Empathy Impaired

It’s my sense that the first thing we have to lose in an overstimulated, mechanized, fast and frustrated life is empathy.

If we are so stressed that don’t have enough time and energy to engage our own needs & feelings, how can we ever effectively engage the needs & feelings of others?

I grew up in an empathy impaired household.  My father has Asperger’s like symptoms and my mother is tends towards a kind of self-pitying passive aggressive narcissism.  Those attitudes either dismiss or disconnect empathy, the kind of empathy kids need when they are working to understand and manage their own emotions.  It quickly became clear to me that opening up my emotions was an unsafe thing to do, as they would roll over them or make my emotions about their pain and frustration.

That experience now seems to me to be training for a world where we move so fast that we don’t have the capacity to understand others in their own context, where we don’t have broad shared experience (other than the passive experience of viewing television), and where we don’t even have the ability to take the time to understand our own feelings.

It’s probable that empathy impairment actually creates more empathy impairment.   If you are empathy impaired you don’t want to be with someone too empathetic; they might know things about you and your feelings that you don’t even know or want to know.  And how can kids grow up with a strong empathic sense when they have empathy impaired parents who don’t know how to empower them to understand and access their own feelings and the feelings of others?

It’s impossible to be a sociopath without being empathy impaired, but does being empathy impaired always lead to an increase in sociopathic behavior?  If we don’t understand the consequences of our actions on others, then how can we be considerate and compassionate in our actions?

It always amazes me how people are often more comfortable having empathy with those at a distance than with those in their own life.  So many feel for the suffering of far-away animals, for example, but have trouble engaging the suffering of children in their own community.   It’s so much easier to be empathetic to those who are not challenging; you can just make your empathy all about you by projecting, rather than having to face your own challenges.

Stories, well told and well engaged, are always about empathy, putting ourselves in the experiences and feelings of another person.   We explore by feeling though another skin and seeing through another set of eyes, but so often we explore only when there is no real blood shed.  “You are going to be so powerful when you are dead,” Kate Bornstein told me, knowing when the story is separated from the blood is is much more easily engaged.

If you are empathy impaired, you can easily go through your whole life feeling lost and frustrated.   Unless you can meet others where they are, you won’t get what they can offer you.  Demanding others meet you on your terms, respecting your own fears and your own blind spots, means that you can only engage what you expect, not what is opened and offered to you.

Still, just being open and vulnerable to the stories of others is no guarantee of connection.  Even if you can engage the story of another with empathy and understanding, there is no assurance that they will have the empathy to engage and understand your story.

It is my sense that empathy impairment is the technique we are trained to use to survive in a mechanized, stressed and de-humanized culture.

And it is also my sense that empathy impairment is, in the end, a high price to pay for more stuff.