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.