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.

5 thoughts on “Empathy and Selfishness

  1. Hi Ben, I can really connect to what you wrote here. I feel things too intensely as well. With your wife going through so much, I think it is only natural that you would feel it so intensely. I've seen these dynamics so many times within my own family when things were very difficult from someone being ill or another overwhelming type of situation happening. I think NTs go through it somewhat because they have to preserve themselves as well, perhaps recharge in order to keep going, or to remove themselves emotionally to keep going.For myself I find that I am a lot like that dog you were describing. I can feel everything that is going on and it's like a tidal wave pouring over me and I have trouble coming up for air. My body gets as tight as guitar strings and every emotion, every sigh, every sort of upsetting sound or feeling that vibrates through the air strums those strings inside of me and causes the feeling of that stress/depression/anger or upset to resonate through me. I can't make it stop and it is very overwhelming. I don't mean to withdraw from people either, and people mistake my withdrawal as strength, believe it or not. Then they will pile more on top of me to handle because I'm the only one not crying and falling apart, when inside, that's exactly what I'm doing.Sometimes it can be misinterpreted as being cold and uncaring or that I am angry with the other person for what they are going through. That is not it at all. It's just that I cannot handle the situation/intensity for long periods of time (sometimes 10 minutes is too much) and I end up having a sort of shut down.Sorry, this is a long response. I just wanted you to know I understand what it is you're saying here and I can identify with it. I hope things will change for the better very soon. I keep you and your wife in my thoughts with positive hope for regained health and calming of the situation.Bird


  2. Hi Bird,No need to apologise for the length of your response – it's as long as it needs to be to carry your message of hope and goodwill.I found your "guitar string" imagery to be very powerful – sent shivers down my spine as the words conjured up mental pictures.Many thanks,Ben.


  3. This is currently a big struggle in my marriage. My husband is having a very stressful time at work, and when he comes into the house early evening, the stress and worry almost precedes him, and it hits me like a wave – and instead of comforting him or cheering him up, I cower under the onslaught of emotion. And yes, mostly I withdraw then. It bothers him a lot that his emotions and stress has such a profound effect on me, he says it takes away the support element, instead my reaction makes it worse. And that makes me sad. I would so like to support him and be his sounding board, but he feels he cannot talk to me and watch me 'adopt' his feelings. And I do not know how NOT to do that.Sorry for going on about my struggle, it is just that your post hit a sore spot!


  4. Cecile, I completely understand your difficulty. The same thing puts my marriage under strain. I'm sorry I can't offer you any advice; all I can do is offer my hope that your husband's work stress eases and wish you both peace.


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