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Being overly empathetic is not a disability. But it could be a psychological dysfunction. - Zer Netmouse
February 5th, 2016
10:06 pm

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Being overly empathetic is not a disability. But it could be a psychological dysfunction.
So, yesterday I read a post by Jim Hines reacting to a column by Amy Sterling Casil called "We are All Disabled." The original post has since been taken down, as you'll see at the top of Jim's post, and an apology has been put up by SFSignal, which published the piece. I didn't feel moved to post about it by Jim's commentary, which seemed pretty complete in and of itself, but then I read this commentary by Foz Meadows, and it caused a completely different thought process, which I thought I would share. (originally composed as a comment on Foz's blog entry)

Though I had read other commentary on this piece, it was only when I read your story about the comment you made when you were young and maybe more of an asshole that I cast my mind back to how I myself thought I was highly empathetic when I was a teenager. The phrase I used at that time was that I was an "empathic receiver."

Come to think of it, that was not long after I read _To Ride Pegasus_and was generally engaged with the idea of someone's being an empath. As in a number of stories I read, it did not always feel like a positive thing to be so affected by other people's feelings. In particular as I became sexually active, I had a hard time telling if I was actually excited/doing what I wanted, or if I was just echoing the other person's desires. I felt like I could actively draw energy off someone else, if I tried, but had no way of dampening the effect (aside from physically leaving) if an empathic projector I was involved with was unhappy.

Now, as an adult, I understand that what I was suffering from is known as a dysfunctional pattern of behavior and thought. It's psychology, and it's not a disability, but it is hard to change. The most closely related named dysfunctional pattern that I know of is called co-dependence.

Co-dependence is not narcissism, as another reader suggested above, rather it is a behavior pattern in which you have been trained to focus your attention outward. To try to anticipate what other people want and feel. At the same time there is a tendency *not* to state what you want or need, but to expect other people to "read" it from you, the way you would try to, and if they fail to do it you often conclude that they don't care or don't want to. Just like the OA, talking about her conversation with the autistic person, projected onto him an uncaring attitude despite the way she did not tell him what she was thinking and feeling.

As I grew older, I have continued to struggle to *know* what I want and how I feel, and to express those things, despite being raised in a family culture that has often presented serious backlash if I ask for something significant, while at the same time implying I should care more about how others feel than how I do.

I understand how this young woman has come across as a big asshole, and I agree with Jim Hines that her essay was really misguided and wrong. But I also hope people might consider her description of her own lived experience with a little more sympathy. And I hope she gets a good counselor, who can teach her how to set boundaries and learn to pay attention to other's feelings when appropriate, but also to ask what those feelings are and talk about your own feelings. To understand that none of us can actually read the minds and feelings of others - that even if you feel bizarrely good at it a lot of the time, it's better to cultivate behaviors of talking about things - asking and telling. It is only through discussion that you can become aware of when you're wrong. And you will be.

Because there are no real empaths. That's just science fiction.

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From:mrissa
Date:February 6th, 2016 11:44 am (UTC)
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"This young woman" is in her fifties.

That does not negate your hopes for a good counselor; I hope so too. But let's have an accurate view: this is not a 22-year-old with no life experience. She was born in 1962.
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From:the_leewit
Date:February 7th, 2016 02:50 pm (UTC)
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If one has had life experience but still retains a worldview untouched by the world, is one in fact experienced? I have definitely heard "young woman" or "young person" used with a bit of a sniff to imply "lacking a mature worldview, no matter what the age of the individual involved." I've used that phrasing myself.
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From:the_leewit
Date:February 7th, 2016 05:15 pm (UTC)
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And now that morning meds have kicked in: "young woman," or "young person," applied to someone who is only young in per lack of maturity, can be a less-gendered synonym for "manchild." I cannot presume to speak for Ms. Netmouse, though, and she may have meant it differently. The original blogger does come across as much younger than you say she is.

I see that you or someone like you has mentioned this elsewhere. I acknowledge and honor your anger.
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From:mrissa
Date:February 7th, 2016 07:31 pm (UTC)
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So here is my thinking:

I don't want either "young" or "old" to be used as an insult, because both young people and old people can be quite insightful. If it is factually used as an assessment of someone's literal potential for life experience--whether or not they've gotten the most out of that potential--I'm fine with it, and that's how I read our host netmouse as using it: as giving Casil the benefit of the doubt for not having as much oportunity to learn yet as others.

I honor her willingness to see people grow and learn, and certainly people can grow and learn at any age. I hope that Casil takes the opportunity to do so. But at a certain point I think we need to acknowledge that age is not the central factor, and I think that one's early fifties are well past that point. (I'm 37 myself. I think 37 would be well past that point.)
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From:netmouse
Date:February 8th, 2016 07:17 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I was just mistaken. She comes across as much younger than she is. I didn't mean it as an insult or a condescension.
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From:the_leewit
Date:February 7th, 2016 03:10 pm (UTC)
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I never realized how very normative the empath trope is, especially for women, until I read your comment. Huh.

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From:dionysus1999
Date:February 8th, 2016 03:38 pm (UTC)
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Mind reading sounds like a cool power for about 30 seconds. Then you realize you really don't want to know what people are thinking MOST of the time.
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