I know. Empathy is always being talked about on autism blogs, and here I am, also talking about it. Yep, I’m a cliche. It has been a while for me, though.
So one of my problems with the whole concept of empathy is how mushy of a concept it is. It means a wide variety of different things, and people often mean different things when they say it. Talking about empathy without elaborating on what one means by it is an exercise in futility.
For example, a therapist youtuber I used to watch would speak of empathy specifically as intellectually understanding what another person is feeling. He would refer to the concept of “feeling something with a person” as “sympathy.” Then there’s that popular Sympathy vs. Empathy thing by Brene Brown. She has a very different take than that therapist – according to her, “feeling something with a person” is empathy, and sympathy is… bad. (not really related, but I did not like that video for my own reasons, though I do understand that many people found it helpful)
On a recent occasion I had reason to talk with my therapist about sympathy and empathy and, of course, needed him to elaborate on what he meant when he asked me if maybe I wanted empathy about a thing I was going through. In his case, apparently he means someone being “with” you in your feeling.
So. Empathy means various things. That’s actually ok – lots of words mean different things – but it does mean that we need to clarify our intent.
For years now I have been using the ideas of cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Basically, cognitive empathy is what that youtuber therapist talks about – intellectually understanding what another person is feeling. The idea that autistic people lack empathy is specifically regarding cognitive empathy. I don’t always have a great grasp of what another person is feeling. I struggle to understand facial expressions. That kind of thing. Unfortunately, people often take it to mean that autistic people lack the kind of empathy that Brene Brown talks about. Or basically, that we don’t care.
That is affective empathy. It’s the emotional side of empathy. And autistic people tend to have that in spades (insert disclaimer here about how autistic people are individuals with individual variance, etc etc etc). I care about my friends. I care about my cats. I care about what they feel and why they feel it and I want, very much, to be a safe person for them to have those feelings near/around/with.
Anyway. I was googling empathy again recently, I don’t remember why but probably in response to that conversation I had with my therapist, looking for sources about cognitive vs. affective empathy. Among the various other things I found, I saw an interesting article breaking empathy down into THREE types, rather than two! Fascinating! Now, I wasn’t the biggest fan of how the information was presented (this seems to happen a lot with me. Not sure what to make of that) but putting that aside, it was an interesting breakdown.
Basically, the author of that article takes what I think of as “affective empathy” and breaks it into two different ideas.
1 – Emotional Empathy. The “feel it with them” idea.
2 – Compassionate Empathy. To care. More precisely, to care enough to want to help in some way.
This is interesting to me. I’m not sure I’m going to adopt this system over the two types of empathy that I’m used to, but at the very least it’s giving me something to think about. I enjoy taking broad concepts and breaking them down into concrete pieces that I can closely inspect.
There is very little out there that will make me better at cognitive empathy. I have hypervigilance due to my own childhood stuff (which is to say, I am very observant), I have a general intellectual understanding of facial expressions that I have learned by rote. These two combined are enough for me to generally get by, on the cognitive level. Unfortunately, many people view cognitive empathy as the most “basic” form of empathy. So when cognitive empathy fails me, it is not uncommon for people to conclude that I must not care. Because if I don’t have cognitive empathy, how could I possibly have emotional or compassionate empathy?
It doesn’t work like that.
To diverge a little bit – I find myself wishing there were a word for a kind of empathy that understands that not everyone responds the same way in the same circumstance. The article I linked above talks about putting oneself in another person’s shows – imagining how you would feel in their circumstances. This is, of course, a really great practice. It just falls short sometimes. People imagining themselves in my shoes often seriously miss the mark on how I’m feeling, because they would feel something wildly different. This kind of falls under cognitive empathy, but then it ends there. By the article, emotional empathy would be impossible in a situation like this, which is just not the case. I can empathize with people just fine when they react to things differently than how I would, because I understand that different people respond differently and that’s ok. Their truth is still entirely real. I just have to approach it a little differently.
Anyway. I’m not sure I have a huge point here; I just wanted to explore these ideas a bit. Do you have a model of empathy that you work with? Do you have any ideas for what to call “I cannot directly understand what you feel but I accept that it is your truth and care very much about how you feel” empathy?