Empathy is overrated

Empathy is a bit of a sticking point in conversations about autism. It’s one of the most misunderstood elements of the spectrum and it tends to result in us being a bit spiky. There’s a lot of shouting that we’re more empathetic than neurotypical people, so fuck you, World of Allism. There are snarky Facebook groups with names like “Is this allistics’ fabled empathising ability?”

So the first question is: is there something to this “lack of empathy” thing?

Well… yes. But it’s complicated, so please don’t stop here and yell at me. The problem is that “empathy” is a vague thing in many people’s heads. It gets muddled up with sympathy, compassion and generally being a good person who treats others well. When “empathy” is used as a stand in for the entirety of interpersonal ethics, that is a lot for one word to take on.

Surely the dictionary will be able to clarify matters! (I’m just kidding. This never works.)  According to Merriam-Webster, 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

Straight up we run into problems. Are we talking about understanding feelings, understanding that someone has feelings, or experiencing those feelings vicariously? Because those are different things. Feelings, thoughts and experiences are also different things. What constitutes an “objectively explicit manner?” What if you don’t realise that someone is sad, but then they tell you they’re sad (presumably in an objectively explicit manner) and then you feel unbearably sad too? Is that empathy, or do you have to read their mind first?

Let’s hit up the Cambridge online dictionary. It says:

The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation

We have to imagine being them now? Really? I’m going to jump in here and look at two different approaches to understanding what empathy is.


Empathy as Process

Many intuitively understand empathy as “responding appropriately to another person’s pain.” This constitutes not one mental process, but several, which ideally flow seamlessly into each other:

  • Perceive an emotional state in another person
  • Have your own emotional reaction to this
  • Change your own direction in response to this information
  • Consider that person’s wants and needs
  • Respond in a way that is helpful, or at least socially acceptable

Note here that you don’t necessarily have to give a shit. As long as you say the right words, in a convincing enough manner, you’ve done the job. Does being autistic put you at a disadvantage for this process? Hoo boy. Because our brains are wired differently, we have a communication gap with neurotypical people. This, incidentally, works both ways: they/you don’t understand us very well either. So it may not be obvious to us what someone thinks they are conveying about their emotional state. Then there are other problems. It’s difficult for us to move seamlessly through a set of tasks like this one. It’s difficult to change our mental direction quickly: ungainly and hyperfocused thinking can leave us hammering away at the same note even when there is ample evidence that we need to stop.

Considering that person’s wants and needs? They may want very different things from what we would want in that situation, so we may just not be able to figure it out. They may communicate their needs in very odd ways, such as saying that they’re fine when they’re not. Many people have absorbed a message that it’s impolite or selfish to communicate their needs directly, so they skirt around the topic. This makes it really difficult. Clear communication makes the world of difference here, but it’s amazing how many neurotypical people have to be told that they need to tell us, in words, clearly, what it is that they want from us. Even then, we may have difficulty processing their words quickly enough to give them the instantaneous reaction they want.

Then we have to know what would be helpful. We have to respond in the correct way. Let’s not forget how often neurotypical people get marked out as empathetic because they know what the socially acceptable response is, even though they actually don’t give a damn about the other person’s situation. We’ve all seen that. The neighbour who won’t stop talking about every pet she’s ever had, and how they died? Nod, make sympathetic faces, tell her you’re so sorry to hear about Mr Fluffybutt’s demise, and frantically figure out how you can get away.

So when I say that we have a problem with empathy, this is what I mean. It has nothing to do with compassion, or interpersonal ethics in a broader sense. I don’t think that autistic people are any better or worse than anyone else when it comes to caring about others. If a drowning person calls out for help, and the person walking past is deaf and doesn’t hear them, so they drown, that is a tragedy. But we don’t insist that the deaf bystander’s failure to assist indicates that they don’t care and wanted that person to drown. And yet, these differences in how we’re able to handle empathy as a process have been interpreted as autism = doesn’t give a fuck about anyone.

I know I keep harping on and on about the problem with neurotypical people assuming they understand what’s in our heads, when all they’ve done is observe our behaviour. But this shit affects our lives. We fail to respond to a painful situation in the same way that a neurotypical person would, the assumption is made that our behaviour means the exact same thing it would if a neurotypical person did it, and therefore it must be that we just don’t care about anyone else. Think about autistic characters in fiction and how they are always written to have absolutely no interest in the experiences of others, to the point of being utterly callous even when someone is in great distress. Whenever someone autistic does something bad, the newspapers always put in something about “murder dude was autistic, which means he had a lack of empathy, so… you know…” This is frustrating and potentially dangerous.

A for painful relationship breakup, talked about it all day every day at work. At one point she said to me: “When I talk about my relationship problems, you empathise. If you had true Asperger’s, you wouldn’t give a shit.”

I was tied between two possible responses:

  • “Oh no, that’s just a stereotype about us.”
  • “Actually I really don’t give a shit. Please talk about something else for a change.”

Both equally accurate! I can’t remember what I did say. I was being professional, which involved not telling my boss to shut up, however much I wanted to. She was speaking to someone who was professionally diagnosed with Asperger’s(1) and, instead of modifying her own understanding of the condition, she simply cast doubt on my diagnosis. Which is quite a common reaction, as it happens.


Empathy as Experience

Let’s explore my second definition of empathy, which is really closer to what the word is supposed to mean. Empathy is picking up the feelings of others and experiencing them vicariously.

Many people on the autism spectrum will say that we are more empathetic than neurotypical people, and this definition of empathy is why. One of the reasons that I struggle so much with my mental health is that I hurt when others are hurting. The pain that I feel when someone else is going through something is often overwhelming, which can inhibit my ability to do something helpful. If you’re a crumpled weepy heap, and I am also a crumpled weepy heap because I’m feeling your pain, neither of us is going to be much use at fixing the situation that upset you in the first place. Going through life like this is a challenge. I frequently have to avoid the news, and withdraw from people whose pain I cannot handle. I feel terrible about this but at the same time I don’t want to fall apart. Feeling someone else’s pain is not of itself helpful. Robert Sapolsky (pure braw legend) likes to point out that when we’re young and feel everything intensely, we tend to work with the logical fallacy that by feeling someone else’s pain, and being appalled by injustice, we’re doing something to help. But you can’t do something without doing something.

Empathy in this sense doesn’t necessarily turn you into a better person. It doesn’t tell you how to help. Someone who has absolutely no idea what the weepotron is going through but who is on hand to come around and help is much more useful in a crisis. And, paradoxically, their lack of overwhelming empathy is much more likely to be perceived as empathetic.

Story time!

Here’s the story of how having empathy as an experience failed to translate into showing empathy as a process. It’s half a lifetime ago and it’s extremely unlikely that this is being read by the woman in question. I’m going to call her Ermentrude, because that has a nice mixed fruit turnover thing going on, whereas her real name tastes of lettuce.

In my late teens, Ermentrude was incredibly important to me. We had a lot of fun together. She read the appalling self-indulgent wankfest that was the novel I wrote at 17, and she actually enjoyed it. Or claimed to, at any rate. I didn’t know a whole lot of openly queer people my own age, and that contributed to the isolation I felt. So our friendship (never more than friendship) as two budding lesbo buddos was formative. It ended badly, for reasons that were entirely my fault.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a lonely misfit teenager. I struggled to maintain friendships. I was baffled by other people. I was, I’m sorry to say, also a terrible friend. I did not learn How To Friend until later. I’m not going to go through all the many ways in which I was a bad friend to Ermentrude, but I really did screw up many times. I was never intentionally cruel, and I had no idea I was doing anything wrong at the time, but when I look back I shudder.

Ermentrude was going through some shit. She’d been a couple of years recovered from anorexia when we became friends. I became anorexic around that time, and I’m fairly certain that my mismanaging of conversations on the topic contributed to her relapse. I had no idea how vulnerable she was and could not grasp how badly I was affecting her. The guilt from that has haunted me for the last twenty years. I’ve just about forgiven myself at this point but I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Did I care about Ermentrude’s situation at the time? Oh hell yes. I was desperately worried about her. I was in agony over her situation. When she started skipping meals and throwing up, I wanted to tell her mum and we had an enormous fight about it. Then she started to disappear from my life. I did what teenage me always did in this situation: I panicked. Not again! Why does this happen? Don’t leeeeeeave meeeeeeeeeee….

She became unreliable at returning my calls, apathetic about meeting up, and the final straw came when she left for university without saying goodbye. Everything boiled over: the worry and frustration about her, about me, about every other friendship that had gone wrong, about my own anorexia which was doing its damndest to destroy me at the time, about my own new university where I was desperately homesick, friendless and struggling to cope. Cue what Captain Awkward would call FEELINGSMAIL: a long, drivelling email berating her for her failure to be a good friend. I get wordy(2) when I’m anxious or angry. I still do, but these days I’m aware of this issue and do my damndest to curb it. It doesn’t always work.

I received a response that was dripping with anger. The TL:DR version is “what the hell is wrong with you?” The full version went into various other details: she had become unwell, “I’m still not quite okay now” being classic anorexic understatement. I had been triggering her eating disorder. She was pissed off about various details of the bad friend stuff that I alluded to above. None of her other friends were behaving in such a ridiculous way.

I know now that this email was the Last Chance Saloon for our friendship. I know now that the appropriate response would have been a grovelling apology taking responsibility for all of my failings, a promise to do better, an acknowledgement that my previous email was inappropriate and counterproductive, and an an invitation for her to take as much space from me as she needed, in the knowledge that I would be there if and when she wanted to get in touch.

At the time, however, such a reaction was utterly beyond me. People going through bad stuff need friends, right? They need friends who understand what they’re going through. She and I were both anorexic. That should count for something, right?(3) I was down for us being close buddos. Surely my instincts that she should be a better friend were on the money. I was baffled by her apparent belief that this was not the case. It takes a lot of mental wrangling to acknowledge that what you want is not what another person needs, and that pursuing what you want is going to be utterly counterproductive to getting it. My social skills at the time hadn’t yet incorporated this idea.

My understanding of social situations works with rules. It’s like a computer churning out a string of IF A, THEN B calculations. It’s a program that learns as it goes, but it is possible to cause error messages, circular logic and massively incorrect responses. I spent my twenties overhauling and upgrading this system because it screwed up so frequently. I grabbed a ton of new rules and put them into patches. Incidentally I cannot overstate how brilliant captainawkward.com was for these purposes. I have read every single post and I am immeasurably more socially adept as a result.

Needless to say, my response to Ermentrude was another unhelpful one. I couldn’t change course so easily. Because I couldn’t make sense of what she was telling me, there was no way for me to incorporate that information into my calculations and behave differently. Hyperfocus and rigid thinking took over. Since the information that she gave me did not itself give me any explicit information about what she needed from me, and I did not understand what I was doing wrong, I sent another email in the same vein as the first.

And I never heard from her again. Well. I’m assuming that I’m not going to hear from her at this point, it being twenty years later. I hope she is okay. I hope she managed to recover from her eating disorder. I hope she has a magnificent life.

A simple rule which I began to incorporate a couple of years later, is that when someone is suffering, you need to stop and listen. I actually learned that from the Samaritans: go figure. It took a good many years to become a habitual response, but it’s worked better than any other course of action I’ve tried. Focus on taking in the meaning of what they’re saying to the best of your ability. Ask questions if you need to in order to understand better. Do not give advice unless someone asks for it. Respect every boundary they put in place. These are now the rules in my system. There are many people who have nobody in their life who does this. There are many other people who say “my friends are always coming to me for advice. I give really great advice,” when actually they’re just forcing unsolicited advice on everyone they meet. When someone else is in deep pain, drop the agenda you entered the room with. Don’t try to jump in and speak every time they pause for breath. Sometimes life is just unbelievably awful and the only thing you can do is sit there and say, “wow, those fish are super dead. I still like you though.”

I think if I had managed to do that, my friendship with Ermentrude would have survived. Would we still be friends now? Who the hell knows. I would still be friends with a particular spectrumite buddo, had she not spectacularly failed to do this when I was in a major depressive episode a couple of months ago.(4) It’s an easy thing to do, and I think that the reason why most of us don’t instinctively do it is that we forget everyone is the main character in their own story, not a side character in yours. They want and need to come up with their own solutions.

This response isn’t really empathy as such, in either the experience or process sense. It’s about being present for someone’s pain, rather than experiencing it. Listening carefully, rather than mind-reading. And crucially, I think it’s something we can do just as well as neurotypical people. We may even be better at it.


  1. Yeah, not a thing anymore. We’re all autistic these days. Nonetheless it is technically my original diagnosis.
  2. Difficult to believe, right?
  3. Nope. Anorexic people are often very bad at supporting each other. They mean well, but when you’re that sick, the other sick person is inevitably going to become competition, and the fixation you both have on thinness and food becomes mutually damaging. Being around others who model healthy, down to earth attitudes towards food, is much better.
  4. I don’t think she habitually reads this blog, so she’s probably not going to see this and think HEEEEY… But if you are actually her: yeah, you fucked up. I’d ask for an apology but I’m pretty sure I’m not getting one.

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