Empathy and Selfishness

Empathy and Selfishness

I fear I’ve been behaving selfishly recently. I don’t want to make excuses – just try to explain. As I wrote recently, my wife is very ill at the moment and her physical pain, exhaustion and isolation are causing severe depression.

I find that I resonate with how she is feeling. I feel her depression like a deep, black pit; like a hundred hooks in my insides drawing them down into the depths, leaving a void yearning to be filled with anything other than the aching emptiness. I find it very difficult to function in the face of such intense emotion – and I am only feeling it second-hand, picking up the echoes of what my wife is experiencing!

I just don’t know how to handle the situation; these feelings. I don’t know what to do for my wife to help her with her depression. I feel lost. So, selfishly, I have been withdrawing and taking refuge in familiar routines. I’ve been alternately detached and irascible with her instead of being supportive. I know that’s wrong and I want to be supportive – it’s proving to be a big challenge.

My reaction to strong emotions is not at a conscious level – it is sheer gut instinct. Such feelings push the buttons of my primitive fight-or-flight response and my conscious mind has to fight hard against the tide to overcome these basic instincts. It doesn’t always succeed and that is when I overload.

Imagine, if you can, how a pet dog would react to its owners having a row in front of it. The dog can’t understand what is causing the situation but can pick up the emotional overtones and becomes distressed. Perhaps it slinks off, tail between its legs, and cowers in a corner, whining. And over time the dog will become more wary and it will take time and effort to overcome its reluctance to approach, its fear of being in that situation again.

Neurotypical people don’t react like that dog, and so don’t expect that other people would either. But some autistic people don’t have the ability to handle these emotionally-charged situations. We can’t rationalize the causes when we’re experiencing such distress. All we can do is react instinctively. There’s a very good article on this subject on the Autism and Empathy blog.

When I fail to react to somebody in the way that they expect, when I react in a way that appears unfeeling, irrational, selfish – that is often the result of all too much feeling on my part. Feeling – emotion – so strong that I can’t rationally cope with it and my mind regresses to a more primitive mode of operation: instinct, the primitive drive for self-preservation.