How empathy works for me

Picture by geofones on flickr

Empathy seems to be a fairly popular topic amongst autism bloggers, for reasons which include certain autism “experts” and their opinions on the matter, and certain unfriendly ways that autism is depicted in the media. I’ve written once before about problems in how we use the word and all the things it can mean, but I have yet to opine on autism and empathy directly. I am still solidly in the stage of thinking through how it all works for me and am not prepared to make broader statements about empathy and autism, but I can certainly blog about myself easily enough.

So I pose the question to myself: just how does empathy work for me? Rather predictably, the answer is not short and simple simply because empathy seems to mean so very many different things.

The simplest version is the ability to read facial expressions. I’ll be honest, I’m not so great at that. I can determine basic expressions, like smiles and frowns and furrowed brows, but I often seem to miss subtleties. The way I once put it is that when seeing cues and such from other people, I will often see 2+2=4. Unfortunately, it may have actually been 2.3+2.7=5 and I simply could not see that .3 and .7, so my conclusion was off. So this is definitely an area where it could be said that I struggle with empathy.

If empathy is about caring about the feelings of others, than I have no real problems. I care about people a lot. A whole lot. I am not always particularly good at expressing it (actually, I am often quite poor at it, sadly) and I rarely know what to do in response, but I do care. If empathy means caring, then I am quite empathic. On the other hand, if empathy means knowing what to do, then I am not particularly empathic at all.

If empathy means feeling what other people feel then… actually, this one is tricky. I’m not sure. I do not seem to automatically feel what people around me are feeling; at least not all the time. I can and do, however, imagine myself in the place of someone else, and imagine what I would feel were I in their position. This is not an infallible method, though, as what I feel is not always going to be what other people will feel. Of course, it’s not infallible for other people either, and I have had multiple unfortunate encounters with neurotypical people who seem to use this method, but got tripped up when I turned out to be different from them. It does not appear to be only autistic people who struggle with empathy in that way, it’s just that neurotypical people have the privilege of knowing that most people will respond to input similarly to themselves, while autistic people tend to be very much different. That said, I am able to see the world from the perspective of other people; I just have to work at it a bit. So I guess my answer to this one is “sort of” but I am more aware of it’s shortcomings than many neurotypical people.

There is another area that is rather more woo-like, so I’m a little bit hesitant to write about it. That being – that I feel the presence of other people as pressure. Attention of a person is even more pressure, like standing in a stream of water. When I’m in public, I feel all the people around me as though they are pushing on me. This was actually a significant problem when I was younger, and I spent years trying to figure out how to build walls around me to keep that pressure at bay, with mixed success. That feeling of pressure from people around may or may not actually convey useful information to me, and the amount and type of pressure can vary wildly from person to person and situation to situation. If I’m not careful, it can be overwhelming (and sometimes is even if I am careful). I have no idea if this would qualify as a form of empathy or not, or even if many people would be inclined to believe me. Nonetheless, there it is, and it is definitely one of the reasons I pull away from groups and crowds, and sometimes even individuals. It can get intense.

So if a person were to ask me if I experience empathy, the simplest answer would be yes, but after that I would need to ask them precisely what they mean by empathy. It is not actually a simple word.

To anyone who feels like answering a question: how would you say that empathy works for you?


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4 responses to “How empathy works for me

  1. Thank you for this very insightful post on empathy. I have problems with empathy, so I am trying my hardest to be more empathetic. Your posting helped me realize that even when I am trying to feel what other people feel, I am often blinded by my own privilege or ego–thinking that everyone feels like I do.

  2. northerner

    I’m considered neurotypical, but for me empathy is not intuitive. I can read some body language but, mostly, I just ask people how they are and try to listen to their perspective. Then I check with them if what I am understanding is what they experience. So, for me, empathy is listening and trying to understand. There is nothing automatic about it. Thank you for your post, it gives me more insight.

  3. For me, the hardest part is how to respond. I have the same kind of trouble that you describe with reading facial expressions, but when I am actually aware that something is going on I can usually determine what it is by asking the right questions. And people have told me that I do ask the right questions, questions that make them feel understood and heard and taken seriously. So that is actually a strength: I don’t jump to conclusions on how other people must feel based on what I would feel myself. So I’m known as a good listener.

    When it comes to telling people what they want to hear… all of a sudden, not so good. Also physical responses, not so good. I can give hugs when I know I’m intimate enough with that other person to not creep them out or make them assume anything sexual, but sometimes I guess wrong there as well. I just have no idea which responses work for that particular person, and asking them what they would like to get, what they need from me, always seems to be met with this sort of incredulous reaction and an accusation of me not being spontaneous or sensitive. I want to help, I want them to feel better, I want to give them what they need, but just because I make sure to ask them what they need it’s suddenly less valuable? That is something I still don’t understand. So I usually just sit and listen and only offer advice when people ask for it.

    • Unless it’s a subject that I perceive to be unemotional. Like a work related question. Then I usually give my advice or opinion without being asked for it. Which apparently upsets people as well, because they were still emotionally attached to the issue even though they didn’t say that. Confuses the hell out of me.