What is empathy, exactly?
Empathy is the ability to recognize and experience the feelings of another person, to see things from their perspective and to understand what they’re feeling as if you’re feeling it yourself.
Since most people don’t talk about how they’re feeling, the ability to empathize generally depends on interpreting non-verbal cues.
If you have never felt what another person is feeling, it will not be possible to empathize with them about that particular feeling. It’s also difficult to empathize with others when one is not aware of one’s own feelings.
Higher emotional sensitivity and awareness leads to higher levels of empathy. This leads to higher levels of understanding which then leads to higher levels of compassion. – Steve Hein
People without empathy
Ever heard people say that some people just don’t have any empathy? They’re normally talking about narcissists, psychopaths or sociopaths (I’m not too sure what the differences are between sociopaths and psychopaths though, it seems there’s some debate about that).
Psychologists have been puzzled about why certain people don’t have empathy, and what causes this to happen. Some say it’s a genetic thing, that people are simply born that way. Others say they just simply don’t know, and that nobody has figured it out yet.
Author Charles Eisenstein has an interesting theory about this. He writes, in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (which is quite possibly my favourite book of all time, and I highly recommend it!):
Is it true that the psychopath is simply born without empathy? Another explanation is that the psychopath has empathy, but has shut it down at an early age, rendering him- or herself unable to feel. Why would that happen?
It could be because the psychopath is the very opposite of what we think. What if the psychopath isn’t someone born without feeling, but rather someone born with an extraordinary capacity for empathy and sensitivity to emotional pain? Unable to endure its intensity, he shuts it off completely.
This makes sense to me, and fits in quite well with what I’ve learned about trauma. What if psychopaths are actually born highly sensitive? What if they feel so overwhelmed by their own emotions, due to trauma, that they just shut it all off entirely as a defense mechanism? What if the reason why psychopaths have a tendency to do grandiose, reckless, hurtful things is because it’s the only way they can access their feelings just a little bit?
They don’t experience their own pain, so they can’t have compassion or empathy for the pain they cause to other people. They would of course also have many unmet emotional needs (many exiles in a lot of pain, in IFS terms), and their protector parts will have developed a lot of defense mechanisms to block the pain coming from those exiles. Their protector parts are doing an excellent job, actually.
None of this has been proven by science, not yet anyway. But it makes a lot of sense to me.
I’ve mentioned narcissists a few times already. What’s a narcissist? A narcissist is a person with something called Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
According to Mayoclinic,
Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Narcissists don’t have any of their own self-esteem, and so they rely on other people to provide it for them. They have a need to be seen as powerful, elegant, smart, wealthy, or well-connected. They need others to admire them and give them attention. This is called Narcissistic Supply. Narcissists literally need this Supply – their self-esteem depends on it.
Examples of Narcissistic Supply:
- Being feared
- Making money
- Dominating others
- Pretty much any kind of attention
Ever heard of the internet advice “Don’t feed the trolls”? Narcissists are like internet trolls in that sense. They will feed off of any attention they get, positive or negative – it doesn’t matter. The more extreme the emotional reaction they can cause in other people, the more Supply they get from the interaction.
If they aren’t getting enough attention, they will seek it out. They have all sorts of manipulative tactics they can use to make this happen.
Autism and Empathy
“…right from the start, from the time someone came up with the word ‘autism’, the condition has been judged from the outside, by its appearances, and not from the inside according to how it is experienced.” – Donna Williams
If you’re familiar with Autism, you might have heard people say that autistic people don’t have empathy. It’s a big reason why I thought I can’t possibly be autistic for a long time. I’ve got lots of empathy, so I can’t be autistic, right? Wrong!
This is a very common misunderstanding, and it’s called the Double Empathy Problem.
There was an experiment done where two groups of people were shown a picture and asked questions about it. One group of people were autistic, and the other group were not.
The picture was of a woman crying, with a group of people surrounding her on either side. One person had their hand on her shoulder, and the rest of them were looking at her and showing sympathy.
The questions were: “How are the people sitting around the crying woman making her feel? What should the people sitting around her do to make her feel better? Imagine you are the crying woman.”
The reactions people had to this picture were quite interesting. The non-autistic people said things like: “the people around the crying woman are helping to comfort her and are making her feel better. They should stay there and keep talking to her, helping her work through it.”
The autistic people, on the other hand, said things like: “the people sitting around the crying woman are overwhelming her and making her feel worse. They should walk away and leave her alone. They shouldn’t all be crowded around her like that, and it’s making the woman uncomfortable that the person next to her is touching her shoulder.”
Certainly not a lack of empathy on either side, but there are definitely some major differences in how autistic people perceive things compared to non-autistic people!
If the crying woman was autistic, she might feel that the non-autistic people around her lack empathy because they are crowding around her, touching her, and making her feel overwhelmed and worse. Whereas a non-autistic crying woman might actually feel better to have them crowding around her and touching her like that, apparently. I can’t relate to that at all – if I’m crying, I want to be left the hell alone, preferably in a quiet dark place!
The misunderstandings go both ways. If either the autistic or non-autistic person tried to apply their empathic reactions to the other group, it probably wouldn’t work very well at all. This is the reason why non-autistic people think that autistic people lack empathy – autistic people don’t show it in the same ways that non-autistic people do. But autistic people do not actually lack empathy at all, they just have different ways of processing things.
This is why communication about feelings is so important! But also, it is important especially for non-autistic people to learn more about autism, and to accept that autistic people really do have different ways of processing the same information, which can lead to having very different needs in various situations. They also need to accept that this is not necessarily a problem that needs to be solved – only understood and accepted.
What would a narcissist do in the situation of the woman crying? Let me know what you think in the comments section.
I imagine they’d do whatever would get them the most Supply in that particular situation, which would depend on the woman and the reason why she’s upset. If the crying woman is a stranger they might not do anything at all, or they might try really hard to comfort her in order to “hook her” and make her like and appreciate the narc. If she’s crying because of the narc, they might invalidate her feelings, or gaslight her, etc. Or the narc might ignore her, giving her the “silent treatment”.
The silent treatment in particular could be a source of confusion as to why people might think autistic people lack empathy – an autistic person might leave her alone because they want to give her space, because they think she’ll feel better on her own. This is different than ignoring her and giving her the silent treatment, even though it might look similar.
Update: Hilariously, Lissa Rankin, one of my favourite authors, posted a very relevant blog post on the same day I posted this one: Why Empaths Can Sorely Lack Empathy (Because Of Their Own Trauma)