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?”
“Nothing.”
“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.

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