Empathy and Expressing Emotions

In chapter three of the book Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robison talks about empathy and the expression of emotion. He describes a situation in which an acquaintance informs him tht someone he doesn’t know has died. He smiles, being glad that he and his own family wouldn’t die in the same way and are safe for now. The acquintance responds furiously, because why would he smile at someone else’s death? Robison is regularly accused of psychopathy for similar lack of empathy. Then again, he has strong emotional reactions to soomething happening to his own family.

I can relate to what Robison describes, only to an even greater extent. He describes the thoughts he has when there’s a plane crash in Uzbekistan, as rational empathy: he’s aware that it’s sad that people are killed and knows that the victims’ families are grieving, but it doesn’t affect him personally. On the other hand, when his father had been in an accident, he was anxious and nervous and did care on a deeper emotional level. Then again, when his mother’s car was on fire, he immediately went to fix it.

These are three different kinds of responses: rational empathy with no emotional reaction, emotional empathy as in feeling personally touched, and emotional empathy with the urge to fix someone’s problems.

I for one don’t often experience a strong emotional response when something “big” happens. When my maternal grandfather had a brain bleed in 1995, I was worried because I’d had one myself. I didn’t realize that his brain bleed was very different, and I didn’t particularly feel any emotion when he died five days later. I did feel the need to care for my mother, who ran towards me for comfort at the funeral. This lack of actual emotional empathy was amplified when my maternal grandmother, to whom I had no emoitonal connection, died in 2007. I was in an emotional crisis two days before her death and called my parents, stammering only “I, I.” My father was extremely pissed, saying: “It isn’t about you. Your grandmother is dying don’t you know!” A few months later, I remember talking to my mother and, when she referred to “grandma”, asking which one./P>

In this sense, I’m more self-centered, possibly even selfish, than Robison. I honestly have never had an emotional response to someone dying. That is, I do sometimes feel touched when I realize people have passed away, but this seems unrelated to the events of their deaths. An online acquaintance died sometime in 2013, and I still have moments where my inner children are sad that they can’t talk to hers anymore. Then again, the emotional response is not strong.

It isn’t, in my opinion, a psychopathic tendency that drives me not to be touched by people’s deaths. I do feel sadness when other people are sad, even if it’s for a relatively minor reason. Rather, it seems to be that I’m captured by details more than by the bigger picture of someone having died. For example, when a fellow patient told us that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in late 2007, I smiled at the funny spin on a nurse’s name he made rather than reacting emotionally to his diagnosis.

The intersection of autism and borderline personality disorder, which is essentially an attachment disorder, is interesting here. It is probably an autistic tendency to be captured more by the details of an event than the bigger picture, as in the laughing at a pun when being informed someone has cancer. Then again, I do have strange attachments sometimes. I should technically care more about my grandma’s death than about an online friend kicking me off her mailing list, but the reaction was reversed. Is this selfishness? It could be, but then again, I too have strong emotional reactions to other people’s sadness, sometimes if they’re people I hardly know.

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