Posted by: Aspie Noodle | February 27, 2013

I am autistic and I have too much emphathy.

I understand that every human is different, and also that every autistic person is different. We have certain traits in common, of course. Those really obvious ones. But our autism is not the only thing that shapes and defines us.

Maybe there are autistic individuals out there who “lack empathy”, or whose brains simply aren’t wired to process the information necessary to internalise what someone else is feeling.

But for me, I have too much empathy. I’m like a sponge when it comes to other people’s emotions, or rather… their energy. I can feel the vibes they exude down to my very bones. And it’s overwhelming and distracting. It hurts, but it can also feel wonderful, depending on what it is they are feeling.

Reading facial expressions, and interpreting them properly has always been very hard for me. Just like understanding tone of voice and sarcasm. My logical and analytical mind could never really match what society was telling me people meant and the actual vibes I got from someone. It took me a long time to figure out that the “problem” was that I apparently see past all the superficial, the acting, the mask (often not even realising it is there, like with sarcasm and joking) and I feel that what is truly there, behind it all.

And I don’t mean to say that I can read minds or anything like that. Not at all. Most of the time I don’t even understand what it is exactly that is coming off a person. It’s a feeling that is hard to describe. Sometimes it’s just not right. They pretend to be happy, but they are not. And somehow I can feel that something is skewed, even if I don’t understand the how and the why.

I’m one of those people who will cry reading books, watching anything on TV, or just hearing a story about something emotional. This is because I always think about everything, mostly focusing on how something makes people feel. One of the worst things for me is the sound of women crying over their dead children on the evening news. Now, I know some of it may be dramatised or staged even, mainstream news is never objective, but even just the idea of a mother losing a child to violence, it stabs me right in the heart. That kind of pain is absolutely horrible.

I’m not sure if this is a learned concept, or whether this is inherited. But putting myself in someone else’s shoes (now there’s a fun phrase) comes natural to me and I can’t actually turn it off. Maybe it’s down to the fact that reading faces and going by the clues we are taught as children doesn’t work for me. So I try to find other ways, in this case my logic, my thoughts, to find out what exactly goes on inside others. I cannot look inside their minds, but there is confusing, disturbing, or exhilarating energy coming from them and I don’t understand the regular signs, so I think my way towards an explanation. And that rouses a lot of emotions inside me as well. Happiness, sadness, anger… the whole spectrum.

And that’s all nice and good, and should make me a wonderful people person who can show compassion and love and all those things freely.

Except that I can’t.

I soak it all up. I feel it all. But. I cannot communicate it back to the outside. There is a huge barrier there. An invisible wall.

For example, when I sense that somebody is upset, but keeps up appearances and tries to smile and pretend everything is fine, I KNOW that there is something there. I can feel it. And I suffer with them. But I don’t say anything about it. I don’t approach them, although all I want to do is hug them. Yes, I have a huge urge to hug people. Tightly. The good pressure Aspie way. I don’t follow that urge though, no matter how much I want to.

What does one say? I know there are all sorts of standard phrases that you’re supposed to say, like “Oh I’m sure it will be fine,” or “I’m so sorry about that, but try to look at the bright side.” I mean, those things don’t actually help. At all. You know, in a rational sense. And to me they feel fake and condescending. Insincere. Maybe it won’t be fine at all. Maybe there is no bright side, or maybe if there is, me saying it won’t make it come any closer.

I want to communicate that I feel with them. That I feel their pain. But there seem to be no words that can honestly communicate that, so that the other person understands, but isn’t freaked out. Because communicating something like that is really quite intimate, much more so than a light pat on the shoulder and a noncommital “It’ll be fine!”. And the squishy Aspie hugs (you know, the kind that makes me feel so good when someone I really trust does it to me, tight pressure on the upper body, locking my arms to my sides) is not something most people find pleasant.

So. I suck up all their pain, confusion and anger, and it sits inside me and cannot come out. I want to help. I want to fix them. I want to make their hurting go away so that I will also not feel it any more. But I can’t. I don’t know a way. And meanwhile the person will think I am unmoved and unfeeling, because I do not say the standard phrases a supporting friend should say. And inside I’m dying, because I am unhelpful.

Looking people in the eyes. For me that absolutely amplifies the feelings that radiate off them. Enormously. It’s almost like an electrical shock to my system. People say that “the eyes are the windows to one’s soul”. Well, yes. I can feel that. It’s like having a root canal treatment. I feel exposed, bare, and it’s very, very painful. It hits you like a giant metal hammer.

And the connection is like that between two magnets. I find it very hard to pull my eyes away, when really that is what I really want. And when I finally manage to look away I can’t concentrate for a while. I feel invaded by the other person’s soul. And the thing is, they didn’t even notice.

So, when someone is hurting, and they pretend they are okay, but I can feel they are not, and then they look into my eyes it feels like my entire body is electrified. I will often go mute, or turn on my shallow small-talk defense mechanism routine. And then my thoughts are thrown into the mix. That they are feeling sad is already bad enough, but then the fact that they are hiding it, and pretending otherwise makes it even worse. Add to that the realisation that regardless of how much I want to fix things, I cannot help, and will most likely make them feel worse by not acting like a neuro-typical would.

People who know me well often describe me as an emotional conundrum. I will cry at the smallest things in a movie or book, but when bad things happen and people around me are truly upset, I lock up. I become an ice queen. At least outwardly. Inside it just burns.

I will then often avoid eye-contact, or try to change the subject while my mind is racing, trying to find a way to put order to the emotional chaos.

I don’t know if it is like this for other autistic individuals. I can be misunderstood as someone who has no empathy, because I do not show compassion in the way people expect. But I’m overflowing with it. I feel everything, even if I don’t understand what it might be that I’m feeling. But it’s there, resonating inside me, rushing through my lungs, my veins, and through my heart. And it makes me feel like I am very close to someone, but at the same time my inability to communicate that storm they cause inside me back to them, my failure to build a two-way connection, makes me feel painfully far away. Closed-off. Access denied.

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Responses

  1. That must be difficult to deal with, especiallyif you’re as aware as you appear to be that you’re physically not comfortable with conforming to societal expectation. Rest easy in the knowledge that no-one can fix everyone’s problems and that, most often, people aren’t looking for you to do it anyway. They just want to say something to another person.

    Please keep writing this. I feel voyeuristic saying this, but it’s a really intimate insight into what appears to be a very misunderstood condition. I always look forward to reading your blogs.

  2. I also have a lot of empathy for pretty much everything and I have mild Aspergers which is sometimes associated with autism. Its because of this that I beleive that the so called autism ‘symptom’ that we apparently ‘have no empathy at all’ is all just a load of crap, probably made up by an NT who only spent ten minutes in the same room as an Autistic but never even spoke to them. LOTS of Autistics, Aspies and others on the spectrum have empathy, some even have better empathy than some NTs LOL No empathy my arse!
    You are not alone 🙂 Sometimes empathy can be a really good thing. It’s helped me understand the world and in my opinion, people with empathy tend to be a lot nicer than those with none.

    • Wow, thank you for your reply! 😀 I totally agree! That generalised assessment of autistic people not having empathy has clearly been made by someone who lacks empathy him/herself. 😛 I think it comes from a deeply-rooted ignorance of anyone and anything that is not the “norm”. And the norm itself isn’t even as uniform as people think. There are so many separate nuances that a lot of people don’t even notice. Everyone is different, but we’re all human.

  3. I certainly feel like every Aspie I’ve known, myself included, is very empathetic. I feel that there’s this kind of clinical understanding of it that is inaccurate and excludes other aspects of compassion, sympathy and love that we can certainly excel at.

    For instance I try to be sympathetic to the fact that there are clinicians that don’t know how to describe the AS perspective in a very generous way, but I assume they are trying to describe something so that we can all communicate about the differences more effectively. 😛

    Cate


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