Empathy is a Super-Power

A huge response to Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style.

Of course, I was flattered to get so many positive responses to my latest blog, Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style, especially the praises such as:

  • ‘wow’ thank you! that post felt like a tall glass of water after 10 years in a drought.”
  • Expecting someday you will be nominated for a Nobel Peace prize.”

I want you to know that I hear and accept the praise. I couldn’t have written this blog or any of my books without the help of those of you living this life with an adult on the Autism Spectrum. However, I also know that for some inexplicable reason I captured the essence of Empathy Dysfunction (EmD), and that discovery has made all of the difference for many of you. 

But after getting my ego out of the way, and reading some more responses, I realize that there is something greater going on here among my readers. There is a theme, a deeper meaning — something greater than the sum of the parts, if you know what I mean. I had to clear my ingratiating self-absorption out of the way and allow my empathy to expand, to grasp the essence of what my readers are trying to tell me.

Empathy is to see and be seen.

When I read the response from Diana (see next section), I had a flash of insight — at the same time that I saw the face of Hugh Jackman. The pieces of the deeper meaning started to fall into place. 

Last year (2018) I read this Twitter post from Jackman, and it brought tears to my eyes, then and now. It perfectly represents the essence of empathy, as the actor expresses love for his wife on their anniversary:

“I believe in life we need to see and truly be seen by the most important people in our lives. Deb, from day one, we had that. 22 years later . . . it only gets deeper.”

Jackman’s sweet dedication to his wife shows that he has empathy. At the risk of chopping up the eloquence of his message, let me analyze a bit. Jackman’s Tweet is empathy in action. He recognizes it as a reciprocal process of “to see and truly be seen.”

Further, Jackman states that, “I believe in life we need. . .” this process I call empathy. Without it we suffer, as do many Neuro-Typicals (NTs) in relationship with an adult on the Autism Spectrum. This need is not foolish or superficial by the way, but a deep-down human need that scientists have recognized for decades.

Jackman goes on to acknowledge that this seeing (empathy), and his love for his wife, “. . . only gets deeper over time.” In other words, empathy (to see and be seen) fosters love, which is a dynamic, ever changing process of social exchange — that has the capacity to grow deeper over time.

Love is not a noun.

When I read Diana’s response, it was clear as crystal. What my readers felt when they read my blog is incredible relief — and pain. They felt seen for the first time about what it’s like to live without empathy in their most precious relationships. And they felt sadness that they will never find this type of connection with their ASD loved one. From Diana:

“This struggle to convey all that empathy is seems similar to my struggle to define ‘relationship,’ ‘healthy relationship,’ and ‘relationship repair’ to my husband. I just can’t get it across. I am left believing that we are like 2 species with different needs.”

Instinctively I responded to Diana’s comment on the blog page:

“Hi Diana. The problem with explaining “relationship” is inherent in the word. It’s the same with “love.” These two words are what linguists call nominalizations, or taking an active, process word and turning it into a noun. Better words are “relating” and “loving.” “Aspies” do not understand nominalizations as we do. We automatically see “relationship repair” as an alive and ongoing process. The same with “love,” . . . a never-ending process of give and take and growing deeper into each other. As long as “Aspies” see dynamic processes as merely nouns, they will fail to pick up the pieces of a broken moment or a broken relationship.”

Another way to look at this is that love without empathy feels empty to NTs. The love might be in the heart of your “Aspie,” but they are holding onto it as if it is a thing, or a possession, or a noun with nothing attached. The “Aspie” doesn’t know that love is not a thing at all, but an ongoing, ever-changing gift-giving experience.

Empathy is a super-power.

So how do we NTs survive in these relationships without true empathy? I hope that you survive by understanding your “Aspie” better, for the kind of love they know, even if it is a nominalization. I hope you take back your life and never settle for less than you deserve and know to be true. I hope you come to accept that your incredible super-power is your empathy and that it is a gift you give to your “Aspie,” even if they cannot give it back.

I think of empathy akin to what physicists call “Chaos Theory.” Like “Chaos Theory,” empathy has a pattern. It is logical. There are rules that are clearly definable to those of us with empathy. Yet — because empathy is a whole, where every small piece represents the whole — you just never know when or where it will emerge — but emerge it will when the right elements come into place.

 

(Please let me know what you think of this short blog in response to my last blog, Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style. I’d really like to hear from you.)

15 Replies to “Empathy is a Super-Power”

  1. When you say ‘belief’, empathy sounds like religion. Believing in it doesn’t make it true. It might help but it won’t change the autistic person because their personality is fixed.
    What Hugh says emphasises what we partners of aspies will never have. We can pretend or believe (ie magic thinking) but can not change their feelings.
    Do aspies have a problem with NTs in their marriages? Do they also feel something missing? I’ll ask my husband. He’s presently abroad and not communicating with me as usual because tired, busy, doing something else. I’m just not on his mind. After 22 years he says he’s fond of me. I am stuck with that. Anyone else in my situation?
    It was refreshing to hear the aspie’s observation in the former blog.

    1. Hi Sue. Perhaps Jackman’s use of the word “believe” is as close as he could come to defining empathy, since he was speaking from the heart and not as an academic or clinician. As I have so often written, empathy is a complex system.

      Your second question is easier to explain though. Yes, our “Aspies” feel loss, but it is singly about them. They want you to stop arguing with them. They want you to be nicer. They want you to trust them and let them have their way. They never ask themselves why we might be reluctant. If you have empathy, you search for your part in the conundrum. And you seek a way to make it work for both people.

      1. Without empathy as Dr Kathy says we suffer- on reading that I added to myself that we also “wither” over time – like something withering on a vine- from lack of nurture and love and reciprocity, if we don’t care for and nurture ourselves we may succumb to despair. I also read Hugh Jackman’s quote – beautifully said for all those who experience it, at the same time it felt like I was punched in the heart and felt overcome by sorrow for something I’ll never experience.
        “…….They want you to stop arguing with them. They want you to be nicer. They want you to trust them and let them have their way…..” . To me Dr Kathy sums it all up right there- they want and can only see things their way, it’s all about them, so because we care we adjust then adjust some more, adapt, turn ourselves inside out and upside down earnestly seeking relationship , to understand them and to be seen -UNTIL the “head” knowledge gets to the “heart” or wherever it sinks in to truly accept that there will be NO real relationship and I will NOT ever be seen. 42 years of marriage next week I have finally accepted it and will stop trying for things that cannot happen and it feels more bearable.

        1. Maggie, I love your word “wither!” It is perfect! Starving is what I often feel like..I’m starving for connection, and empathy, and it will never be. We reached 50 years in June, but I couldn’t really celebrate, and thankfully no family pressured me to celebrate. There’s nothing to celebrate, except finding out that I’m not crazy, and that he has Aspergers.

  2. Hi Kathy
    Thank you for another insightful post about empathy. I read the last one aloud to my partner hoping it would sink in…I never know whether it does or not….but I keep trying!

    I love the tweet you shared – to see and be seen – explains it exactly…which is why I often feel invisible and when I say this he looks at me baffled, and then I feel so sorry for him- and so it goes.

    But at the end of the day what happens to us who have an overactive empathy gland?! It can feel as though my-self, the essence of me is disappearing and being slowly starved.

    I have enjoyed reading your website and posts, they help me make sense of what’s happening.

    Henrietta

    1. Yes Henrietta. The loss of self is intensely painful. I dreamed I was being suffocated by my “Aspie” spouse the night we decided to get married. Many years later, it was true. He had broken me and I was in the fight of my life. There was no website then. There were no well trained psychologists to help me. There were no books to read. And no one believed me. But here I am, healthy and whole, changed but powerful. We can do it.

  3. it can be really hard and painful at times when you really feel ignored and disenfranchised from them, like your needs or emotional upsets aren’t important. You know intellectually they can’t help it, but emotionally is a whole other thing.

    1. Hi Lorraine. The pain is the normal reaction to empathy dysfunction (EmD). When a narcissist begins the process of scaling you down to size, and destroying your sanity, they enjoy it. On the other hand, there is no goal for the “Aspie” because they just lack empathy, period. As Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen indicates, “Aspies” may have zero degrees of empathy, but it is zero-positive. In some ways it makes it more devastating to deal with the inconsistencies of “Aspies” because they mean no harm, but do harmful things. In order to deal with these inconsistencies, you must remain firm in your conviction that you are sound of mind, and that you know the truth.

  4. I hadn’t seen Hugh Jackman’s phrase “to see and truly be seen” before but it underlies, to me anyway, your empowering view there Kathy, that is to say at least the NT person can focus on the first half of that phrase.

    The missing bit is the second half of the equation, to “be seen” for this is where the Aspergic person cannot reciprocate and from my experience it is not that they ignore one but that they cannot ever see other people as a significant other, i.e. a singular individual with whom they relate on a 1:1 basis.

    So if we still spoke Early Modern English the Aspergic person would not be able to say “Thou” or a French Aspergic person close friend would have difficulty using “Tu”.

    It is not that they see the person they are in a relationship with as a member of “You” or “Vous”, i.e. a collective of others they know but instead see you as brought fully within their life with no existence separate from them but defined only in terms of a role in realationship to their Self, i.e. Brother, Mother, Child, Son, Wife, Subordinate etc.

    So one as an individual is invisible to the Aspergic person and the question of empathy towards one make sense at all. It would be a kind of self-love and that is not what they are into by virtue of being Aspergic, as opposed to a narcissist.

    1. This is what I mean by one-way empathy. Without reciprocity there is no real empathy. Most people on the Spectrum eventually come to accept that they have no empathy. Because they have a good heart, they try to work around it but it is still a huge loss for them in their relationships. If the “Aspie” goes down the narcissistic path though, life with them can be unbearable.

  5. Aspergic people can behave towards an NT person in what they perceive is an empathetic manner, with a good heart. Likewise an NT person can behave towards an Aspergic person as if they are an Aspergic person.

    In both ways the behaviors are dysfunctional.

    So when an Aspergic person tramples all over the boundaries of others the are blind to the other as having boundaries. In many ways they are like the Mr Magoo cartoon character from the 1960s and 70s.

    For an NT person to do the same they have to mimic being a narcissist which is uncomfortable for the NT person, if they are not one. For the Aspergic person it is also very uncomfortable for them because they have very wide boundaries themselves and hate them being invaded.

    When an NT person out of empathy perceives the need for an Aspergic person to have emotional support part of that support will entail providing a ‘safe space’, to use the current terminology, and so respect the Aspie’s boundaries. However when an Aspergic person wants to offer their support they seem to feel the need to move in and dominate without asking the person if that is what they want or if it would help, solving that person’s problems for them by telling the person what to do do. They exhibit a patronizing paternalism and a bully towards others related to that person.

    Whereas an NT person faking Aspergic behaviors will, or should, feel uncomfortable ignoring their empathy towards the Aspergic need for space my feeling is that an Aspergic person deploying *their* desire to feel useful as an ersatz empathy actually feels very comfortable, and puzzled if the NT person is quick enough to nip the interference in the bud.

  6. Life without empathy and reciprocity, being talked at instead of “with” is sooo painful. Even sadder is that the world doesn’t seem to understand how painful life without empathy is. If I could get some empathy from those outside, it might help some days, just to be able to talk about it!
    An idea for another book…how the world needs to support partners of Aspergers, Dr Kathy! 😉

    1. Thanks for the tip Louise. It should be fixed now so that you can follow blog posts. You can follow private event posts too if you are a member of ASPERGER SYNDROME & RELATIONSHIPS (www.asd-ntrelationships.com).

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