And I was right about my experiences. I’ll explain.
Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote Why I Think “Empathy” Is An Often Misused And Therefore Harmful Concept
Here are the quotes I believe I was wrong about:
We don’t share feelings, because I believe we cannot feel the same way another feels. Because there is no way of knowing what that is.
Now, I’m not saying that empaths don’t exist. They may. So might telepaths. But I have yet to meet one.
AT BEST, those who are “naturals” at empathy are probably just naturals at reading body language, a la Cal Lightman from Lie to Me.
In short, empathy, in my view is a lazy excuse for doing something you think will be right, rather than actually communicating with another human being.
I’m pretty open about who I am as a person. That I am flawed and learning and growing.
Also, that I have a neuro-atypical brain. I’ve was diagnosed with ASPD 11 years ago. For those not in the know, this means that I don’t naturally experience empathy and attachments the way others do.
I was given the recommendation of drug and therapy treatment, and I declined, choosing instead to learn about myself, and people as best I could.
And I improved. So much that it rarely affects my life now, and many people don’t even believe when I tell them.
But I’m telling you this about me, so that you understand both where I was coming from, and what led me to continue researching and learning more.
As I’ve personally improved my powers of observation, communication and compassion, I’ve realized that I was wrong. That I have met empaths. That they exist in the same way that I exist, as the other side of the spectrum.
From left to right, here is what this spectrum represents (Note, this is based on my lived experience, research, talking with doctors, reading and other ways—I am NOT an expert, and there is a LOT of disagreement over this. This is simply my presentation and understanding.):
These have been referred to as anti-psychopaths by Abigail Marsh, who has studied the brains of people who are highly empathetic to others. She calls them “altruists.” These are people who engage in the most extreme selfless acts fathomable, like donating kidneys to complete strangers, often anonymously.
Also referred to as Highly-Sensitive People (HSPs). Have a greater response in mirror neurons and empathy signals than the average population.
Base “Normal” Spectrum of Humanity
Your “normies” or neurotypical range of folks (at least on this spectrum).
The following are far more often diagnosed in AMAB people:
People on the ASPD (antisocial personality disorder) spectrum can be witty, charming, and fun to be around. They also lie and exploit others. ASPD makes people uncaring, through a genetic or learned lack of empathy. Someone with the disorder may act rashly, destructively, and unsafely without feeling guilty when their actions hurt other people.
People with antisocial personality disorder lack empathy for others and may be contemptuous of or indifferent to the feelings, rights, and suffering of others.
Antisocial personality disorder is very difficult to treat. There is no evidence that any particular treatment results in long-term improvement.
ASPD is usually broken down into two primary types.
Sociopaths are able to form deep emotional attachments to others (usually those they know well—stranger empathy is not a factor) and disregard social rules; they tend to be impulsive, haphazard, and more easily agitated than people with psychopathy.
Psychopaths use manipulation and cunning to achieve their goals, and use hurtful actions as easily as any. They also tend not to feel emotion and mimic (rather than experience) empathy for others. They can be deceptively charismatic and charming.
It stands to reason that if there are people who are missing some of humanity in the form of empathy, then there are people who got an overabundance.
Thus empaths—or people who feel other’s emotions—exist. And it’s NOT just body language or pheremones (part of where I feel I have learned a lot), but actual brain functions and pathways that make this possible.
I also have learned that learned empathy (versus natural empathy) is a thing that can be acquired. Alan Alda wrote an amazing book on communication, discussing trained empathy—which seems to me to be a lot like working out. I’ll never have the natural ability to be an empathic Olympic medal winner, but with practice, I might be able raise myself to average or possibly more than.
I also still stick with a lot of what I said.
Empathic people may feel someone’s anxiety, and still not know WHY they feel that way.
They may mix up someone else’s feelings with their own (the science is showing that, read more here), and mis-translate them.
As my friend Richard said this morning, it is more difficult to use empathy to understand how another person feels about you because, “it’s filtered through how you feel about the situation. If you’re feeling insecure, then you’re projecting feeling an emotion on the interpretation that is not even there. It’s much easier to read people that you are not connected to.”
Empaths may use their own interpretations to ignore another’s autonomy and their lived experience.
And empathy is not a substitute for compassion and genuine communication.
I believe that empathy is an amazing gift (and curse for many), and is best used to enhance communication and connection, not to drive it.
Because I’ve since that time spent a lot of time talking with and learning from people who feel empathy. And many of them have found that their lives and feelings have improved in quality as they have learned to disengage enough from the emotions they feel from others to ask questions to interpret those more accurately.
Here are some of my recent readings on empathy, if you’d like to see the new science out there, and read others experiences:
What are your thoughts?
I still don’t claim to know everything. I wouldn’t. In fact, I want to know more.
What have your experiences been, in any position on this spectrum? Do you even believe in the spectrum?
How do you feel?
(See what i did there? LOL!)