This post is borne of the general public’s/”official authority’s” misinterpretation of Aspie emotions and empathy; we’re often accused of “lacking emotion”, not displaying or having enough. “Official” information resources (such as the diagnostic criteria or questionnaires, etc) describe this as “lack of empathy” and other such nonsense. So today, I thought I’d write about suffering and how I process, perceive, and respond to it as an Aspie.
Before I get too far along, I need to qualify what I’m about to say by first saying that “suffering” is an incredibly broad term that encompasses pain or discomfort on many, many levels. Some of those levels are physical, and some are emotional. Some are more individual and personal, whereas others are more global issues. Some forms of suffering hit close to home, and others are further away. I can’t begin to address the whole subject in this post, but I’ll try to speak in as general and all-encompassing terms as I can.
(As always, it’s also important to remember that what follows is my opinion/viewpoint only, and I don’t want to claim that I speak for all Aspies, since I can only speak for myself. And one last important point is that in this case, when I say “allistics”, I’m typically referring only to those who make negative/critical statements or claims about people on the spectrum in regards to emotions and empathy; I’m certainly not aiming this sentiment toward all allistic people.)
OK, moving on…
When I hear about the suffering of others, I have a tug-of-war with myself.
On the one hand, suffering sucks, and the “have a heart” part of me wants to reach out with a magic wand and instantly whisk it away. I would like to think that most of that desire comes from a genuine concern for my fellow human beings. I’m also aware that part of that response may come from a more selfish desire to erase someone else’s pain because I feel awkward when I don’t know how to respond, what to say or do. And I’m afraid that I’ll become mentally paralyzed for a moment, which could be misinterpreted by others as a lack of caring, which might then result in I’m a Bad Person and People Won’t Like Me.
On the other hand, the spiritually-intellectual side of me knows that suffering is the ultimate motivator, the ultimate vehicle for bringing about positive change and transformation. Thus, the suffering in itself could bring the suffering person miraculous benefit.
Could that last sentence be my way of rationalizing a feeling of what society might deem “insufficient concern”? Put another way, society has created unwritten, arbitrary rules for how much empathy a person should have and be able to express; do I really fit the “lack of empathy” bill and the intellectualizing is simply a way for me to make excuses for not being empathetical enough? After all, it’s easy for me to say, “well, since suffering can ultimately be good, then I’m Off the Hook if I fail to feel sorry enough”.
I also know (from reading various blogs around the web, from both sides of the spectrum) that our (Aspies’) emotions seem to run a bit deeper and more complex than those of the average allistic (of course, no one knows for sure how deep whose emotions run, since the only people we know well enough to properly gauge this are ourselves). What seems to “them” (allistics) as a “lack of emotion/empathy” from us could simply be a lack of adequate existing words to express the depth and complexity of what we do feel. In such a situation, we may say nothing. After all, what’s the point of attempting a task if the proper tools don’t even exist?
So the tug-of-war could be summed up in this way:
- Suffering sucks (we all realize that).
- No sane person wants anyone to suffer.
- I become very uncomfortable when I see or hear of the suffering of any living being.
- Part of my discomfort could be an empathy that runs so deep that I might have trouble recognizing, processing, responding to, or expressing it. Part of that awkwardness comes from the fact that spoken language is very limited and sometimes the right words don’t exist.
- If someone doesn’t say enough of the right things at just the right times, they might be (mis?)interpreted as a cold, unfeeling person. This has very negative consequences. Put another way, there seems to be an unwritten “code” for how one “should” express empathy/emotion, and Aspies don’t match that code, so we get blamed for not having these human traits at all (or at least, not having “enough”).
- Another part of my discomfort might be my own self-consciousness that I might not be living up to the society-set “standards” of how much empathy I “should” be able to express, and I begin to wonder if I’m actually a cold, unfeeling person after all, since I don’t know whether or not I “care enough”.
- Since some of the greatest periods of suffering can be the strongest motivators to bring about miraculous changes (in attempt to end such suffering), maybe some suffering isn’t so bad after all. But is this concept just my way of letting myself Off the Hook for my doubts about whether or not I “care enough”?
Another thought that frequently crosses my mind is that it’s been deemed acceptable to slap Aspergian people with the accusation of “lacking empathy”. Part of the reason for this might be, who are we to deny it? If we don’t respond to someone’s suffering by saying just the right thing fast enough, the accusers have the upper hand. (“See? I told you they don’t have enough feelings.”) Given our challenges with interaction with the outside world, we might doubt ourselves, so we might not be sure how to defend ourselves against such an accusation.
It also doesn’t help the situation that we’re pretty straightforward and we don’t tend to engage as much in small talk, nor are we typically used to disclose a lot of deeply personal information (including emotions) to others. There might be a torrent of complex emotions wrestling and warring beneath the cool, cerebral exterior surface, but the rest of the world may be oblivious. Allistic people rely much more on what they can readily see on the surface, and they don’t often think to consider what might be stewing underneath. Thus, a lot of what we do feel slips past them unnoticed, and we fail to be credited for that internal response or have it acknowledged.
The accusers have their way every day; it’s time for us to speak up.
So now, let’s turn the tables. It’s our turn to point the spotlight at the rest of the world.
When people (in general) are honest with themselves, and I mean truly honest, exactly how high does the average empathy-o-meter run? How concerned are people not on the spectrum about the suffering of others? How intense is their emotional response? How long does it last? How easily is it replaced with a new thought, task, conversation, or another news headline?
When they donate money to charities, post pictures and memes on Facebook, talk about the starving children or the victims of war, respond to an acquaintance’s sad-themed social media post, etc, do they do so because they truly feel for the suffering person(s)? Or do they do it to feel better about themselves for responding? Do they do these things so that they can now sit back and feel like they are “Off the Hook”?
(POSSIBLE TRIGGER ALERT, for the next paragraph only…)
When an animal rescue charity commercial comes on (you know, the type that show all those pictures of languishing animals in cages), I know that I feel a deep, profound sense of pain, grief, and anguish. This runs so deep that it could literally mess me up emotionally for anywhere from a few minutes to a few months (or longer). (The only reason I don’t make a donation is that I know these charities generally do not use the funds wisely at all. Hardly any of it goes to the animals they’re using to generate those funds.) Those commercials make me feel incredibly uncomfortable, however–if nothing else, due to the idea that these animals are indeed suffering. I reassure myself that I’ve done my part by adopting rescued animals (thus doing what I can to help be part of the solution).
(…End Possible Trigger Alert)
I argue that those strong emotions and that sense of empathy that I feel is real. VERY real.
Interestingly enough, what I feel for those victims is about as powerful an example of empathy that I can think of. And the emotions it triggers are about as intense, deep, and complex as I can think of.
And even more interestingly (at least, to me), is that I’ve seen and felt this type of emotions come through in the writings and blog posts written by Aspie/autistic people fairly frequently. In fact, I seem to encounter this–by far–more often from Aspie/autistic people than from allistic/non-autistic people. (Wait, aren’t Aspies the very people who get accused of “lacking empathy” or not displaying “enough emotion”?…)
To sum up this part:
- I’m an Aspie, and I know what I feel, and it can run deep, often much deeper than I can express.
- I’ve seen similar intensity of emotions and empathy from other Aspies, and the same sentiment rings true for those I’ve seen. Aspies do have emotions and empathy. We may not be warm and fuzzy about it, but it’s there, and it’s real.
- I don’t, however, often see this type of intensity from the allistic population, on average.
- Yet, people on the spectrum are the ones accused of having the emotional/empathetic deficits. (This seems hypocritical to me!)
…which brings me to another question…
Could this “lack of empathy” that the “authoritative officials” speak of actually be a sort of form of transference? (Transference is when Person A possesses a quality that subconsciously they can’t stand, so they accuse Person B of having that quality, when Person B actually doesn’t. A familiar example of transference is when a cheating spouse accuses a faithful spouse of cheating on them.)
Applied in this context, it could be theorized that the people accusing us of having a lack of empathy and dreaming up the idea of including this in the diagnostic criteria could actually subconsciously be feeling deficient in their own sense of empathy and they are often too impatient and ego-inflated to undertake the humbling task of seeking to understand, and thus may be looking for an easy target to shift the focus (and then also the blame) onto. This may fuel the attempt to pin the “lack of empathy” blame on us instead.
Since we naturally have a tough time expressing our emotions by their standards, their position then appears to be valid, and then the rest of the public’s attention shifts off of them and onto us. Poof! Now they’re “Off the Hook” for any further growth, evolution, or understanding. The “blame” is now assigned to someone else, a group with less “official” credibility. The ableism strikes again; since the general public looks to these “experts” as the “official” source of “valid” information, the general public is now encouraged to believe these misleading accusations.
To break down the theoretical possibility above:
- We, the people on the spectrum, have our own way of experiencing emotion, suffering, and empathy. Our ways of processing are often not the same as for those not on the spectrum.
- When people are uncomfortable with an aspect of themselves, they might try to deny it and even shift the guilt toward another person, who often doesn’t possess that characteristic.
- Some of the people creating diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s and the rest of the spectrum might be some cold, unfeeling, over-analytical people themselves.
- These “official authorities” may be too simple-minded/simple-hearted to seek greater understanding, so it’s easier to slap a label on us.
- Some of these “official authorities” may also be subconsciously aware that the above characteristics might apply to them, and if so, they may be attempting to transfer some of their subconscious discomfort with themselves onto us; the spotlight is now off of them and on us.
- And sadly, the public falls in line with the conventional wisdom.
- After all, when you’re the “authority” on a subject, and the people you’re characterizing are already labeled “disabled” in an area that involves brain function, we’ve lost “official” credibility, which makes it hard for us to fight back and set the record straight.
…Except…that this last bullet point’s last phrase (“set the record straight”, in italics) is exactly the point of this post 🙂