empathy Hello Michelle Swan


I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and the common perception that autistic people  lack it. This thought process started months ago when I read an article by Briannon Lee that I related to in many ways.

Briannon wrote

When you’re an empath, you can’t control when you feel the energy of other people. It can sometimes be very difficult to actually separate other people’s energy and emotions from my own. I can in many ways become the other person. I am a chameleon, yes. But born out of an unspoken deep connection and understanding of the other person.

I wish that more people could understand hyper-empathy and how it impacts autistic people. Just as we are more sensitive to the sensory input of the physical world around us, we are often more sensitive to the energy and the emotions of the people around us. Many autistic traits are a result of being so in tune with other people’s energy that it literally hurts. Shutting down to others emotions and taking them on without discrimination are two sides of the same coin.

Autistic people shouldn’t be shamed for how we handle our extreme sensitivity to other humans.  I once took statements like this by an ‘autism expert’ onboard “Girls who have ASD can be chameleons, changing personas according to the situation and no one knowing the genuine person”

I think that this way of understanding chameleons is harmful, making those around us feel they are missing a secret version of us hidden underneath. It undermines our confidence in an actual skill that we have.

{Please read Briannon’s whole article “Don’t shame us for being chameleon“. Clicking the link will open a new window}

I’d like to share with you some of what I experience, think and feel.

You say you are ok, but I was almost positive you aren’t…. I doubt myself and feel confused – how can I be so wrong so often…. then later I find out you weren’t ok, so I wonder why you lied. Then I realise I lie too, because deep down I know the rules say you can’t be yourself and its not safe to leave yourself exposed and vulnerable.

Maybe we aren’t close enough friends for you to trust me with your pain. I understand that. But I still feel the pain. It moves through the space between us and rests in my lap.

Maybe we are close but there is another reason you don’t want to share with me right now. I understand that too, because sometimes I don’t have words, or energy, or resilience enough to strip myself naked emotionally, in front of anyone, not even someone I know and trust. But I still ache with you, your pain sitting on my shoulders like a boulder. I feel it like it is my own.

It’s hard to explain. I don’t know why I can’t turn off this sense I have of all the emotions around me. I guess it’s similar to the way I hear every sound. The noises and the feelings just somehow reach through into my brain. They are loud and intrusive and I can’t ignore them. Both are more intense if I am already anxious in my own right. But even if I am not they creep through no matter how hard I might try to ignore them. Through into my consciousness demanding my attention. Distracting me from things I should be doing. Forcing me into overwhelm. Necessitating the start of another deliberate withdrawal for self care.

I try to be responsible for my own feelings- to learn to separate your feelings from mine and not carry them with me even though I cannot help but feel them. I know that is up to me and not you. I can’t expect you to not feel your feelings, I can’t expect you to care for my feelings when you are struggling, I can’t expect that everyone in the world will feel safe to confide in me when they are having a hard time. It really is on me to manage my own sensitivity to emotions, this hyper-empathy that causes me pain and overwhelm.

….. yet I cannot help but wonder if the world wouldn’t be easier, and maybe even safer, if we all spoke the truth. When I know you are sad or hurt or upset or distressed, “I’m fine” makes no sense at all. We lie and say we are ok because we don’t want to share….. but  why don’t we speak the truth instead?

“How are you?” “Not great…. but I’ll be ok, I don’t need to talk about it”

“Are you alright?” “No I’m not, but I don’t have the energy to talk about it right now”

“What’s wrong?” “I’m having a hard time. Thanks for checking, but I’ve got the support I need to get through it, I don’t need to talk right now.”

“You seem upset… can I help?” “I am upset…. but I can’t discuss it at the moment. Could you check on me in a day or two, I’d love a listening ear by then when I’ve had some time to think things through a bit.”

These answers I can understand. They make sense. I am comfortable with knowing you are struggling when you confirm it for me and let me know what you need or don’t need from me.

As much as I feel all the things you feel and I find that overwhelming, it is so much harder knowing something is wrong but having that denied and the knowledge left hanging there with no way to process it. I think you don’t want to bother me with your feelings so you decide to hide them from me, but I already feel them.

I worry that you don’t tell me and that means maybe you don’t tell anyone. I worry that you are not ok and that you are unsupported, alone and isolated. I hate to feel isolated and disconnected so I think you must too.

Regardless of who is empathetic and who isn’t, open communication would help us all, don’t you think?

I think Briannon was right when she wrote “I know that in my family relationships, friendships and my work with other people, being able to channel other people’s essence, their energy and their emotions, is more a gift than a curse. It is something that I have grown to appreciate and love about myself.” …. yet I am still learning how to appreciate hyper-empathy in myself. The process of trying to manage the impact of my feelings and other peoples all at the same time is difficult. I see it as invaluable and so I persist with it, but it is still difficult.

I believe that acknowledging that many autistic people are hyper-empathetic, without judging that as a bad thing but rather deciding to make some adjustments to the way we communicate in light of that understanding, would also be helpful to us all.

7 thoughts on “empathy

  1. Oh yes! I hadn’t thought much about how we could ask other people to communicate to help us with the confusion that comes from knowing people’s emotional states even when they aren’t wanting to talk about it.

    Recently, as part of working at my meditation practice, I discovered Tonglen practice. It has helped me to feel that my heart is big enough to actually absorb and hold people’s pain, rather than trying to ‘develop better boundaries’. It’s even further enhanced my belief that hyper-empathy is as you say, invaluable.

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