without compassion?"

NTs don't know whether or not you care, they *feel* it. Their emotional brain recognizes a pattern of behavior in other and generates a feeling that the prefrontal cortex becomes aware of. Gladwell's "Blink" has an AMAZING description of the workings of the emotional brain.

I'd also recommend all Aspies read "The Game" by Neil Strauss. It explains the body language that NTs innately understand but Aspies don't. Fortunately Aspies can learn to interpret that language.

Justin said...

@Ralph,

I know it has been a terribly long time since you posted that comment, but I feel the need to throw my two cents in...

If NT's instinctively recognize emotional patterns and "feel" whether or not you care, then in my mind that puts them at a similar, but opposite, disadvantage when compared to aspies.

Making judgment based purely on feeling, at a subconscious level, is just as much of a disadvantage as making judgment based purely on recognized patterns/algorithms.

Both leave you unable to recognize situations outside of your experiences. An NT looks at a situation and makes assumptions based primarily on his own feelings projected onto the other, mixed with what they know about the person or situation. This is (in my opinion) the reason NT's generally believe aspies lack empathy.

In reality, aspies have plenty of empathy but (generally) do not show it outwardly... and thus being labeled cold and/or emotionless.

An aspie with a well defined empathy "algorithm" is more likely, in my opinion, to feel what another person is feeling, even if it is not shown outwardly... because their evaluation of how a person is feeling is not based on a gut reaction but on actual experience. Of course, the algorithm may take longer to develop than the gut reaction does, but once it does it tends to be spot on.