A New Take on Empathy

Sally sat in the chair before me. There were tears on her face. “You don’t give me what I need,” she said. “What I give you.” She stared up at me, as if she could scarcely believe her eyes. “You don’t give me what I give you.” I stood before her, silent and shaking, my alarm bells blaring in my ears. I had no argument for her accusation.

I don’t remember the specifics. The scenario had played out more than once during our years together.  At some point, I would say something or do something or not say something or not do something and that thing done or not done would act as the proverbial “last straw,” sending Sally into paroxysms of fear and anger and sadness and despair. There was something I was not seeing, not hearing, not feeling, not understanding, not getting, and not doing. And the most astonishing thing was this: it appeared that I was not capable of seeing or hearing or feeling or getting or doing it. Somehow, I seemed to have a missing piece. A broken part. A defective element. A malfunctioning circuit.

This was before my diagnosis, you understand. We had no ready explanation. All Sally could say for sure was her experience, and her experience was that I lacked a capacity or capability that she had. And since I could scarcely begin to understand what it was she was talking about, I was inclined to agree with her decades of experience and her professional judgment. Because I had no explanation, there was no ready path to a quick and satisfying solution. Because I did not argue or defend, there was little to be gained from fighting and blame. And so Sally, confronted once again by a truth neither of us fully understood, surrendered to the hardest task of all, and simply grieved the loss. There was something she needed from me that I did not appear to have to give her. What was there to do but sob?

I was not without reactions of my own in those moments. In a way, these confrontations made conscious my most basic fear: that I would be found lacking, judged accordingly, and exposed for the broken soul that I was. For someone whose first and most pressing question in any human encounter is “what do you want from me?” the answer “you don’t have what I need” serves as the ultimate failure to be. Smacked upside the head with a wallop of overwhelm, shame, fear, self-defensiveness, confusion, and urgency, I lapsed into silence, the freeze that results when neither fight nor flight are viable options. Sally grieved. I sat with her in stillness and witnessed her grief and wondered at the gray, blank spot in my mind. After a while we moved on.

Slowly the picture became more clear. There’s this thing that people do, apparently. A sharing of feeling. An emotional resonance. A limbic synchrony.  Sally does it all the time. I call it the gooey eyes. You might call it empathy. I tell her about my life, my feelings, my experience, and her face changes. Her brow furrows. Her eyebrows tilt. Her eyes get kind of misty. And she emits these little noises. “Oh,” she sighs. Or “ah,” or “ooh…” She nods her head. She reaches out. “Mmm hmmm. Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Of course.” Her voice is quiet. Whispery. Heavy with meaning. She edges forward in her chair.  She holds my gaze. She gets me. She seems to be feeling what I’m feeling with me. It helps. It’s nice.

And it turns out that I don’t do that, at least not in any reliable and regular way. Whether it’s because my wiring is overwhelmed in such situations, or because I don’t pick up on the cues, or because I lack the neurons which specialize in mirroring, or because it’s just not how we do it on my planet of origin, that whole gooey-eyed thing escapes me. Cognitively I’m all over it, but this is not something I can think and understand and analyze and reason my way through.  It’s impossible to fake. No amount of brow furrowing and “oh-ing” and “ah-ing” will do the trick when they arise only from my mind, and any attempt to simulate the process creates even more awkwardness and overwhelm. It seems best to not even try.

And Sally grieves. And I sit with her and witness. And after a while we move on.

At some point, the Asperger’s/Autism explanation appeared on our radar and brought new light to the situation. We now had language, information, and concepts to help identify my missing pieces, and to help us understand the ways in which our different neurologies affected our relationship. But by that point, the information and insights served more as affirmation and confirmation than revelation. We’d already made some significant measure of peace with the situation, and that had come about more due to Sally’s willingness to grieve her loss than the more refined understanding offered by the Asperger’s narrative. 

And by then, we’d begun to question the assumptions and expectations that had made my missing piece feel like a terrible loss in the first place.  So I was unable to do the gooey eyes thing. So what? Who says that neurotypically-approved emotional mirroring is the only sort of empathy? Or the best sort? Who says that empathic resonance is the only road to connection? And who says that there aren’t other, or maybe even better, ways to make a relationship work? Because all through those long years of confrontation and loss and grieving, both of us continued to find healing in each other’s presence, and our relationship continued to deepen and grow. And at some point, Sally began to give voice to a surprising new insight: that while I had no gooey eyes to give her, what I did have to give her was maybe even better than she’d ever considered possible.

And this is where the Asperger’s conversation was most helpful, for it made room for us both to focus not only on my limitations, eccentricities, and missing pieces, but on my superpowers as well. Maybe I was too overwhelmed to find any point of resonance with Sally’s feelings in her moments of deep pain. Maybe my processing speed was so slow that I needed hours to go away and get in touch with my own thoughts and feelings. Maybe I was unable to give her the heart-based “oohs” and “ahs” that she thought she needed. But I stayed in the room and witnessed Sally’s grief. I stayed, even though my heart was shaking. And if sometimes, in the crucible of conflict, I needed time alone to gather myself before making a response, I took that time to get clear about what was going on, and then came back and claimed my part in how things had gone. I came back. I did not escalate the conflict. I paid attention. I remembered her stories. I learned her raw places. I studied her ways. I got so I remembered and understood Sally’s past wounds and present triggers and reactivity almost as well as she did, such that I could ask her incisive questions with no hint of judgment, questions that would help her to know she was loved and cared for, that she was in my mind and heart, that I was on her side, that I was her person. Questions that allowed her to calm her hurting heart and recover her emotional balance in a way similar to the magic her gooey eyes made possible for me.

Call it my Aspie loyalty. Call it my dogged determination, my keen intelligence, my highly sensitive neurology. Call it my ability to recognize patterns, to remember data, and to make connections. Call all of these my superpowers. Whatever they are, they seem to be serving us well. Sally reports that our relationship has been better for her than any other, that she’s found more healing, more connection, and more peace with me than she’d thought possible. Her ability and willingness to share the most wounded and hurting corners of her heart, and my ability and willingness to stick with her as both witness and helpmeet as she metabolized her old pain, has brought her real healing, and has brought us closer together. And by doing this work first, she cleared a space in our world for me to get in touch with my own set of family traumas and ancient wounds, to begin my own healing, and to help make our attachment even stronger.

And having reached this space, we are able now to offer it to others. In the office, as we sit together with another couple as they bravely share with us the pains of their relationship, Sally handles the gooey-eyed heart connections and I look for patterns and connections and share what I observe in clear, non-judgmental language. We ask good questions that help them go deeper. We hold a vision of vulnerable connection for them, until they are able to hold it for themselves. It’s daunting, exciting, challenging, and fulfilling like little else in this crazy world. And we’re clear that it’s working.

Not bad for a wounded, gooey-eyed empath and an alien with missing pieces.

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