Aspergian empathy

So another thing I learned from a fellow Aspie at the last Houston Aspie Info gathering was that something I believed is just common sense and common courtesy is not always viewed that way by NTs.  Namely, someone shares with you a terrible experience they had and how badly they feel about it, etc.  What I do, what I think many Aspies do, is search our memories for a relevant, comparable experience that we ourselves went through that might lend insight, or at least let the other person know that we know at least a little bit of what they’re going through.

Or apparently not;  According to a fellow Aspie friend, this sometimes gets turned around on an Aspie by an NT who becomes angry that you’ve shifted the focus away from them an onto you.  And I guess are mad that you aren’t holding their hand and letting them vent and feeling that emotion alongside them first.

This just leaves me at a loss for words…the former is the natural Aspie expression of concern and empathy.  The hostile reaction described by my friend just leaves  me baffled and thinking “Wow, what a dick move to respond to my kindness that way…” and “jeeze, pity party much?!”  I had assumed that all sane, rational people would understand that someone trying to commiserate with you by sharing from their own grab bag of hard knock experiences counts for something universally.  That this would not be so is literally incomprehensible to me.

I’m not physically capable of sharing that kind of immediacy of empathy with someone that many needy NTs seem to want and can only get from each other.  And it’s wrong of them to write me off as unfeeling or uncaring because I can’t…I express my empathy in my own Aspergian, more logical way; you shared an experience with me, seems only right that I should share a meaningful story with you.  Some Aspies may have difficulty in judging if an experience is roughly equivalent or not–I don’t think that I do, but that’s a separate issue.  I think I’m pretty good at gauging comparable experiences and I’ve yet to actually experience a negative reaction like my friend describes, but I think I’d be desperately confused and upset if I ever did.  I’d probably be angry and resentful that someone whom I’m trying to help is lashing out at me.  I’d probably just give up in frustration and incomprehension and just leave.

Sometimes people need to be left alone, it’s true.  I know I do.  But probably in past relationships I’ve opted to leave someone alone when really what they wanted was my company and emotional support and they think I’m being cold & indifferent, while I’m just applying my interpretation of “The Golden Rule”, albeit with less than optimal results at times, trying to give them space because that’s what *I’d* want in their shoes but it’s not actually what THEY want.  But I do need them to VERBALIZE what they want/need, especially if our relationship is new-ish and we don’t know each other intimately well.

Anyway, just wanted to write these impressions down before I forget them.

7 thoughts on “Aspergian empathy

  1. Wow, isn’t that true. I ran into this kind of problem a few times over the past two years. I wish I could recall what the situations were, but they really “knocked me off of my feet” (stunned me and hurt my feelings).

    You touched on something that is so specific, often hard to pinpoint to be able to talk about, and pulled it out into the open. I, too, tend to bring out my own experience in order to relate to them that I understand what they are saying and that I’ve been there.

    After all, it often helps people to “not feel so crazy”, knowing that others have experienced the same. However, I have over the last two years, had occurrences where people were totally offended by my having done that.

    Really caring about other’s feelings and situations, it really hurt me that they translated it the “wrong” way. I know I experienced this at a 9 day NVC/CC (Non-Violent Communication aka Compassionate Communication Retreat Workshop and I experienced that with my oldest daughter.

    I felt like I needed therapy after such strong negative responses 😛

  2. Did you notice that the date and time of this thing is wrong? It say 6 hours later than it really is, which makes the date say that it’s tomorrow, at least at the moment that I am writing this.

    • Yeah, I noticed that time/date discrepancy; not sure what’s up with that, probably something off in the blog settings. We should probably fix that at some point.

  3. With my oldest daughter, I’d gone for years on a daily basis listening to my daughter after school talk about her day, feeling, experiences.

    In response, I’d relate back to her similar days, feelings, and/or experiences to empathize with her so she would feel validated, not feel crazy, maybe it would provide insight, she would feel like I empathized with her.

    After some years, she came back to me and told me that she resented all those days because she said that I took what she told me and made it all about me. To say the least, I was stunned, hurt, frustrated, angry, etc.

    I had not known it was an Aspergian/NT thing. Though I see all kinds of indicators that she is Aspergian, this is how she took it.

    Many of the people I mentioned at that NVC 9 Day thing seemed greatly offended at that, which they, as participants, and also they, the conference leaders, referred to as “stories”.

    The fact that they were “greatly offended” was evident by their emotional response. The fact that they did not find that as an effective method for them was evident when they said: “The stories” don’t matter”, they’d say.

    Though I came to learn that NVC does not find the stories useful in their approach, I also found that people didn’t like hearing the stories.

    I was greatly confused by this since in the small town where I grew up, stories were everything. We’d stand outside of restaurants, movie theaters, churches, etc. talking (telling stories) for, literally sometimes, hours.

    A large percentage of the attendees were from the San Francisco Bay Area and bigger cities like NYC even though the retreat/workshop was in Albuquerque, NM. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was also a cultural difference. But, considering that I even gave it that possibility, it would have been nice had they done the same and been more hospitable, though some were.

    The feedback I received from those who were more hospitable were that: Other people may not have had the same experience as you. Therefore, they can’t relate to your story, so it’s just totally diverting their attention away from what the person is trying to express.

    (Whatever happened to imagination??? I use my imagination, similar to like when I read a book about something that I haven’t had experience with. People who grew up in big cities don’t have imagination???)

    I also wasn’t used to the fact that in the South, much of what we do is, “sweetening” a conversation with manners, nice comments, empathy, etc., some of which is fake for some, and some of which isn’t for others.

    Due to the nature of the conference and perhaps the places that the people came from, there was little or no “sweetness” to the way people expressed themselves. It all seemed so blandly and/or harshly “matter of fact” (ick).

    I was surprised that that bothered me because I’ve been and lived in other places, but it did. I actually left my home state in the South because it was “so fake”, but wow, does life have to be that bland and harsh (on the other extreme)?

    • Wow. The sort of treatment you received is why I sometimes call myself a “Misanthropic humanist”. As in, I love humanity, but people suck 😉

      Yeah, there’s something to those regional differences, too. I sometimes joke that I’m whatever the Dixieland/Texas equivalent of the “self-hating Jew” is. I’m very aware of Southern history and genuinely despise my Southern roots, the long legacy of deeply imbedded racism and intolerance, etc. My family hails from a border state (Missouri) and we had relations on both sides in that conflict. I definitely favor those of my family tree who fought to preserve the Union and ultimately abolish slavery. I was born in Atlanta, GA, and raised for a significant chunk of my early childhood in Columbia, SC, but thankfully moved to very metropolitan Houston, Texas before I developed a heavy Carolina accent. My Texas accent is very, very faint, practically nonexistent, though Northerners I’ve met claim they can still hear it, while other Southerners can’t.

      I mixed some with liberal Northeasterners while living in Germany, and while I agreed with them almost 100% politically, I just found I could not get on with them socially. They seemed cliquish, looked down on me because I hailed from the South, and from a large “State” school instead of a private university like Tufts, where they came from…which pissed me off because I knew I was just as smart, perhaps smarter, than any of them. I grew to despise most of the other Americans studying in Tübingen that year with very few exceptions, though I did find a few fellow liberal Southerners I got on okay with. Much too late I made good German friends in the Russian theater troupe, but even then, I always felt as though our friendship did not extend beyond actual theater club activities and I never felt it would be right or proper to just “hang out” with them casually, independent of theater work…I never asked and they never invited. So despite having these genuinely nice and affable German friends, I was feeling profoundly lonely and depressed towards the end of my stay in Europe, because I had no DEEP friendships of a more intimate nature like the ones I treasured, back in the USA. My very best friend, Shawn, it is true, was just a train ride away in nearby Würzburg, Germany, and I did visit him once, and he me during our year abroad, but as a practical matter it’s not as if I could go every weekend, and he certainly had a social life of his own in Würzburg without me.

  4. That – the angry backlash reaction – has been the response I’ve experienced receiving about 70% of the time, with “ignores my reply to continue talking about self” at 15% and “doesn’t respond to my reply” at 5%. Understandably, I’m more cautious about a) sharing b) saying much at all c) getting into – or not immediately getting out of – situations that will require me to tip-toe through such a conversational minefield with anything other than deeply trusted friends and d) all of the above.

Now you may speak.

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