No Empathy, No Problem
Content warning: brief mention of graphic self harm in first paragraph.
Recently, I became aware that I might not feel empathy.
I was listening to a podcast (You’re Wrong About: Karen Carpenter Part 2 With Carolyn Kendrick), and the host, Sarah Marshall, relayed a particularly sad detail, to which Kendrick replied something about it feeling like she had slit her wrists and was bleeding out. In a flash, I thought, ah — I don’t have empathy! I’ve been thinking about the issue recently, but the idea was planted over the last few years, especially after reading Dr. Devon Price’s about narcissists. Across essays and posts, he’s said that he lacks empathy.
My first response was shock and confusion because I believed — like many others, I suspect — that this meant Dr. Price was saying he didn’t care about others and additionally implied immorality or lack of a moral compass. For me, empathy was shorthand for whether or not a person has an interest in the welfare of others and a drive to make things better for others besides themself. If you’re familiar with Dr. Price’s work, you know that he writes about several issues in ways that explicitly seek to reduce suffering in marginalized populations and workers.
I love listening to podcasts, and listening to that You’re Wrong About episode wasn’t the first time I’ve been confused about my reaction compared to how hosts describe their own. I love the paranormal podcasts Monsters Among Us, Strange Familiars, and The Night Owl Podcast as well as horror movie spoiler podcasts like Spooko and Too Scary; Didn’t Watch. All of these podcasts deal with sensitive and intense issues and experiences. I’ve been noting my own lack of emotional response as I listen to these pods for years, hearing hosts and guests shriek, moan, and shudder with emotion as they hear about all kinds of harrowing stories. I don’t experience those reactions alongside them, and my impression is that other people do.
I realized that empathy, as I previously understood it, was specifically demonstrated by communication skills in response to hearing about other people’s feelings or negative situations. This does not match the definitions of empathy you can find in a dictionary and also explains why you see “a lack of empathy” listed in the criteria for autism.
Empathy isn’t a communication skill. It’s the ability of a nervous system to recreate sensations and feelings that are observed or indicated in others. You can see this at play as you move away from “empathy” used colloquially. Empathy is, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
So this covers a lot of bases, but to break it down -
- being aware of,
- being sensitive to,
- and vicariously feeling the same things as others are all separate skills or abilities.
1. One of the most frequent phrases out of my mouth about other people is something like, “I can’t imagine feeling that way.” I couldn’t for most of my life, but as I’ve had broader experiences and gotten to know more people, it’s become less true. I’ve moved away from using the phrase for a couple of reasons. I’ve practiced asking people to describe their feelings and experiences and read a wider variety of experiences than the people I know personally. I’ve become desensitized to the fact that other people have feelings and experiences that I haven’t. It’s a learned skill many people struggle with regardless of neurotype. I started practicing this when I learned that thinking and saying, “I can’t imagine other people do/think xyz” in regards to bigotry and stigma is a pretty effective way of distancing yourself from your own part in bigotry and stigma. I’ve experienced this personally with some issues and can confirm, it is always exhausting and frustrating when people are too busy distancing themselves from what you’ve experienced to really see and hear you and how you feel about it.
2. I’m aware of other people’s emotions, but… Medicine and pop culture talk about autism primarily as not being aware of others’ emotions at all, but that’s an ability that can be honed as a skill as well. Noticing social cues is a big part of awareness of the emotions of people around you; one person may have been trained by trauma, therapies, or chance to notice social cues about emotions to an extreme degree, while another person may not have gotten that training or physically can’t absorb the training. There’s massive variety in the ways this can show up in a single person, combined with their other traits and skills. I can often tell that someone is annoyed, checked out, upset, or at ease. I both have the ability to notice and over time practice noticing. But…
3. I often don’t have the ability to respond to something with sensitivity. “Being sensitive to” has multiple meanings, but in this context, I take it as the ability or skill to adjust your behavior in response to people and situations that are considered “appropriate.” I cannot stop myself from literally interpreting a phrase like “omg stop” as I should stop a behavior right now, rather than how it’s meant positively in a casual conversation, even if I have other clues it might be in a positive context. I can notice another person seeming pleased and a little embarrassed from compliments, but when I hear “omg, stop,” it only parses one way in my mind. Knowing what emotion looks like in a person is one skill, and knowing the appropriate responses to those emotions is another skill entirely, and so is the ability to regulate your own feelings or modulate your behavior in response.
4. I can’t vicariously experience other people’s feelings and thoughts, despite trauma and anxiety sometimes convincing me I can. Podcasts have highlighted for me the fact that I am not having the same kinds of responses as other people when they hear creepy, gory, or emotionally tender stories. I don’t get scared or chilled unless something matches an experience I’ve had myself. The same goes for hearing about other people’s troubles and hurts — I feel sad for people, but I don’t feel other people’s sadness. Especially as I’ve become more skilled at keeping myself regulated and reducing my trauma triggers, I have an easier time both seeing and understanding that I’m often wrong when I guess what people are thinking or feeling.
Empathy, as a concept used to describe autistics and other neurodivergent folks, is a really big, multifaceted set of abilities and skills rather than the colloquial catch-all that stands in for “a good person.” When I thought a person “lacks empathy,” I thought of them as a cold, uncaring, unethical person. I thought, “they don’t care about other people,” rather than “they don’t have a combination of abilities, skills, and experiences like others might.”
Alongside these developing thoughts about empathy, I’ve learned and realized caring about someone is something everyone can choose to do. We can choose to care. I’ve learned this from countless friends, advocates, and activists who highlight time and time again how people can learn about others and choose ways to help support others. This has nothing to do with how well we can feel what others are feeling, though I think recognizing similarities between others’ experiences and our own certainly helps. Neurodivergent people notoriously relate to others via similarity in their own experiences to something someone else is relating.
I have a few friends that have experienced very similar life circumstances as I have. It can feel like a truly magically empathetic bond or insight when people really See you, really get you. It’s not magic; it’s a combination of chance, abilities, and skills that functions like a codec (an encoder or decoder of data). I have the same emotional codec talking to one friend as I do another — but my codec doesn’t match other people as well as others.
None of this is to say those relationships where the codec matches are less critical; I think they’re very important. They’re just not magic, and they’re not empathy. “Lack of empathy” is a big part of autistic and neurodivergent stigma. The explosion of stigma around narcissism is horribly stigmatizing and throws so many people under the bus. I had my own phase of thinking people around me were all narcissists, too — that these people had no empathy for me or anyone else. It was a narrative that served my wounds and my idea of myself. But, I’ve since learned that most of the people who hurt me were neurodivergent or, often, just complicated people doing their best in shitty systems.
Dr. Price says, “It is troubling to me how many otherwise justice-loving, left-leaning folks want to believe there is a category of people born to be evil. I don’t see how the belief that there is an evil group of people in the world is reconcilable with leftism’s goal of making sure all humans are well cared for.” This is from his 2021 essay “Sympathy for Narcissists.” I really recommend it — give it a read.
I’m recognizing, claiming, and explaining my own lack of empathy — I want to make the world a better place, and getting specific and reducing stigma is a big part of that. I hope you’ll join in me in continuing to learn more about what empathy really is and in how we talk about people without it.