I’d like to share some thoughts (in draft) following a conversation I was having with a female friend who was starting a relationship with a guy on the Autism / Aspergers scale – a high functioning autistic. He would say things like “that’s your feelings, deal with them” and “I can’t deal with that now”. The word “Empathy” came up and it got me thinking, so here goes (BTW, this is the first thing I’ve ever posted)…
Empathy is the ability (or willingness) to share in the feelings of another. It’s about feeling the other’s feelings.
Ultimately, I realise it’s important to distinguish between the “ability” to share feelings (empathise) and the “willingness” to empathise. Much is talked about people who are unable to feel empathy – on reflection I question that. In fact, I conclude, in pretty much every case you’re going to meet in life, lack of empathy is related to lack of willingness to empathise, for whatever reason.
However, what I realise from my conversation is that different people can appear to lack empathy, but for very different, even opposite, reasons. One could be a narcissist, psychopath, who has shut down all empathy, while the other could be a very sensitive person, who has learned ways to cut off from their empathetic feelings, because it causes them too much trauma. So, both very insensitive and very sensitive people can show a lack of empathy. This I find paradoxical and interesting.
Much is talked about people who are unable to experience Empathy. I do not find that relevant. here. An inability to empathise is one thing: a physical or mental disorder can prevent or restrict empathy, indeed. However, a genetic defect or physical trauma is extremely rare. Moreover, even in such rare cases, brain plasticity can overcome physical brain damage if the learning, training and dedication are in place. Much more likely, is that early trauma have caused brain plasticity and created a lack of empathy.
Willingness is another thing: people have a natural ability to switch off empathy (frontal cortex) even though they still have the capability to empathise – they just do not choose to switch it on, or only switch it on when asked to do so – but at least they can switch it on. Children learn by copying, and empathy is part of that learning process; in other words, as children we experience the feelings of others, through empathy, we learn our way in life and society (or not as the case may be!).
The paradox is that very empathic people shut themselves off from empathy, in the same way that non-empathic people do. They can do this to all people, in which case it is seen as a disorder. Or, they can do this selectively, in which case it is seen as a personal rebuff.
People, for different reasons, shut down their empathy. Some limit and restrict their empathy because they find it too difficult to feel the other’s feelings constantly. Others shut it down completely, usually because of earlier damage. Shutting down on empathy is a protective reaction, but it can also be damaging in itself because if empathy is shut down too much or too automatically, others will find difficulties in relating to them.
A non-empathist can appear to have empathy if they sympathise with the other’s feelings, usually based on their own experiences of having been through a similar situation themselves (such as the loss of a loved one). That is not empathy – it is sympathy (relating to another’s feelings through memories of one’s own experiences); empathy is actually feeling the same feeling at the time.
So how empathic are we? Does the other person, or do you, have the capacity to feel the other’s feeling ? Some people can have an ability to feel some feelings, but not others (e.g. sadness but not love or happiness) – but this is often caused by mental instability or a mental illness, such as depression.
How can you tell whether someone “feels your feeling”, even (or especially) if they choose to ignore it, or find it difficult to empathise. How do they react to seeing pain, anger or love being expressed in front of them?
Empathy is an essential undercurrent in all relationships
Willingness to empathise with a partner is key to an harmonious relationship. In many instances, for their own protection, one partner will ignore or disregard the feelings of the other partner. If that becomes a recurrent practice, then it will become an issue among the partners and undermine the whole relationship.
When one partner doesn’t empathise with a strong feeling of the other, then the partner with the feeling gets a coldness and sense of being completely alone.
So, Empathy is an essential undercurrent in all relationships.
But, it is one thing to feel (or not) the feelings of others, it is another to ask the question, how do we react (appropriately or not) to those feelings? In my humble opinion, how we react to the feelings of others is more important than actually feeling the feelings of others (empathy).
I put forward some suggestions for appropriate reactions:
– Listen and acknowledge the feeling.
– Express or show an understanding.
– Ask if you can provide comfort or do anything to help.
– Actually provide comfort or do something to help.
Does your partner act in an appropriate way. A narcissist will do exactly the opposite of these things.