Possessing But Not Expressing

by Miranda

I really hate how everyone believes that people with autism lack empathy. As someone of the spectrum, I haven’t always been able to read the cues that give away emotions, but I’ve always deeply felt the emotions of others.  If I see a person do something embarrassing, even if I don’t know them, I can still feel their embarrassment radiating off of them. Emotions just radiate from others and become my own; most of the time, I don’t know the reason for their feelings. I just feel them. Through comparison of what I’ve felt and what I’ve seen, I was able to get better at reading body language.

My biggest problem, and the reason why people think that I’m not empathetic, is because I’m really terrible at expressing empathy.  When my grandma died, my mother was really upset — not just because her mother had died, but because she thought that I didn’t care.  How could anyone not care if their grandma died?  I do understand why she felt the way she did because I didn’t express my sadness the way I should have.  I avoided my mom because I was upset enough that I didn’t need to feel her sadness on top of my own.  I also have major problems when it comes to hugging because it makes me feel a little claustrophobic.  Now, my mother understands, thanks to her blogging friends.

Expressing empathy isn’t something that is easily learned.  There are just too many different situations with too many variables to know exactly how to react.  I used to play video game like My Sims where you talk to random people, and you’re given options of how to respond: do you want to hug them, give them a gift, etc.  If you choose the wrong option, the sim gets angry.  Let’s just say a lot of them were angry at me.  I worry about unintentionally offending people, so I don’t do much to express empathy, which is how I can see that I may come off as not being empathetic.

I think that not knowing how to express empathy is the main reason why people on the spectrum don’t appear to be empathetic.  It’s not that they don’t have empathy; it’s just that they don’t know how to show it.

About the Author: Miranda is a teenager with Asperger’s who blogs at From Inside the Heart. Possessing But Not Expressing was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.

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11 thoughts on “Possessing But Not Expressing

  1. […] wrote an article for Rachel’s Autism and Empathy site. It’s titled Possessing But Not Expressing please check it […]

  2. Alicia says:

    “If I see a person do something embarrassing, even if I don’t know them, I can still feel their embarrassment radiating off of them. Emotions just radiate from others and become my own, most of the time I don’t know the reason for their feelings. I just feel them.”

    I thought I was the only one to get embarrassed when I see a stranger ashamed. I knew others who felt many emotions but nobody told me about that part.
    I loved your post and feel the same way.

    • Miranda says:

      At first, I wasn’t sure if the embarrassment was an Aspie thing or not. I did some research and no one said specifically anything about it, but I figured that embarrassment is an emotion so wouldn’t you feel it like any other emotion?

  3. Jayn says:

    “I avoided my mom because I was upset enough that I didn’t need to feel her sadness on top of my own.”

    This is something I struggle with as well. I often feel a push-pull effect between my need to get away from someone else’s emotions, and their need for support (and the resulting guilt trip I’ll give myself if I don’t provide it). It’s especially bad when I’m already upset, but even in normal times I’ll get bleed over. For example, it drives me nuts when my husband gets frustrated because it inevitably makes me frustrated in turn, or at the very least tense. Sometimes I think it affects me more than him.

    • My husband often responds to my frustration like you do to your husband’s. Are you able to help and support him when he gets upset? If not, or often not, how does he handle knowing that when he gets upset, he’s more likely to get you upset than get support? Sometimes I feel like I have to stay calm around him, because if I don’t, we’ll have two adults unable to deal instead of one. It can be difficult.

      • Jayn says:

        Depends on what type of upset he is, and what my mood was beforehand. I tend to try and be the calm one for him, which has its problems when I’m upset myself, because I have to set aside my needs for his, but I do it because I love him and seeing him hurting hurts me in turn. It does sometimes wind up causing me a little resentment (partly because he seems to need me more than I need him in this manner–of course, he also works), which I may need to address in the future. And there are times when I need to detach, and I feel guilty for that, (I generally crawl under the bedsheets) but I can’t support him if I’m overwhelmed myself, ya know? These times are few and far between though.

        Sometimes, though, it’s more minor stuff, something I can’t change, and his frustration tends to make me jumpy (it doesn’t help that sometimes he’ll hit something nearby–inanimate objects only, no worries). I can’t be the calm person then, and often I don’t understand why he’s as upset as he is. (Of course, I’m also way too complacent sometimes.) Honestly, the best thing in those situations is to suggest he play some Halo to blow off steam, which is as much for my sake as it is his.

  4. Rachel says:

    I experience the same push-pull with wanting to help others in the midst of strong emotion, but somehow, I’ve been able to create some shielding over the years, so that I can usually be there and not be overwhelmed. I do well with emotional situations one-to-one now, but if I’m in a group of people who are all emotionally overwrought, I generally have to bow out. The only exception to my one-to-one ability is when a person is being open hostile and misdirecting anger at me; I usually deal with it by telling the person that I’m happy to talk when they’re ready to calm down.

    I’ve also learned that when I’m in the midst of supporting a friend or loved one through a difficult time, I have to take a break for myself later on in order to regroup. I think this is true for most people, but it’s especially important for highly sensitive people. I can deal with the difficulty of being in the midst of a person’s strong emotion now, because I know that I’m going to have some recovery time later on. Because I like to help and support people, my heart tells me to be there endlessly for them, so in the past, I thought that needing to have a break was some sort of moral failing. Of course, it’s not.

    It’s like any hard work; I can do a lot of hard work so long as I know that I can also rest and recharge.

  5. Floortime lite mama says:

    What an excellent post

  6. I tried to comment on this but somehow klutzed the keyboard and killed my reply. It was too long anyway.

    I’ve done a separate post which is part-reply and part-new article.
    http://life-with-aspergers.blogspot.com/2011/07/barriers-to-empathy.html

    Miranda: Well done! Excellent post.. and today I added your blog to my reader. I’ll be following from now on.

  7. Aspergirl Maybe says:

    Miranda,
    This is a wonderfully written piece – thank you for sharing your heart on this topic.

    I can relate to feeling others’ emotions such as embarrassment; I even have trouble with that while watching TV sitcoms where I know the actors are pretending.

    When my grandfather died, I didn’t have any outwardly strong emotional response of my own for several days. The only time I felt it come to the surface during the first week was when my grandmother was crying because she felt so alone. It was much later when I was able to reflect on my grandfather and cry for him myself.

    I think it is so good to be able to find other people who experience emotions in similar ways. Aloha!

  8. […] piece is in response to an excellent post by Miranda called Possessing But Not Expressing. When I was reading the post, I started a reply that (as is usual for me) got a bit too long. Then […]

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