What is Empathy?

7 ufSomeone told me that the description of people with Asperger’s Syndrome as lacking empathy is a confusion between displays of empathy and feelings of empathy. That may be true, but that’s still not addressing the point I’m trying to figure out. What is it non-AS folks mean by “empathy.”

I can’t figure out if I have too much empathy or too little. For example, one day I was having a conversation. I was sitting down. The other woman was standing and holding a heavy object. I had to break off and ask her if she didn’t want to at least put the object down. Now, she was strong and healthy and didn’t have my back or fatigue problems. She was in no distress. But I don’t just try to put myself in other people’s shoes, I can’t keep myself from doing it even when I try. I couldn’t keep my mind on what she was trying to say to me because, the longer the conversation went on, the more I thought about how my back would be hurting if I were her.

I also recently interrupted a friend in the middle of an impassioned speech to ask “Can’t I get you a glass of water?” She looked at me like I was crazy. “Your throat is dry.” I explained. She drank half a glass of water in one gulp when she got it, so I’m sure I was right, but she obviously was so intense that she hadn’t felt any discomfort, even while I was so uncomfortable noticing her dry throat that I just couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying anymore and had to interrupt.

It used to drive me crazy one place I worked how I kept getting into conversations with coworkers as we were walking down the hall, and when we got to the intersection where I was going one way and they the other, we’d stand blocking the intersection. I’d keep trying to suggest we go somewhere else to talk, or talk later, or at least get out of the intersection, and they’d keep talking, oblivious to the other people squeezing their way to get past us. While I’d be in agony.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks and it really bothers me when the reader has a cold.  I want to tell them to go home and go to bed.  Of course, that’s silly.  Those recordings were made years ago, and they’re usually over their cold before they finish reading the book. It must not bother other people so much or they wouldn’t sell audiobooks with this flaw.

In each example, my interest was in relieving the discomfort I was feeling, not what the other person was actually feeling. So, that’s selfish, right? But I was, almost literally, putting myself in the other’s place, which is, I thought, the definition of empathy. Yet, that doesn’t really seem to be what people mean when they give concrete examples of empathy.

Or am I confusing empathy with sympathy? Sympathy, I think, is being able to say things like “I feel your pain” and “I feel so sorry for your loss” which, to someone too literal-minded like myself, are, well, lies, even though I know you’re supposed to say them. (I fear I surprised someone once when they said “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” and took it literally and I asked a favor.)  And they just sound so cliche, I don’t think I could force them out of my mouth.  Maybe I should take a page from the Dexter books and practice saying “There, there.”  Great.  I’m making a serial killer my role model.

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