The components of “empathy”

December 28, 2011

I have the impression that I am not au courant with what people mean when they use the word “empathy,” so I may be examining here something that should be given a different label, but it is, at the very least, the point of departure for my thinking.

I think about this subject as an adult in part because I have finally figured out that one of the reasons I often find myself in difficult relationships is that I was taught to regard people without empathy as no different from people with empathy — both sets were to be treated the same and as normal, even if in fact the dynamics of the relationships with each set bore no resemblance to each other.  So, I have had unrealistic expectations of long-standing about people.

On top of this, the people without empathy and who also had other issues behaved in ways that I found damaging to me, and this subset of people without empathy has loomed larger in my life than the subset of people without empathy who would be aghast to discover they had inadvertently caused damage or harm.  So, I have probably developed an aversion to dealing with people who have difficulty with empathy, and I know I have a developed coping mechanisms to deal with one subset of them that may actually not be appropriate for dealing with other subsets of them, only I’m too tired of incurring the damage that seems to come with interacting enough to find out to which group a person belongs, especially since for me the type who persist in damage even when given feedback have predominated in my life (this type I think is often labeled “narcissistic” or something similar).  I tend to cut and run when it looks to me as if the pattern is repeating with a new person.

But I am wondering whether for people who have trouble with empathy but really would like to behave more like people who have it, it is worth my while to try to figure out what happens when the relationship seems to founder over a lack of empathy, and how that might be helped.

The NYTimes articles on the couple with Asperger’s trying to negotiate a romantic relationship and one on Mitt Romney’s awkward conversational gambits have led me to try to tease apart a number of the strands that seem to be involved.

If Person A steps into the shoes of Person B, all that really has to mean, I suppose, is that they have picked up some information, not what emotional aura they may have cloaked it with.  It is quite possible that most of us empathizers immediately jump to a common emotional cloak for the same information: Person B is distraught, therefore I feel a certain way about them, out of which arises my desire to comfort them, which I can then can go about doing with one of the behaviors I am familiar with that accomplishes that goal.  If Person A (the “I” here) does this almost instantaneously, the whole thing may get labeled an empathetic response.

But the information that the distress exists is actually separate from the other pieces (and of course reading the distress in the first place is a whole other kettle of fish).  A person could have trouble with attaching emotional aura and thence consequent response to their perception of the other person’s distress (including helpful behavioral strategies for reaching a goal of resolution).  They could need a point by point road map for what for others is almost an intuitive linear route from perception to behavior.  I’ve known people who have required me to explain exactly how their body weight squishing my arm at an angle against the couch hurts before they can figure out to reconfigure what they’re doing (with the dogs, I think “Move” was the operative command, with more intuitive people, “Ouch” would suffice).

So, I guess I’m wondering with people who are said to “lack empathy,” which of these components are compromised.  And then there’s what to do about it.  Because it can be hard for me to step into their shoes to figure out their view of me — how do I figure out what their reaction to me should be and then explain that to them in little increments?  I’ve had people ask me to do that very thing, but those people have, at least in the past, all been people who would not use that information to behave any differently in the future or even then — for them, it turned out to be just a way to learn what behaviors to fake in the future, and so I eventually refused (not just to continue supplying information, but to continue interacting with them).  But if I had the impression that explaining more, even if it’s just from my point of view, would actually help the relationship proceed in a way helpful to both them and me, I would probably try it again and continue it for longer.  Although at this point in my life it would take a huge leap of faith in the face of many attempts at this that turned out to be futile — being able to parse the other person’s good will unequivocally would probably be a big help to me.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: