Empathy?

I am a very literal person, that is why I like electronics, it is predictable and deterministic.

I tend to interpret things literally, but that’s just the way I am.  Over the years I have come to the conclusion that my brain works differently to everyone else’s (notice I said differently, not better or worse just different).  There is an abstraction process which goes on in the minds of most people, they automatically see one thing as representing another whereas I have to make that link manually.  For example someone makes a statement and other people automatically think ‘oh she doesn’t really mean that, what she is trying to say is …’ but I just take the statement as a literal representation and then I have to remember to think about what other meanings there might be behind the statement.

This does not mean that I cannot do this kind of abstraction, it is just that for me the abstraction is always explicit and never implicit.  It is just a different way of looking at the world.

I also have a problem with empathy.

My understanding of empathy is that it is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, emotions and position.  To understand what is going on inside another person’s mind, to interpret their facial expression and body language.  According to the psychology textbooks empathy makes the other person feel valued and enables them to see that their thoughts and feelings have been acknowledged.

I am told that empathy allows people to make a close friend and look after that friendship.  Empathy avoids the risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication, because people who have empathy can figure out what the other person intended.

But this is an alien world, closed to me.  I have no idea how I come across to people.  I have read about empathy and analysed it as much as I can but I still cannot empathise with anyone.  I have read books on body language but it is still a foreign language of which I have little understanding.

I have noticed that other people seem to communicate as much through their eyes as through their words and they seem to know what the other person means intuitively.  I haven’t got a clue how to do body language, perhaps this puts me at a disadvantage, I don’t know.  Some people have said that I can be very didactic, that I lecture them rather than having a proper conversation, I don’t know what the characteristics of a proper conversation are, surely if I have a point to make then I must pursue it to it’s logical conclusion.  I admit that sometimes I do lecture people when I forget to try to keep up the illusion that I have some empathy.

I can and do try to emulate what I think the process of empathy might produce but this is an intellectual process it does not come naturally and so I make many mistakes.  I pretend to be normal but I miss subtle clues as to what people think and feel.  Sometimes I don’t understand jokes everyone else finds funny, chatting with people and making small talk is a nightmare, it is exhausting and stressful to keep up this pretence.

Conversations based on the adjudication of an issue where evidence can be examined and judged in favour or against a position are much easier, because then I know where the conversation is going.  I like a conversation which progresses along a logically linked linear path, a series of facts or assertions which follow clearly from from the preceding steps.  I find the desultory ‘small talk’ type of conversation stressful because it is so unpredictable.  People change the subject like a bee flitting from one flower to the next without a care for the overall direction of the conversation, it is so confusing, ‘idle chitchat’ leads nowhere and I have no idea how to do it properly.

If I think something is wrong then my instinct is to say so, but I have learned that this can be fraught with difficulties so most of the time I say nothing even though I would like to, I just don’t know how people will react to what I have to say.  If a conversation is boring for instance people can be offended if you tell them so, but if you don’t tell them then you are stuck listening to a pointless conversation going nowhere.

Other people seem to socialise together effortlessly but I have no idea what to talk to them about.  I have little idea what others are thinking about or how they feel or how to respond to those feelings.  I have learnt to assume what others are thinking and feeling but this is a conscious cognitive exercise, it does not come naturally to me.  I have to stop and think about what people might be feeling, to work out the patterns in people’s behaviour and how this relates to their internal feelings, usually this is after the event and is a very inferior and inaccurate model of what actually happened.

I feel like a prisoner of my self focus.  This is because my self focus is the only thing which is available to me, I cannot perceive other peoples thoughts and feelings.  Peoples facial expressions are difficult to read, I never really know what is expected of me.  I say all the wrong things without anticipating the hurt this will cause, until people react badly.  Usually I just keep quiet.

When I can be alone it is a great relief, I can relax and I no longer have to pretend to be like other people, and yet I become lonely when I am alone too long.

It took me a long time to even realise that I have no empathy, I suppose one of the effects of not having empathy is that it is hard to recognise the fact that you have no empathy.  I only knew that I had no friends either male or female and that all my personal relationships always seem to go disastrously wrong.  There was one colleague at work whom I considered to be a friend for many years but I offended him some time ago and now although he is still superficially friendly our conversations are limited to the most anodyne of subjects and the social interaction we used to have has been curtailed. Sigh …

Eventually I read an article in a psychology journal about relationships and realised what they were describing was not the way my mind works and so I started reading about psychology and trying to understand the nature of the problem.  Unfortunately understanding the nature of the problem does not help to solve the problem.  Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

I decided that psychology could not be classified as a rigorous science but that it does have some value despite it’s shortcomings.

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4 thoughts on “Empathy?

  1. Hi paul, just a quick comment. I think (but I’m not an expert) you share some Asperger syndrome traits: there is not shame in that, but that could be part of the explanation. We all share some degree of “autism”, someone more than the others. Do you know about Temple Grandin? She was the subject of the “An anthropologist on Mars” chapter from Oliver Sacks homonym book. I wonder if you can find her writings useful, and connect with them. When I read this post, I suddenly recalled she saying the same things. Moreover, you can try to do a quiz like this: http://aspergersquiz.com/ I hope this helps.

      • I thought so. Well, Paul, she’s autistic, so maybe you would like to get a test to assess that. I’m not an expert, but I would suggest you to do that, and see a specialist. That could lead you to meet associations who work with people like you, and you could get much help, if you want. Of course, you will decide what you want to do. The only thing I can say is that you should not be afraid of discover this part of yourself, you could find great peace and serenity in exploring who you are. It is always a difficult but important journey.

  2. I went to the website, took the test only to find the website is broken. Upon completion of the test you get a series of PHP error messages.

    I ordered Oliver Sacks book, it hasn’t arrived at the time of writing this.

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