Empathy by any other name

A few days ago I was talking with a social worker about some of the issues I’ve been having, and we touched on my problems with asking people for help. I told him that even when I manage to identify the problem I need help with, I simply don’t know who to call. When I go over the list of people in my head, I can come up with too many reasons why I shouldn’t impose on them, why they have too much going on in their own lives.

And the social worker asked me, “How would it make you feel if someone needed YOUR help, but decided in their head that you’re far too overwhelmed or unemployed or autistic to be able to help them, without even giving you the chance to say yes or no?”

I said that I knew what he was trying to get at. That I was supposed to say that they should ask me, that I would feel hurt if they made assumptions about my ability to help. But I said I wouldn’t feel hurt. If they had decided for themselves that they didn’t want to bother me with something because of what – rightly or wrongly – they thought I was able to handle, that would be a completely valid feeling. And I wouldn’t feel hurt about them coming to such a conclusion, even if it wasn’t necessarily true. Because that would be their feeling, and therefore valid.

He stared at me. Flabbergasted.

I don’t think it had occurred to him that I would genuinely not feel hurt.

What hadn’t occurred to me was that others would be.

There you’ve got it. The limits of my theory of mind. And the limits of his theory of mind too, for that matter. Because that’s my biggest problem with Theory of Mind: pathologising it as something only autistic people struggle with.

© Agsandrew | Dreamstime.com

From what I’ve read, I believe empathy comes in four distinct steps.

  1. Perceiving that someone has a particular feeling
  2. Knowing the cause of their feeling
  3. Understanding why someone has a particular feeling
  4. Formulating an emotionally validating response

The strongest empaths, in my experience, are the ones that skip step 2 and 3. They don’t need to know the cause. They don’t even need to relate it to something they’ve experienced or felt themselves. They perceive an emotion in someone and immediately formulate an emotionally validating response. These are the people that everyone loves having as a friend, because they never even need to explain to them what’s wrong. As a Dutch idiom goes, people who “get enough information from only half a word”.

For the rest of the world, knowing and understanding are both needed to be able to respond in a validating and empathic way. Just look at the numerous occasions where a white person doesn’t understand the lived experience of a black person. Where a man doesn’t understand the lived experience of a woman. Where a straight person doesn’t understand the lived experience of a gay person. More often than not, this inability to match the narrated experience to a similar experience of their own results in miscommunication and hurt feelings, even outright dismissal and animosity.

“What’s wrong?”
“I can tell something’s wrong, you’ve been distant all evening.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You wouldn’t understand.”
“But I want to help you. Maybe you’ll feel better when you tell me.”
“Well, I’ve been killing demons all day, and none of them have dropped a Magic Lightning Sword. And there’s supposed to be a 100 in 1 chance. I should have had one by now. Paul from the Guild got his after only 15 kills. That isn’t right. I’m sure there’s a bug.”
“You mean you’ve been moping because of a silly game?”
“I told you you wouldn’t understand.”

This is Theory of Mind. This is the third step. Understanding, or perspective taking as it’s usually called, requires being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s not perspective taking if it’s completely dependent on you having that same experience, being able to relate because you’ve gone through the same thing.

You can reason it out, compare their frustration over not getting a Magic Lightning Sword to your frustration when that gorgeous pair of shoes you saw is available in every size but your own. But reasoning it out is not something everyone can do all the time, because it depends on recognising the emotion is similar, even though the cause is different. And how can we really be sure that someone’s emotional distress is similar?

I care deeply for others. But my problems with empathy already begin at step 1. I can’t read non-verbal cues accurately, so I usually don’t notice that someone is feeling a certain way. And if by chance I do notice, I’m usually at a loss to identify it. I even manage to be oblivious when someone’s angry with me, unless they come out and say it. Then I move on to step 2, knowing the cause. I need a lot of information in this step. I’ve trained myself to ask a shitload of questions so that I can move on to step 3, understanding. Unfortunately, sometimes people resent having to explain the cause of their feelings. They tell me I know very well what’s causing it, and refuse to tell me anything concrete. They accuse me of pretending to be unaware so I can say I was innocent. This doesn’t help. I need to be told what they’re feeling because non-verbal cues don’t register with me, and I need to be told what caused it because I missed the non-verbal cues when whatever made them upset took place.

Once I have all that information, step 3 is the next hurdle. I depend mostly on reasoning here. I can understand the idea that the social worker mentioned, that someone would be upset because I didn’t ask them for help, but I can’t relate it to any experience of my own. It’s an alien feeling to me. Fortunately, I have a lot of training in trying to understand alien feelings. Most of the people around me experience the world in a way that’s completely different from my own. I’ve learned for example that another person wearing the same dress to a certain event as my friend can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how close my friend feels to that person. I’ve learned that feelings don’t need to make sense to be valid. I don’t always understand, but because they’re my friend, I will do everything I can to help them feel better.

Unfortunately sometimes step 4 gets in the way here as well. I’ve done all that hard work of perceiving, knowing, and understanding… and then my awkward social skills make me say exactly the wrong thing. Because I don’t always instinctively know why someone feels a certain way, I don’t instinctively understand what will help in processing that feeling either. By trial and error – mostly a lot of error – I’ve learned which responses get the best results, but it’s still not instinctive. I am constantly weighing options in my head, “Is this the time for a hug? Should I just make soothing sounds now or should I make them laugh? Do they want to hear affirmation or should I help put things in perspective for them?”

This is especially hard because I don’t have many examples to draw from. I can observe how non-autistic people show empathy towards other non-autistic people. But it’s only rarely that someone who’s not autistic does that towards me. Because my lived experience is so entirely different from their own. All those problems that I have with perceiving, knowing, understanding and responding? Those are the same problems others have with me. They can’t tell that I’m upset because I have a flat affect. They don’t know what I’m feeling unless I tell them. They don’t understand why I’m feeling that way because they wouldn’t feel that way in similar situations. And they respond in ways that don’t validate my emotions, but instead let me know how different I am for feeling like that in the first place.

Having problems with loud noises?
“Just ignore it.”
Feeling confused and lost because I can’t figure out which household chore to tackle first?
“Just pick one and be done with it.”
Struggling how to make friends?
“Just get out of the house more.”
Crying because life is just so fucking hard?
“It’s hard for everyone.”

Let me tell you something. That’s not empathy.

73 thoughts on “Empathy by any other name

  1. “pathologising it as something only autistic people struggle with”

    I love this point, could not agree with you more. It’s a point that I wish all researchers, mental health professionals and the general public could understand. Instead, most still believe the stereotype “autistics lack empathy”, while ignoring their own struggles to truly empathize, so this is often a very frustrating topic…which is why this post is so great, your honesty and the questions you raise are wonderful things to read. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks for your comment! I felt like the post was rambling a bit at some points but I feel very strongly about this. I didn’t know how little empathy I receive on a daily basis until I met one of those true empaths who just totally gets me even though our neurology is different.

      Don’t get me wrong, I do have problems in feeling and expressing empathy, but I think the only way in which that makes me different from most people is that I’m aware of it. In that sense, having the autism label is a blessing, because it allows me to look critically at my own impairments, and work on those that I think are worth the effort – instead of pretending I’m just as empathic as everyone else claims to be.

      • “but I think the only way in which that makes me different from most people is that I’m aware of it” Yes, this! I go through phases of not believing empathy exists because How? I can’t put myself into someone else’s experience and I don’t see how anyone can – but then, as you say, there are the true empaths, so maybe it does. But so much of what is perceived as empathy by non-autistics is actually boxing someone else’s experience in to manageable units and not allowing that person their full emotions, and the non-autistics won’t admit that that is so.

    • You both are right. Most people are not that good at empathy even though they think they are. They are mostly good at sympathy, or compassion, or will to help, or caring (or they do not care, but I like to think the majority does care for someone).

      I don’t think I am autistic because I can recognize other people’s emotions from their expression (though I am not that good at it) and people don’t usually think my facial expression is strange for the emotional situation (unless I am concentrating or sleepy, when I look either sad or angry, or unless I find something weirdly funny that noone else does). However, there’s more variation in that capacity of recognizing what other people feel than just being able/unable to do it.

      I am better than most people I know at recognize correctly emotions that other people do not see, or emotions in people a bit different from the norm. On the other hand, there are some emotions which are a blind spot for me (I have taught myself in my mid-twenties to recognize attraction between people when they are not touching or saying things that show it, and I am still very very bad at seeing it), and reading “normal” people who are not playfully expressive is very hard for me (It’s odd that I read well the anxious, reserved kind of people, the theatrical or jokester extrovert and the weird, lost in thought intellectual who makes strange connections, or even the down-to-earth farmer old guy, but not the normal suburban mother or father with the smile and the “all is always around 75% OK” face. I can never read those).

      What I did have lots of trouble, as a child, was with having a correct response as I would become paralyzed with the choices and not know what should I do. People sometimes were not helpful as it seemed I reacted oddly and they believed it was because I did not care even though I said them I honestly did not know what I should do and asked what should I have done. I really believe they acted with less empathy than I did, as the empathic thing to do to me would be to explain.

      • Exactly. I have an enormous will to help, I care for people a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily make me empathetic. It doesn’t make me able to instinctively feel what someone else is feeling and instinctively know what would make them feel better. I have to carefully reason my way there.

        But I don’t see that as any different from how most people respond to my feelings. Even when they obviously care about me, they still make mistakes in understanding how I feel unless I carefully explain it to them.

        (Taking into account my alexithymia and my mostly going non-verbal in moments of emotional overload, explaining usually will not happen. Sometimes I can manage several hours later, but it can also take months or even years).

        Which is how I know that most people don’t instinctively understand and can’t empathise with my feelings. But that’s OK. At least they care!

  2. … Is that a moment for a hug?

    I know the problem. I had a friend who was personally insulted I had not come to him for help in the first place and therefore added to my problems even more. It had not even occured to me someone could FEEL that way.

    And I could have throttled my sister every single time she said “Well, every child does that” or “Everybody feels that way”, invalidating the way we feel.

    That’s why I love the autistic community. No one is getting belittled for their problems, and even those who don’t have the exact same one can relate based on the simple fact that barely anyone else can relate, so that step is out of the way and you can go on to offer both comfort and ideas. Did that sentence make sense?

    • That made perfect sense! I’ve actually learned how important validation is by interacting more with autistic adults. It’s something I never really experienced in my life until now.

  3. All of this, so much. The lack of emotional validation from other people who don’t understand my feelings. Perseverating over whether it would be the right time to give an upset friend a hug, and then thinking about that event for years afterwards, worrying that I got it wrong. The way so many people just drop a handful of breadcrumbs assuming, usually correctly, that a listener will pick up the trail and understand through shared emotional experience. Or magic. Don’t ask me, I don’t understand how it works.

    • I’m sure it’s through magic! 😛

      I still remember a moment in high school when the girl sitting in front of me in class started sobbing. And I wanted to get up and hold her so badly. But we weren’t exactly close friends. So I thought that would be too forward of me. But I still wish I’d simply done it.

      This is not an autistic thing. Nobody else went up to her either. But I’m fairly sure that nobody else is still thinking about it 20 years later.

      • My close friend once started crying in front of me and I really wanted to hold her or do something because I was sitting there awkwardly not knowing whether it would be appropriate for me to do anything or whether she’d prefer to be left alone… I still wonder what I should have done, and several times I’ve come close to asking her what she would have wanted me to do in that moment. I haven’t lived for 20 years yet, but I don’t think other people would still be thinking about that 3 years on. I don’t think she even remembers it anymore.

        • You could always try asking. I know I’ve had some weird looks from people when I do that, but *shrug* I get weird looks for nearly everything I do. Besides, the few moments that the other person does remember and they either can explain it to you with some emotional understanding and detachment because it is so far in the past… or even tell you that you did exactly the right thing… that is so incredibly worth it.

          (Actually had a moment like that this evening, talking to a friend and the subject of privilege came up… and I took that chance to ask his forgiveness for invalidating his lived experience with classism, which I’d been feeling awful about for months. And he told me he remembered, and thanked me for thinking about what I’d said. It was awesome).

    • The perseverating about hugs! Yes. I still feel guilty about not hugging my next door neighbour’s mother after she told me her grandson was in hospital with meningitis. I know it would not have been socially acceptable (I’d never met her, we were in the street, her son wasn’t there), but that hug is still in me waiting to come out.

  4. This is a great post (like always) and I can really get behind all of it. One example I’ve lived over and over that fits in well with what you’re talking about is when people get actively upset (like sobbing or shouting) because I am depressed and using ED or self-harm behaviors instead of…something? But see that’s just it, what is that *something* that I’m supposed to have done? They never tell me. They say, “you know I’m always here for you,” but, well, what does that mean? They never clarify what that means and then additionally they never make it known that they are “here for me,” they just inform me that I already know it. I understand that my theory of mind limitations – and there are plenty – make it hard to understand what they want and what they are feeling here, but if I am the one who is depressed to the point of taking it out on myself like that, I think I deserve a touch of empathy as well.

    • You have mine, if it’s any consolation.
      I shall do a bit of dissecting, because now I am trying to analyze anyway, so I can just as well share my theories:
      Yes, they sob and shout, because they are overwhelmed with the situation, or at least that’s my guess.
      And I think they often confuse real depression with a “bout of depression” that can easily be helped or at least made somewhat better with a bunch of chocolate ice cream and a shoulder to lean on and someone to comfort you or to rant at to get something out of your system. Maybe that’s what they are hoping for? That you call and say “I am feeling down, can you come over?”, so they can do maybe the same they would do for a friend after a break-up.
      They hope you will go get yourself some “cheering up” instead of you being alone and turning to self-harm.
      There are some people who really get angry at you for making their life more complicated with your problems, but I think they are the minority.
      And the anger or sadness most other people express at being confronted with self-harm or similar things is actually plain and simple helplessness.
      The “You know” is nothing but emphasis and a bit of self-soothing on their part. They feel bad that they did not notice it before/did not help you before and ask themselves if the reason you didn’t tell them is that you DIDN’T know they are there for you, so they assure you – and themselves – that you do know. Whatever the being-there part means.

      If I may ask – What is ED?

      • ED = eating disorder, for me that means restricting or purging, and (for me) often takes the place of self-harm when self-harm is not an option or is “under control”

        Thank you very much for your words here. I think you are very, very right. I just wish it was easier to see. I think a lot of it has to do with my childhood experiences of the adults in my life being in that minority of people who really are furious that I would “do this to them” if I was upset. I see now, as an adult, that most people in the world do not jump to this instinctively, at least not most of the time. (We probably all do it occasionally.) It’s just hard to really believe that completely when such a thick foundation was laid as a kid.

        Really, thank you so much for this comment. I only meant to add a personal example to autisticook’s very astute post, and was not “fishing” for empathy from strangers, but I can’t tell you how much it means to me to read all this.

        • And here you go and make me tear up =) Just a second ago I felt like I was imposing. Now I have this warm glowy feeling of having been there for someone. And I actually cannot help but empathize with this feeling.
          Oh, I know THAT minority – my mother is a perfect example. I am in the process of getting officially diagnosed, and part of it was me trying to interview my mother on my early childhood behaviours with a questionaire. Trying.
          Instead of staying on topic until we were through it only took until question 2 until she started whining how much it had hurt her that some of our relatives had withdrawn because they didn’t know how to deal with me and we did not get to a productive conversation again.
          I am somewhat afraid of trying again, but I will have to tackle it soon if I want that thing done, and I do want it done because it will help present my autism better … *sigh*

    • I think Svenja touches on something in people’s behaviour towards you in this case that is quite the opposite of empathy… it seems to be all about them. Like where you (generic you) end up comforting a friend because the thing you told them that happened to you upset them so much on your behalf? That. I’m sure that in part people respond this way to you and me because we don’t seem all that emotionally affected. True empathy would be to recognise that despite appearances, you do actually have feelings, not to go off on their own emotional bender.

      • Actually, I had that happen to me once –
        “Now that you told me you are autistic you made my life more difficult because I will have to second-guess everything I am about to say!”
        “I don’t want you to.”
        “I won’t be able to help it!” *accusing glare*
        Well, girl, then I won’t be able to help you.
        Or your example. I have comforted people after I’ve had a a panic attack, having to reassure them I actually didn’t believe myself in danger with them … now I have the sense to kick people who are angry at me for something like that out of my life.
        (Gah. Someone please stop my brain from constantly telling me that I should stop imposing my opinions on people by commenting so much?)

      • I think this is related (VERY related) to what you and I talked about elsewhere with “switching off” emotions to defend ourselves and protect others from our “drama” and “manipulation.” Since that is a habit we learned in childhood, people around us have learned that “switched off” us to be the *real* us, and that’s just confusing and difficult for all of us involved.

    • “They never make it known that they are “here for me,” they just inform me that I already know it.” This! The other day my father told me he always loves me, and I must have had an expression of shock/surprise on my face because the next thing he said was “you know that we always love you”…and in my head I thought “Uhm, no I didn’t”. And a teacher who I thought hated me told me he had confidence in my ability to do the school stuff, and seemed surprised that I didn’t already know he felt that way. It seems people like to assume that their support is understood, and I wish people would just say it in words. No, it’s not going to be awkward if you say “I love you” or if you say “I think you have the ability to do this thing”…

  5. Totally with you here. Thanks for writing this, and thanks for saying it so well – it definitely needed to be said.

    Like you, I also care quite a lot about people and will do considerable intellectual work to try and understand their feelings and come up with a helpful response, even though I don’t instinctively understand any of it. But, since it’s all intellectual, it’s slow and largely patterned. And, I would feel the same way you do about the asking for help thing. If someone decided not to ask me, I truly wouldn’t be offended at all. They’re not obligated to ask me for help.

    The type of invalidation of autistic people’s feelings and complete lack of empathy towards us rings very true too. Once, I was describing to my dad how hard it was growing up being bullied and ostracized, and he quite plainly told me: “A lot of what you describe as your “autistic experiences” are just life and everyone goes through that. You don’t deserve any special treatment or recognition”. Comments like that are just hurtful and dangerous. And, while I was doing intellectual work to understand his feelings, he acted like I don’t even have feelings. Quite a double standard.

    I do think that some well-meaning people try to “normalize” autistic experiences in a way to make us feel less alone. They say things like “Oh, I know what you mean about loud people on the bus being annoying”. While I can appreciate where they’re coming from, I think it’s more important to realize that only autistic people truly know what it’s like to be autistic.

    • Thank you for the compliment! I’m glad to hear this struck a chord with you.

      I don’t think you need to be autistic to be able to have some empathy for autistic people, though. It’s just that most people aren’t even aware that the way they express empathy is just so different from our lived experience. It’s a lot easier with an autistic person who knows what you’re talking about.

      • If definitely did.

        That’s true, thanks for bringing up that point. I realized that with my mom; she’s not autistic, but actually has quite a bit of empathy for what I go through, because she really listens to me.

    • My therapist used to try to “normalize” my experience alllll the time in an effort to make me feel less alone. I finally spoke up for myself and told her that I didn’t feel like she was being empathetic at all, and it didn’t make me feel less alone; it just really, really pissed me off, because our experiences were totally different because she’s allistic and I’m Autistic. It was weird how I had to “teach” and explain to my therapist that she could be supportive and empathetic simply by saying something like, “Wow, that sounds super hard and frustrating. I’m so sorry that you have to deal with that.” instead of that whole “normalizing” bullshit.

      • That sucks that even your therapist did that! But I’m glad you had the courage to stand up for yourself. How ironic that an Autistic person had to explain empathy to a therapist!

        I agree with you, and I usually just prefer a simple “Wow that sounds terrible, sorry you’re going through that”. Actually, when someone tries to address my experiences by only mentioining their own, I just feel drowned out.

      • I have been in therapy (and disclaimer: I do not have a label, neither of autism spectrum, nor ADD-PI or OCD-PO or others, though I show some aspects of either of these 3. I did have a label of anxiety disorder not specified and anxiety-fuel clinical depression, but I am doing a bit better now).

        My therapist sometimes both validated and normalized my experience (“I understand that must be very hard and scary. You are not alone, though, there are other people who have that mental experience, and even though it seems to you that having a brain that does that means you are defective and have to control this very strongly or you will become crazy and become a burden for everyone, I can tell you that there are other people who have a brain that does that and are good mothers, wives, friends, workers and daughters. I can teach you some strategies that work for these people, maybe some of them will work for you too. You are not the only one”). I found it a good approach for me.

        Would something like this be reassuring for you or would it be frustrating?

        • I think the difference is between saying, “You are not alone,” and saying “That’s just life, everyone has to deal with that” The first seems far more reassuring to me than the latter. The latter is more of a “you have no right to moan” thing.

  6. I think step 4 can be really difficult wherever you are coming from. Especially in extreme circumstances, or where you’ve never had that experience.

    I also think it’s very wrong of people to say things like “You know what the problem is and what is causing it.” It is immature. I have done it many times to other people, before I was able to communicate better with others. That was caused by problems in my life. I have had it done to me and it is bewildering and hurtful.

    Thank you for your very well thought out explanation of empathetic behaviour.

    • You’re so right about the bewilderment. I can understand what is going through the other person’s head, they’re so focused on their own hurt that they have trouble believing that it wasn’t intentional. It’s easier to get angry at something which is perceived as malicious, than to deal with something that cannot be explained or prevented because it was an accident. But knowing how they feel doesn’t make it easier for me to actually figure out what I did wrong, lol!

  7. I know my wife expects me to be able to jump from step 1 to step 4 without going through steps 2 and 3. Unfortunately I often don’t even get to step 1. Well, not until there’s no way she’ll cooperate in helping me through steps 2 and 3. And even if get to step 4, the emotionally validating response will likely be inappropriate for the circumstances.

    I guess one could say that I fail at all four steps without some (perhaps a lot) of assistance. On the other hand I readily “get” the emotions of children and animals – often when a parent or owner is oblivious to it. I wonder how much cultural/social norms modify the way neurotypicals express/perceive emotions.

    I have had the almost identical experience you describe above with the social worker – on more than one occasion. One therapist suggested to me that I was analysing things too much. She told me to stop thinking and to start feeling instead. I had to stop suppressing my emotions and it was fine to let the “heart” reign at times. No matter how much I tried to explain that to me thinking and feeling are the same thing, she persisted in trying to get me to stop thinking and start feeling. She even suggested that I was suppressing my feminine side and that’s why I wasn’t able to “feel”. The implication was that I was afraid of being less masculine. What absolute nonsense!

    If I didn’t think about something, I can’t see how it’s possible to feel anything towards it. And thinking about something means analysing it, understanding it, comparing it to other possibilities and a lot more besides. I might be wrong, but I get the impression that neurotypicals seem to recognise logic and emotions as two different entities, even if they confuse them at times. For me personally, they are one and the same.

    • Oh god. I get SO ANNOYED when people, especially therapists, tell me I overanalyse things and that I should go by instinct more often. I always tell them that “instinct” is what gets me into trouble because most people don’t respond in the ways that seem natural to me. My “overanalysing” is a coping mechanism that I’ve developed through years and years of being rejected for acting in a way that fits my own neurology. I can let it go when it’s appropriate and when I’m in a safe place, but that’s usually not the case.

      I don’t have that same linear connection between thinking and feeling as you do (I can feel happy when seeing a brightly coloured image without analysing exactly what it is about the image that makes me feel that way), but when I have to come up with words to describe my emotions, then definitely. I can only do that when I analyse them. So “how does that make you feel?” is one of the questions I really hate.

  8. Just to clarify: “Absolute nonsense” refers to the concept that being logical is a masculine trait and being emotional was a feminine trait. I thought that idea went out of fashion several generations ago.

  9. This is great. I feel so often that people in general are horribly sucky at being empathetic. That empathy is a lost art. Those responses you put at the end of this post? I feel like that’s my life. Just last night I was saying to some allistic friends that I was still struggling to adjust to the daylight saving time change, because I’m really sensitive to changes in routine like that. They just looked at me like I was out to lunch and said, “Um, you should NEVER travel outside the US if you can’t even adjust to DST”. 😦 Not exactly the empathetic response to my shitty week that I was looking for. At least I put forth an effort to be empathetic, and it’s way harder for me to go through all those steps than it is for other people! Sigh.

    • I agree, it’s not often that people take the time and effort to feel and show empathy. That’s why I think it’s so ridiculous to make it out like something only autistic people have trouble with.

      • And in my experience…because Autistics are labelled that way and because of their sensitivities- most Autistics I know are MORE empathetic than the NTS. Maybe I am just lucky in my friends but I honestly think that because we have to work so hard to relate to the world we can sort of put ourselves in that place or at least say a comforting word or two. Like you said below…I also learned to love others how I love myself. I have Gahndis quote in my entry so that every time I walk in I remember that I am the change I wish to see. Perhaps because of our differences Autistics are willing to be that change?
        Rae: I am sorry you had a crappy week and non empathetic friends:(

  10. ‘Having problems with loud noises?
    “Just ignore it.”
    Feeling confused and lost because I can’t figure out which household chore to tackle first?
    “Just pick one and be done with it.”
    Struggling how to make friends?
    “Just get out of the house more.”
    Crying because life is just so fucking hard?
    “It’s hard for everyone.”’


    Yes–I made the connection at some point that…when I responded to other people’s needs or fears or concerns in the same manner that other people responded to mine…that that was usually the wrong thing to do. Because the way that people usually responded to me when I needed something or expressed fear or needed help, was actually not okay at all.

    But that still left me without any models of what was the right thing to do…because people didn’t tend to take it seriously or respond with actual constructive compassion, when I really needed something.

    • “Because the way that people usually responded to me when I needed something or expressed fear or needed help, was actually not okay at all.” YES. THAT. Couldn’t have said it better.

  11. Your posts are so often uncanny in their timing.

    I was having this conversation with my husband last night and I was trying to describe how tangled up my sense of empathy was with my other feelings and my ability to intellectualize them. I spend so much time (and effort) building mental pictures and intellectual maps of other peoples feelings and situations that I think I fake empathy fairy well and, when you pair that with the fact that I am usually quick to offer *Sympathy* (not the same as empathy) people don’t usually take my reactions for anything but natural. But the effort … oh the effort… And the doubt. Did I do it right? Could I have been more understanding? Did I consider all of the angles? And then like others have mentioned, I perseverate on it because when I know that my best friend, for example, is upset, I worry. But that’s still not empathy. Wanting her to be well and happy is not empathy. I don’t think that I can separate the feeling from everything else. It’s very hard to pin down.

    Thank you for this post.

    • Yeah, it’s a big tangled ball of confusion between sympathy, empathy, and emotional investment isn’t it? And it’s all so tied up in cultural and social expectations. Simply CARING never seems to be enough.

  12. Brilliant post; you hit the nail on the head about the whole empathy thing and the different lived experiences. I want to say a bunch more but it’s 2.30am and the words don’t want to happen, so just a quick “thank you” for putting into words one of the things that troubles me.

  13. More intelligible and sober comment follows: I’ve thought for a long time in dealing with other autistic people and observing how NTs interact and so on that… it’s not so much that we have a cognitive empathy deficit as that people, in general, are bad at cognitively empathizing with those who’ve got a very different perspective on things.

    I can read other autistic people fairly easily in meatspace. Other autistic people I’ve met seem to have an easy time reading me. We mesh and can empathize based on shared experience.

    I have a hard time reading NTs. NTs I’ve met seem to have a hard time reading me. Our conversation styles don’t mesh and we have less shared experience to base empathy on.

    Like, hm. Hypothetical example: In my country, have a coed meeting, and ask a young dude to go get coffee and serve refreshments. He’d be like, “Oh, okay. Whatever. I get to be Coffee Gopher.” He’d be a bit annoyed, maybe, but that’s probably the full extent of reaction. Ask a young woman to do same, and she might be deeply offended because women are almost always expected to serve men in such situations here – it’s part of how sexism manifests in Canada. If Dude were bystander in situation where she gets offended, he would probably think, “Why is she so offended? It’s just coffee. Gosh, women are so touchy!” because he doesn’t have the shared experience of always being the one to go get coffee and the implied insult of it being because your gender’s place is to serve men. And his reaction is also informed by sexism, because he has the preconceived notion that women are touchy and over-emotional and irrational, so rather than consider that there might be a reason she’s offended, he brushes her off as touchy.

    And I think when an autistic person is bothered by a sensory thing, NTs are the dude in the example. They don’t have the experience to empathize, and they don’t have the education to be able to consciously compensate for their lack of first-hand experience. And, like the dude in the example, because they’re higher up on the power ladder, they’re not likely to seek out education on it, and are more likely to brush it off as us just being touchy and irrational.

    Apologies if wording is a bit disjointed – I’m a little worse for the wear after last night, and I’m finding it hard to preposition, article, and pronoun. 😛

    • That’s a very good example. As the only woman at an IT firm, I took huge exception to the fact that everyone expected me to welcome visitors and do the coffee and tea and “just a moment while I let the other person know you’re here” thing. Even though I was the head of support and had to coordinate 5 other people! But whenever I said something, they all went “What’s the problem? It doesn’t take that much time.” Because they didn’t know how disheartening it is to ALWAYS be that person, no matter your level of seniority. And lacking that experience, they didn’t have any empathy for my situation or even tried to understand my objections.

  14. My husband has been reading the Hunger Games and he says he can not get over how alike to Katniss I am. I think it comes down to a different sort of survival. I honestly think if I would not have worked out of relating to the world from my experience first, I would have regressed to perhaps to a vegetable like state? Maybe? I think I knew this deep down so I fought to relate. The only way I CAN relate is for the world to revolve around me. Frankly, I thought everyone worked like this? Don’t we all relate from our inner experience?
    He also said it is interesting how many people fight FOR Katniss in the book and make her a symbol even though she hates being in the spotlight, hates playing games, and hates being relational in most regards. That’s how I feel. He says, “You don’t even know that you make people thrive and belong. Katniss becomes a symbol and is clueless to what the Mockingjay means and that she inspires people. You don’t even know what you do to people.” Katniss is also clueless to how many people adore her straightforward honesty and her spirit. My husband says I am generally clueless to how many people genuinely care about me. Yet, I can still act like the earth revolves around me. He says it’s a baffling thing to watch and Katniss seemed to do the same thing. It’s en empathy paradox. He says, “You are Gem. You can not flourish without others caretaking you, re furbishing you, buffing you up to shine. You just can’t function when people are not serving you.”
    Sigh. It’s so true and I can’t help it! He says he loves me for it. ( Just like Peeta loved Katniss) To be fair…it’s not about selfishness. It’s just about relating to the world and needing more support. Like Katniss I need my stylist, prep team, speeches, Gale, sister, loyal tributes and Peeta to be who I am. Katniss is the narrator in the book. It is all told from her perspective. I am the narrator of my book, life, journal. It is all told from MY perspective. Otherwise the story just doesn’t get told. When my husband is not depressed or massively ADD he is my dandelion. So perhaps there is a place for everyone in this world? The ones who work out of themselves first (me) and the ones who work back to themselves (my husband)? I think we teach each other valuable lessons from the different ways we work. Don’t we?
    Anyway, I can’t believe I wrote a whole comment about Hunger Games characters but this came up this morning and seemed to relate to the theory of mind…

    • I haven’t read the Hunger Games but I get your point. I think we do all start out with relating things from within our personal experience first. It sort of depends on how we grow up whether that personal experience gets outside validation or not. In my own case, because my personal experience was constantly dismissed or belittled (like my sensory sensitivities), I never really learned how to relate that to other people’s experiences. Because in a way, I learned that I was too different. And why take others seriously when they don’t take you seriously? So yes, that intensely egocentric (NOT selfish) world view is something I recognise in myself – and have been accused of by others as well. I’ve turned it into an asset for myself, though. Change the world, start with yourself. Be the change you want to see. Love yourself so you can love others. That sort of thing. I don’t think that’s particular to autistic people.

  15. I read this carefully. I haven’t heard empathy discussed this way before, or in such detail. My husband once said if reading people was like a stop sign on a road, he would see the sign just as he was flying past, when it was too late to slam on the brakes. He would also respond similarly to you about the validity of feelings and respecting if someone chose not to ask him for help. Over many years I have come to know the honesty in what he expresses; you put it differently but in some ways I could see him in what you wrote – even the part about your family. Thank you. I am glad I took the time to read it.

    • Thank you! I’m so pleased to hear you found it enlightening. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and was feeling a bit hesitant to put into writing. Because, you know, then it’s THERE and I wouldn’t be able to take it back anymore. So I wanted to make sure I got it right.

  16. This point has occurred to me many, many times since I was diagnosed at 47, three years ago. I became resentful when i realized that I have far more true empathy, being able and willing to exhibit Step 4 with regard to NT experiences, than any NT I know. Yet, I’m the one who lacks “Theory of Mind?!” They get to do the negative labeling only by virtue of the fact that they are the majority, and nothing else. And it never occurs to them that their unwillingness to *even try* to understand me shows a far greater lack of concern for me than I would dream of showing them [if I knew there was something bothering them]. I always, at least, try! But, I’m the one with the problem…yeah. You fully articulated this in a way I’ve never been able to before, and for that, I thank you. Bravo!

      • I concur. It seems to be a human characteristic to devalue those who are in a minority. The minority is expected to understand and fit in with the majority, whilst the majority see no need to understand or make adjustments for minorities. It seems to make little difference whether it’s disability, ethnicity or religion.

        • “The minority is expected to understand and fit in with the majority, whilst the majority see no need to understand or make adjustments for minorities.” Yes. This. I actually read an interesting article in The Guardian two days ago that that went into this phenomenon in depth.

          Feminists have long since pointed out that those on the bottom of any unequal social arrangement tend to think about, and therefore care about, those on top more than those on top think about, or care about, them. Women everywhere tend to think and know more about men’s lives than men do about women, just as black people know more about white people’s, employees about employers’, and the poor about the rich.

          And humans being the empathetic creatures that they are, knowledge leads to compassion. The rich and powerful, meanwhile, can remain oblivious and uncaring, because they can afford to. Numerous psychological studies have recently confirmed this. Those born to working-class families invariably score far better at tests of gauging others’ feelings than scions of the rich, or professional classes. In a way it’s hardly surprising. After all, this is what being “powerful” is largely about: not having to pay a lot of attention to what those around one are thinking and feeling.

          It’s mostly about the upper class versus the working class, but the parallels with non-autistic versus autistic (or for that matter, any privileged group versus a non-privileged group) are very clear to see. Empathy seems to be a one way street far too often.

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  20. This is really good!

    (I only just found it, more than two years after you wrote it, LOL)

    Anyway, I do the exact same things as you that make it such a nonstarter to ask anyone for help: first, it’s just really, really hard for me to put into words why I need help — usually, if I understand the problem, I already know how to solve it and thus don’t need help — and then I do the thing where I tell myself not to bother anyone with my problems, because either 1. they are trivial and you should be able to solve them yourself or 2. they are too big and one person could not possibly help you so all you’ll be doing is making them sad.

    (Also, most of the time when I’ve asked for help in my life, I’ve gotten a variation on “I don’t understand” or “Just deal with it yourself”, so you can imagine how, given how much effort it costs me to ask for help, I am unwilling to sink that much time and energy into something that has such a low return on investment rate LOL)

  21. Great article. I have an autistic son, so i read alot of personal blogs etc…
    No rambling. Very poetic but precise.
    I guess its hard to get unless you live it, which ever side of the coin you’re on. Thankyou

  22. I re-read this because someone recently commented on it. Now I’m crying in the parking lot on my way to dropping off my son at cross country.

    Brilliant – and YES.

    Thanks and love,
    Full Spectrum Mama

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