I have a lack of empathy. I have been in denial of this since I was first diagnosed with Asperger's and it was explained to me that this is one of my primary symptoms. My psychiatrists and I have had long, drawn out disagreements on the matter because I believed myself to be very empathetic. Last night, I realized just how wrong I've been. I do not have a complete absence of empathy, it is more like a deficiency. It's there, but not fully functional. And I often mistaken hypervigilance and emotional dysfunction for empathy. What is empathy? Empathy is the ability to understand what someone feels and see things from their perspective. There are two primary types of empathy, affective (aka emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy. I have an abundance of emotional empathy; I am deeply affected by another person's emotional state. If someone tells me that their grandmother died, I understand that they are sad, and I feel sad with them. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is where I fall short. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person's perspective or mental state...to understand how what they are feeling and thinking motivates them. Now, I can visualize another perspective and can sympathize with what they feel fairly well, so in all this time, I thought this meant that I have no trouble empathizing with others. But here's the thing...I had a traumatic childhood and I have Asperger's. A constantly abusive environment changed the way I perceive others. I had to be able to anticipate how someone else might react, based on the mood they were in and the situation at hand. What I usually mistaken as the perception part of cognitive empathy is, in fact, hypervigilance. I'm not intuitively sharing someone else's perspective and emotional state, I'm scanning for and identifying potential threats. I live in a state of threat detection. That kinda sounds robotic, unemotional. So why do I confuse this with empathy? Emotional dysfunction. I can't actually tell what someone is thinking or feeling. Even with all of the information hypervigilance provides me, I cannot be that emotional mirror that most people would become...I cannot perceive and reflect what they're actually feeling. Instead, I react as though their emotional state is aimed at me. I become emotional...but because I cannot separate my own emotions from those of another, I mistaken this for the emotion sharing part of cognitive empathy. Instead of understanding their motivations, I project my own; this distorts my perspective and overlooks the true emotional state of the other person. To help you understand what I mean, I will try to give you an example. My boss came to work one morning, quite irritated. I needed to speak with her about a case, but it seemed like she was avoiding me. I thought this meant she was irritated with me, so I became anxious. I started considering everything she might be angry with me over, or anything that I might have said that could have been misinterpreted. It never occurred to me that something might have happened on her way to work that put her in such a state, but a near collision is what had aggravated her that morning. If she had told me this, I would have been capable of empathizing with her. But without this information, I was incapable of picking up on subtle clues that my coworkers did pick up on. I was unable to put myself in her shoes, in the moment. I defended my position for such a long time...I didn't want to lack empathy because that is what makes us able to connect with each other. I guess I didn't want to feel less human, because isn't empathy deeply engrained in our concept of humanity? Does having an empathy deficiency make me less human, less relatable? Can I learn how to empathize, in the moment, not just after the fact? This is new territory for me, so I really don't know.
I Am A Meat Popsicle
Thank you, @shannonl5. Yeah, I probably didn't choose the best example for this, and I'm not really sure I explained it as well as I'd like to. But I do agree with what you said, how we respond is what's important.
I don't think there's anything wrong with struggling to understand someone else's perspective- I think everyone agrees that neurotypicals struggle with that too. I also tend to be pretty hypervigilant and almost always assume that someone's anger is my fault. With the example you gave with your boss- how would anyone have known they were mad about a near collision? You'd have to be psychic. Some people might have assumed, rightly, that something had happened on the way to work. I would probably have assumed we all screwed up and someone was getting fired, because I tend to jump to the worst case scenario. Emotions are really complicated and confusing and I don't think it's fair to base judgements on how more or less adept we are at deciphering them. At the end of the day the person who knows best what they're feeling and why is the person feeling it. How we respond is what matters. Do we try to help, or do we complain that their feelings are inconveniencing us? Do we offer support or do we try to make it all about us? Having known you for a little while I don't think you act selfishly at all. It sounds like you actually put a lot of work into understanding people and supporting them. Which in my opinion is incredibly generous and very human