Monday, April 15, 2013

How I Experience Empathy

For a couple of years now, I have wanted to write something about autism, and empathy.  I wasn't sure what, though.  I (as usual!) don't fall into the same belief system as anyone else I know of about this subject.  I find most views to be be extreme.

On one side, I see the ones that think we have no empathy, or at least the typical capacity for it.

Then , the other that contends we have too much to the point we're all empaths.

I don't believe either of those to be true for myself, or my boys from what I have experienced, and known of ASD. So, where does that leave me?

It leaves me in the middle with another explanation.

Today, I was quickly browsing through my Facebook newsfeed.  I came across this post from Chasing Rainbows about the passing of their disabled son. I still cannot stop crying.  I have a pain so big inside of me from seeing this that I am almost immobilized with grief.  I have experienced that kind of grief before. I know what that kind of pain feels like.  I am overcome with sadness for this family. These sorts of situations effect me deeply.

However, it's not unlikely for others around me to not know how deep I feel anything.   It's not lack of feeling anything that is the issue, but rather expressing it.  If someone shares something with me that is deeply tragic, or even is visibly upset in front of me, I would most likely feel so overwhelmed that I would not react at all.  I may not know how to react even if I am not overwhelmed.

Sharing emotions with others is s highly social event.  I process most social situations on an intellectual scale. Meaning, I don't do it intuitively like NTs do.  So, when it comes to processing a shared emotion I tend to shut down.  It doesn't tend to come out the same way. My brain often can't process it, and puts it back for later.  Later, is often an inconvenient time that is completely unrelated.

Say, I am around someone, or an environment with high emotion, especially negative emotion during the day.I can usually get through that time pretty unemotional. It's only when I am laying in bed that night, or alone later (sometimes even a day or two later) that the extreme emotions catch up with me, and I am overcome by them.. It's not unusual for me to lay in bed completely overcome by sadness, or anxiety after being around that emotion via someone else. I can't hardly sleep when this happens.  My brain can't switch these feelings off, and I am left with all this residual emotion.

Processing emotions is primarily a solitary activity for me. I don't like to share this with others, and I don't want to. The feelings are way too overwhelming, and confusing to do so.  I have just now gained the ability to feel, and name my emotions with any degree of accuracy.  I'm in my 30's.  Think of how hard it is too sift through other people's emotions coming at me if my own are unfamiliar.  The sorting process is overwhelming in, and of itself. I often find that my mood has shifted for no discernible reason. This is me, just keeping track of me, much less others.

Not responding does not equate not caring.  We can't always read facial expressions, or body language cues, but we can feel just the same as others, and deeply care about the well being of others, even if we don't always know how to show it, or feel to overwhelmed to show it. Please don't mistake us for being cold, or uncaring when we don't react the way you do. On the same token, I dislike being thought of as some magical being that has super powers.  I'm just human, even if process things differently than most.


  1. I understand you. My husband and I react to big pain with blunt affect. It can echo for months afterward in odd and unexpected ways, but we still feel the hurt, deeply. Thank you for sharing.

  2. You're right about many important concepts here. It sounds like you are overcoming alexithymia, which is the first step toward expressive empathy. But as you say, it's too much to handle all at once. Be patient, you'll get there.

    I wrote a very similar post recently:

    The only thing I really object to in your comments is the repetition of the myth that "we" (by which I assume you mean autistic people) "can't always read facial expressions, or body language cues..." That's certainly not true of me. The rest of your post was written in first person, and was excellent. Best to avoid generalizations I would say (as a generalization). ;)

    1. Thanks for reading, and commenting. I left a comment on your post, as well.

      I suppose I feel that it's still true, because we can't always. I didn't say never. It would be difficult to get a diagnosis of ASD with the ability to read, interpret and respond the nonverbal cues. My son is much better than me at it. That's why as a young child with a speech delay he was dxed with PDD-NOS. At this point, I think his speech is pretty normal, so I think they'd move that to AS if he were evaluated now, but I'm sure his reading people skills are still superior to mine. He is insure what to do with the information he has interpreted, but he can interpret it.

  3. Thank you Shawna,
    This post is so timely for me,

  4. I agree with you Shawna, emotions are so freaking confusing, sometimes I crave days and days with no human contact just so I can get a break. I don't know if I experience after effects like you do, although...I do have plenty of nights where anxiety and angst keeps me up, especially when I was married and we were fighting. Very thought-provoking post girl!

    1. Thank you! I crave breaks from people, too. I like people, but they can be really overwhelming!

  5. I cannot read the posts where children have passed or people have died. They affect me too profoundly. People think I am insensitive but the truth is that I am far too sensitive. It is why I cannot watch the news most of the time. I can actually feel myself spiraling down like water towards a drain if I allow myself to read these things. It's like a vortex of sadness that I cannot process and it drains me and depletes me and makes me feel utterly helpless. Then people can't understand why I am reacting SO sadly. Either I do not show enough emotion or I show too much. But I feel what I feel when I feel it. I cannot control that. Thank you for your blog post.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I feel the same way watching the news. I have to be careful what I am exposed to, or I just get too emotional. The petition sites can really get me upset to the point I think about some of the injustices for days. I try to avoid it at all costs.

  6. i was genuinely hoping for your IRISH theme. You actually experienced me heading.
    The agency theme is cool even though, the boys will love it for
    confident. Cant hold out to hear the music.
    one day i'll get my irish theme VBS .... hint hint ;)

    Here is my webpage; Celebrity Workout Plans Lose Weight

  7. Don't go pricey to get a reduction. two buck chuck is fantastic.

    Feel free to surf to my web blog - kids eat healthy recipes


If you'd like to follow all comments to this post, please click the 'subscribe by email' link under the comment box. I always reply to every post, and appreciate all feedback. If you have issues getting your comment to post you can email me your comment at Blogger sometimes loses a comment when the user goes to post, so it is always advisable to highlight and copy your text before hitting the post button.