Lack of Empathy?


A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver some pain medications to a customer on my way home from the pharmacy where I work. I had not been informed that there had been a prior mix up resulting in her having been without her meds for a couple of days, just that she needed them that day. Walking home from work begins my decompression time from a job that I find highly stressful and so by the time I knocked on her door I was unprepared for the shock of her grabbing the bag, waving it in my face and yelling at me because they were late. I do not react fast to vocal information and so my feet had taken control and walked me away from the situation before I had a chance to explain anything. By the time I got home I was in tears. Then the next day I was called in to explain why the customer had emailed in with a furious complaint about me and included the line, “I hope she understands how I felt when she is old and in pain.” I think the phrase, “lack of empathy” was also used. 

I was thinking about this occasion last night while I was pondering the decision to leave Twitter for a while, following the outpouring of grief, anger and confusion resulting from the EU referendum. I have a limit to how much of other people’s pain I can deal with. I suspect it is why I have become a fixer. I have become pretty good at offering solutions for upset or illness. But I cannot provide that shoulder to cry on or be part of that healing circle that others (mostly women) find useful as they discuss and talk their way through grievances. While others find solace, compassion and reassurance in shared experience I hear only voices in competition either in who suffered the most or who can sound the most sympathetic. While they feel relief from putting the world to rights over a bottle of wine and then sleeping soundly, I find their process stressful. To the point that I will probably be looking bored and will be forcing myself not to drum my fingers in the table in annoyance. Instead I want to offer solutions so that problems can be solved and so that I can sleep without obsessing all night. 

For these same reasons I cannot read newspapers or listen to more than the most sanitised of headlines because my powerlessness to solve the worlds injustices crushes my very soul. Every Twitter link to the story of rape, torture, environmental destruction or war leaves visuals in my head that I cannot erase. (Even a fictional horror-film plot line someone told me over three years ago haunts me still.) And yet I cannot unfollow everyone who posts these because I do not wish to upset them and I cannot possibly ask people to sensor themselves on my behalf. So what the hell am I supposed to do? Cut myself off from all outside information and social interaction? 

I don’t think so because the flip side of socialising, whether in person or online, is that other people’s happiness is drug like to me. Good news calms me, restores me, elevates me. It reminds me why life is worth living. Isolation would deny me that chance. And would also deny me the joy in passing on that good news and making someone else happy. 

A girl at school once told me that I was irritating because I was always happy. She was wrong. I was mostly unhappy; anxious, confused, depressed and severely overwhelmed. But I figured that being chirpy and positive might make other people happy, and that then they might like me. And I stuck with that mindset even when experience taught me over and over again that it was wrong! 

But, I’m off track. I’ve rambled off into reminiscence. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: autism is often associated with a lack of empathy. But autistics themselves maintain that, if anything, they have too much empathy. Speaking for myself, I think that maybe perceived empathy may be more of a problem. If you are distressed by a problem then I want that problem to go away, and fast. I do not want you to be distressed. Your distress, for me, is too abstract to help you to relieve directly and so I will put every emotional, mental and physical resource I have available into solving the problem itself for you. But if I cannot solve it then it becomes, for me, a black hole and I, in turn will become distressed to the extent that I have to withdraw completely. From the situation, from you, from everyone. So, contrary to outward appearance, I do not suffer a lack of empathy. Far from it. 

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20 thoughts on “Lack of Empathy?

  1. There are so many bad stereotypes for autistic people. The lack of empathy one has to be one of the worst. I regularly well up when I think someone else may be sad. I have started to become better at listening to people’s problems though as have had quite a bit of practice over the years. I also used to want to offer solutions but sometimes all they want is someone to listen. It does take a lot out of me though.
    And don’t forget the mute button on twitter. You can get people out of your timeline without offending them as they won’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a stereotype that took me a while to get my head round. Sadly, from my own behaviour I can see why people might think that of me. Although, like you, I do sometimes cry straight away, this might actually be helpful I guess!
      Thank you for the mute button reminder. Although I really don’t want to miss their good news. I need a selective tweet-specific mute button!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I can really, truly relate to this what you wrote. Nice to know that I am not alone how I feel about emotional conflict and that it is an Aspie trait. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Based on your description of the situation, I’d say it wasn’t you who lacked empathy or understanding. You knocked; she opened the door and grabbed the bag, then waved it in your face shouting because she was angry, in pain, and took it out on you. I think you were being empathetic and more than understanding by backing away from a confrontation with her for behaving badly. And yes, sensory shock and self defense. I’m wondering if that woman was uncomfortable about what happened and wasn’t sure how to identify that feeling… so she decided she was more angry with YOU for your reaction when really, the discomfort was embarrassment for behaving so badly.

    I deal with daily chronic pain. I do get grumpy from it, but I make every effort not to take it out on people. I’m hyper aware of my behavior, and I apologize if I seem snippy or rude. I don’t blame other people for my bad behavior. I’m responsible for how I behave, no matter the situation. And I know pain. I know mental health. I know anxiety. Know better, do better. She didn’t.

    YOU did nothing wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah thank you so much. I do really appreciate that.
      And I am so sorry that you are dealing with pain. I’m not surprised you feel grumpy from it. Sounds like you are being very brave and very lovely. Take care of you xx

      Liked by 2 people

      • You’re welcome. 🙂 I hate to think that you’ve felt any sort of anguish or guilt over this. I hope that your supervisor gives you a chance to explain your side of things and that you feel comfortable doing so. They won’t reprimand the customer, but you shouldn’t have any marks against you. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      • All done and dusted. Not particularly satisfactorily at the time but I now have a new manager who trusts his team 🙂

        The lovely thing about now having a diagnosis (I’d never even considered that I might be on the spectrum until a couple of months ago, but luckily got to see someone about it really quickly) is that I can finally see why so many moments like that have gone wrong and why they shook me up so badly. I find it much easier to be objective now, or at least to ask someone if I acted appropriately!

        Thank you again xx

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for this! I’m learning (“nt” mom of son who was diagnosed a year÷ ago at 16, and former husband with Aspie traits but not diagnosed).

    If you are comfortable elaborating on this point you made, it would be really helpful:
    “If you are distressed by a problem then I want that problem to go away, and fast. I do not want you to be distressed. Your distress, for me, is too abstract to help you to relieve directly… ”
    Is someone else’s distress abstract because it’s difficult to imagine/understand how they might feel? Or their behavior/words are difficult to read, so you feel it’s a guess at what they’re experiencing?
    I know my son has great empathy. But empathy can be a complex concept- I’m trying to understand more about his experience (granted we are all individuals, but clearly we’re connecting to similarities).
    Thanks for a great piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh wow! That’s a really good question. And I’m not entirely sure what my answer is… I think that while I am empathising with the feeling of “not happy” I can’t work out what flavour of “not happy” that comes in, and I don’t know the words to help them make that switch to “happy.” If it helps, I don’t always recognise my own specific feelings either. I only just properly isolated what angry meant a few months ago.

      Also, I only worked out recently that other people’s emotions weren’t necessarily anything to do with me. I certainly always feel guilty (ooh – I know that one!) if someone is angry even if they’ve told me it’s not my fault.

      In fact, I think that might be the crux of it. If someone is sad or angry I assume that I’ve made them feel that way and then I get stressed. The irony is that I then get myself worked up to the extent that I’m liable to actually upset them further!!

      Does that help at all? The concept of actually being on the spectrum is still very new for me so I’ve got a lot of figuring out to do too. How amazing for your husband and son to have a NT to help put things into context. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I know exactly what you mean! Suffering makes me uncomfortable too, so like you, I’ve become a “fixer”; if I don’t solve the problem, I’ll be up all night, unable to sleep. I think you’re spot-on with the idea of “perceived empathy”. 🙂

    Silent Wave (also a female Aspie)

    Like

    • Ah, thank you, I really appreciate that!

      Btw, I tweeted your over-communication post yesterday, was totally me! I find it frustrating that the more I try to explain myself and create a connection between my own and someone else’s understanding I often seem to create even more disconnection, confusion and ultimately isolation. It’s so, so lovely to have found an online of over-communicating aspies 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi, Only just found your blog and this post about empathy. It is sometime since you wrote this post so maybe you already know (aside from personal experience proving the nay-sayers are wrong), but studies have known for a long time that we DO empathise, often more than others, so people that claim we don’t are completely wrong. Here’s an example, and look at the date: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/05/11/a-radical-new-autism-theory.html

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    • Thank you for this! Yep, wrote this not that long after diagnosis and have seen lots of posts etc to blow that theory out the water! Funny, it’s really just a lack of perceived empathy isn’t it? And if someone can’t perceive your empathy does that not make them themselves less empathic?!

      Will click on link now though, pretty sure I haven’t read it yet

      Liked by 1 person

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