Empathy, Sympathy and AS - what's the actual consensus?

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TouchVanDerBoom
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19 Oct 2009, 6:33 am

One of the main things that caused my counsellor to suggest I had Asperger's in the first place was that I'd talked about having trouble empathising with people. By this I meant that if someone else was crying or ill or tired I only reacted to it according to how to impacted on me, totally overlooking the feelings of the other person. I didn't put myself in their shoes and think why they might be crying or tired. In contrast when watching TV, either with fictional or occasionally real people in documentaries, I get very involved with their problems and will cry for them. This is why I can't watch the news anymore.

So do I have trouble with sympathy or empathy? Most people who know me as a friend will say I'm very kind and caring, especially females. And I do talk to them about their troubles and advise them but mostly I'm forcing it, just doing what girls do - typical aspie girl and her social theatre. Plus I'm very interested in psychology and human behaviour and when I talk to them I'm not really caring about them - I'm studying them. Honestly, if it's more than a detached conversation, if they cry or display any emotion, especially if they disrupt my plans, I just wanna slap their faces.

What I'm asking is two things really: a) what is my problem - empathy or sympathy? and b) what is the problem associated with AS? I have read most places it is that we don't empathise but the definitions of this vary and earlier I even read it's not empathy but sympathy we don't get.



Danielismyname
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19 Oct 2009, 7:06 am

From a medical dictionary. With the definitions, you can work out which you have/don't have or have problems with/don't have problems with.

Quote:
Main Entry: em·pa·thy
Pronunciation: \ˈem-pə-thē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural em·pa·thies
1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ; also : the capacity for empathy


Quote:
Main Entry: sym·pa·thy
Pronunciation: \ˈsim-pə-thē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural sym·pa·thies
1 a : an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other b : mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it
2 a : the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b : the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity


I don't have empathy going by these definitions, but I have sympathy.

Care is a separate emotion that is an extension of empathy/sympathy, rather than a needed piece (since I don't have empathy, I won't care for the situations that create such).



Squidward
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19 Oct 2009, 7:42 am

I can't speak for all Aspies, but I myself have a very pronounced and almost disabling sense of empathy.

I'll tell you why below, but first I just want to clear something up. When 9/11 occurred, I could hear my mum in the family room, watching the TV, she sounded upset. I got up to see what it was, and she told me, "Two planes have crashed into the twin towers." The first thing that went through my 11-year-old mind was, "Wow, cool." I didn't consider it horrifying, but amazing. As time passed and I saw individual accounts of what had happened and its effects on them personally did I start to feel the emotions expected of me in such a situation, or not. I didn't feel the tragedy at hearing it said plainly, but when I saw the pain of individuals manifest in shaky speech, or crying, or shaking, did I realise that I was meant to feel bad about it, and only then did I start to feel bad about it. This would mean I demonstrated empathy, right?

On the other hand, if one of those people were in front of my eyes showing their pain, and I was in a prime position to comfort them, above anyone else, I'd have absolutely no clue as to what to do or what to say. If I'm talking with someone who is upset, and I can see them starting to cry (or if I suspect they are about to, which can sometimes be wrong, as I can't pick up on the meanings of certain expressions), I usually say, "Don't," because if they do, I'll be at a total loss, socially, and they or others observing may think I'm heartless, when I'm not. So would this mean I am deficient in the area of sympathy?

The reason I consider my sense of empathy disabling, is because for the last four months I have been following the case of a friend of a friend of mine, who is now my friend, who is facing charges of death, harm and serious harm by dangerous driving, and he faces up to 15 years in prison. I think my brain allowed me to empathize with him to such an extent because of all the similarities between him and me that it picked up on: we're both Greek-Australian, we're both around the same age (I'm 19 and he's 20), he has no cruel or malicious thoughts, and is very much an unremarkable person (if I may be so blunt).

On top of all of these similarities was the sense of missed opportunity; he was meant to be in the same class as me in the first year of high school, but the school found out that his parents had lied about his address. This would allow him to get into the school, as they did not live in the school zone. He was kicked out and sent to another high school, where my best friend from primary school was going to attend. When the school year started, I wondered where he was, because he had a peculiar-sounding surname that I remembered, and because he was one of five Greek-Australians in my class. He went to the other school, along with my friend, and I pretty much lost contact with my friend. We definitely don't see each other as often as we did at primary school.

The cruel part of the case of the schools is that both of them were involved in the accident, one driving, and my primary school friend injured. Since then, they have not been allowed to communicate, in accordance with bail conditions, but I have been communicating with both. My primary school friend says he's a wanker, and always considered him so, but I don't believe him. The one facing the charges told me that he wants nothing more than to talk to the guys that were in the car, to apologize.

It's a whole swirl of sh*t that I've never been subjected to in the past, so in order to try and remedy it (I presume), my brain has forced me to empathize with the one aspect of the whole situation which is not yet resolved, the criminal trial for the driver, and since first seeing his distraught face in a photograph in the newspaper, I have been unable to let it go in any fashion, and since then I have discovered things about myself, through his own misfortune, that I didn't even know about, such as my distaste for the bereaved (see my blog if you want to know more about that). I might as well be facing the charges, and the court appearances, and the media attention. That's how closely linked to the case my brain has forced me to be.

On top of all of that, the court heard a few days ago that he had just been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome himself (in a mercy plea, saying that he won't receive proper "treatment" in prison), and I immediately attributed that to the intense empathy I've been feeling, as though I unconsciously sensed something that made it my responsibility to be his representative unto myself (up until a couple of weeks ago, I had never even spoken to him, bar casual chitchat about knowing each other's friends, and other meaningless things) and subsequently, on the internet.

And, of course, it's disabling because there's a haze of depression that affects my dad-to-day life, and my personality, and although I'm attempting to be stoical about it all, I can't get the image of his face, contorted with grief, typical Aspie-like emotional immaturity forced out into the open, totally exposed, he, himself, being subjected to something he has never experienced and which he doesn't fully understand, out of my mind.


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eeyore710
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19 Oct 2009, 11:22 am

I don't know which you would call it, but I have the same thing going on. I watch TV and get wrapped up in the characters and the plot and will frequently end up in tears. But in a face to face situation, I can have someone crying in front of me and I just feel annoyed and struggle with the correct response....I can usually figure out the "right" thing to do but I guess I never really feel it...like I'll hug someone but it isn't because I care, it is because I've studied other people and it seems like that's what you're supposed to do. And the whole time I'm hugging them I'm thinking "please stop crying so I can get away from you". This has always been a mystery to me...why do I cry and feel the pain of people in a story or on TV, but feel completely detached from the people in my life? Actually I think it's even worse than detachment because I truly feel annoyed that they are showing their feelings...almost hostile towards them.

The one that really confuses me is with my own child...I love her more than anything in the world. I would take a bullet for her. But when she starts to cry or show excessive emotion the things I do are really more to make the display of emotion stop rather than because I feel for her. Yet when she talks deliberately and logically about something like a bullying incident at school THAT can make me cry.

This makes me wonder if it's really a lack of empathy or sympathy. I wonder if it's more that people displaying emotions are extremely unpredictable, therefore we feel threatened by the unpredictability and we just want the whole scene to stop so that nothing unexpected happens. I definately feel emotions. I just don't feel them when I'm SUPPOSED to feel them. Scared or angry or hurt people make me want to run away...it's a weird reaction like someone crying makes "fight or flight" reactions kick off in my brain. I freeze, I don't know what to do, and I look for the fastest way to make it stop, either by doing things I've seen work for others, or by escaping all together. Maybe it's ok to have feelings about someone on TV because they are not really there...not really a threat?

It's at least reassuring that it seems others struggle with this too:)



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19 Oct 2009, 11:31 am

my husband and I recently discussed empathy/sympathy/compassion and looked up definitions to get a better idea, because we felt that sometimes people misuse the words.

this is what we came up with (definitions that make sense to our AS minds):

empathy: the ability to feel what someone else does (doesn't mean you do, it means you can).
sympathy: feeling what someone else does (like being in tune with them emotionally).
compassion: a desire to take action to alleviate the cause or symptoms of another person's distress.

I agree with what people have said on WP that we don't lack empathy. we just don't identify with people through the normal routes. I used to feel like emotional displays were manipulative (I still think they usually are) but if someone explains how they feel then I can usually empathize, even sympathize, because I can easily draw parallels to events in my own life.



WritersBlock
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19 Oct 2009, 11:37 am

You forgot "apathy".



Stinkypuppy
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19 Oct 2009, 11:44 am

Here's a related thread from General Autism Discussion from just a few weeks ago:

http://www.wrongplanet.net/postt108735.html


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bhetti
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19 Oct 2009, 11:50 am

WritersBlock wrote:
You forgot "apathy".

no one around here seems to have a problem understanding apathy :)



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19 Oct 2009, 12:34 pm

bhetti wrote:
empathy: the ability to feel what someone else does (doesn't mean you do, it means you can).
sympathy: feeling what someone else does (like being in tune with them emotionally).


Those aren't entirely correct though. In empathy, you can feel the same way as someone else does, but it has to be something you've never experienced. For instance, if you can imagine and feel the pain of someone who's lost a spouse and you've never lost a spouse, you're feeling empathy. If you can imagine and feel the pain of someone who's lost a spouse and you lost a spouse at one time too, then you're feeling sympathy. You can feel bad for that person without having gone through it, but if you can't relate to the feelings, it's pity.

To try and make it a bit clearer, still using the dead spouse example:
Empathy: "Oh, I'd feel so awful if I lost my spouse. The pain would feel like..."
Sympathy: "Oh, I felt so awful when I lost my spouse. The pain felt like..."
Pity: "I have no idea what she's feeling, but it's obvious that she's hurting. I feel bad for her."


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bhetti
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19 Oct 2009, 1:03 pm

RainSong wrote:
bhetti wrote:
empathy: the ability to feel what someone else does (doesn't mean you do, it means you can).
sympathy: feeling what someone else does (like being in tune with them emotionally).


Those aren't entirely correct though.
then the dictionary definitions are wrong.



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19 Oct 2009, 1:18 pm

bhetti wrote:
RainSong wrote:
bhetti wrote:
empathy: the ability to feel what someone else does (doesn't mean you do, it means you can).
sympathy: feeling what someone else does (like being in tune with them emotionally).


Those aren't entirely correct though.
then the dictionary definitions are wrong.


Main Entry: em·pa·thy
Pronunciation: \ˈem-pə-thē\
Function: noun
Etymology: Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathēs emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion — more at pathos
Date: 1850
1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this


Main Entry: sym·pa·thy
Pronunciation: \ˈsim-pə-thē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural sym·pa·thies
Etymology: Latin sympathia, from Greek sympatheia, from sympathēs having common feelings, sympathetic, from syn- + pathos feelings, emotion, experience — more at pathos
Date: 1579
1 a : an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other b : mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it c : unity or harmony in action or effect <every part is in complete sympathy with the scheme as a whole — Edwin Benson>
2 a : inclination to think or feel alike : emotional or intellectual accord <in sympathy with their goals> b : feeling of loyalty : tendency to favor or support <republican sympathies>
3 a : the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b : the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity <have sympathy for the poor>
4 : the correlation existing between bodies capable of communicating their vibrational energy to one another through some medium

Bolded for easier identifying.


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TouchVanDerBoom
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19 Oct 2009, 2:17 pm

Right...ok. Just trying to process what you've all said.

So empathy is relating to someone even when it hasn't happened to me personally and sympathy is relating when I can draw on similar experience? Well then I have trouble with both!

Example - a female friend is crying about her brother having gone to live in Australia. I feel irritated that she is crying in front of me, a little bit touched that she feels comfortable to cry in front of me, like crying myself because of some unrelated upset feeling but I don't majorly care, I like her and want her to be ok but I don't care. If the same thing was on TV I might get tears in my eyes, if the actress was convincing or if the music was sad enough. Even if she was talking about something I can relate to, like her dad leaving when she was a kid, that'd be worse, I'd hate her and feel like she was stealing my unique childhood trauma! What's wrong with me?

Maybe I'm just a common or garden b***h?

I did used to goad my boyfriend till he cried and loved it. I didn't feel irritated then, I thought it was sexy. I encouraged it. There has to be a reason I think it's ok when he does it.

I completely relate to eeyore710 - well, almost completely as I haven't any kids so I don't know whow all that would be for me - but generally, the way you describe the feeling of irritation and wanting it to stop, that's how I feel. As a kid I remember we were in PE and a boy fell and broke his arm and was really crying. I hated it, it really got to me. I didn't feel sorry for him it just made me get upset about not seeing my dad etc.

It's not only bad things that I can't empathise with. I don't remotely understand people who don't like the same stuff as me such as football fans or people who like mainstream dance music. I don't get how their minds can work in a way that makes them think those things are good, because I don't think that way. It's incomprehensible to me.

And as for apathy - yes, that one I get. No trouble feeling that one at all :(



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19 Oct 2009, 2:25 pm

I think the main difference is that with empathy the emphasis is on understanding, on an emotional level, what someone else is going through. With sympathy the emphasis is on shared feelings. In normal use though I think empathy implies a combination of both emotional understanding, shared feelings, and compassion. Unfortunately there isn't a word used exculsively for emotional understanding without either shared feelings or compassion. People only seem to use the word empathy when it is something positive, for instance they wouldn't use empathy to describe someone using emotional understandings to manipulate people.



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19 Oct 2009, 2:26 pm

RainSong wrote:
bhetti wrote:
RainSong wrote:
bhetti wrote:
empathy: the ability to feel what someone else does (doesn't mean you do, it means you can).
sympathy: feeling what someone else does (like being in tune with them emotionally).


Those aren't entirely correct though.
then the dictionary definitions are wrong.


Main Entry: em·pa·thy
Pronunciation: \ˈem-pə-thē\
Function: noun
Etymology: Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathēs emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion — more at pathos
Date: 1850
1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this


Main Entry: sym·pa·thy
Pronunciation: \ˈsim-pə-thē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural sym·pa·thies
Etymology: Latin sympathia, from Greek sympatheia, from sympathēs having common feelings, sympathetic, from syn- + pathos feelings, emotion, experience — more at pathos
Date: 1579
1 a : an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other b : mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it c : unity or harmony in action or effect <every part is in complete sympathy with the scheme as a whole — Edwin Benson>
2 a : inclination to think or feel alike : emotional or intellectual accord <in sympathy with their goals> b : feeling of loyalty : tendency to favor or support <republican sympathies>
3 a : the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b : the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity <have sympathy for the poor>
4 : the correlation existing between bodies capable of communicating their vibrational energy to one another through some medium

Bolded for easier identifying.
ok, thanks. we were using webster's and american heritage regular versions.

so... why do the medical versions differ so much in their definitions of empathy and sympathy from the regular dictionary versions? are the medical definitions of emotions the ones that are more accurate?



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19 Oct 2009, 2:48 pm

bhetti wrote:
ok, thanks. we were using webster's and american heritage regular versions.

so... why do the medical versions differ so much in their definitions of empathy and sympathy from the regular dictionary versions? are the medical definitions of emotions the ones that are more accurate?


Bhetti, I used the Merriam-Webster online dictionary to quote the definitions up there. I don't know why it would be different in print and online though.


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