I’m Still Failing at Empathy

I feel like a rotten person for admitting this, but despite my best efforts there are still people who I feel incredibly awkward around: elderly people over 90, people with developmental disabilities, police officers and just about any kid except my own. There is nobody I feel more awkward around though than my mother when she’s crying.

It’s exceedingly rare that she cries. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen it is when she’s at funerals or mourning afterward. Unfortunately, she got some horrible news about my uncle, her younger brother, yesterday about his ongoing battle with cancer.

Despite a year where it looked like immunotherapy treatment was appearing to work, in the last two months the tumor on his liver has grown rapidly. They are going to try an aggressive form of chemotherapy, but the doctor said if he doesn’t respond well, it’s going to be time to have some palliative care discussions.

Without getting into too much history, my uncle is eight years younger than my mother. Their parents weren’t the warmest or most attentive people. She missed out on a lot of typical middle and high school activities because she was required to babysit him. This created a bond that has always seemed almost more like mother and son rather than brother and sister to some of us in the family. In a lot of ways, she was his first kid and they have been immensely close ever since.

When it comes to death and funerals, my involuntary reaction is to mentally and emotionally detach. I’ve probably been to 20 wakes/funerals in my life and I recall crying at one, for one of my best friends when he was 18 and I was 21. I can almost always go look at the body and feel nothing. When people say, “He looks peaceful” or “She’s not suffering now,” I get the urge to say, “He isn’t peaceful. He isn’t anything” or “Of course she’s not suffering, but she’s also not feeling good. She isn’t feeling anything.” This is why I sit toward the back and only speak when spoken to at those things.

Detachment happens when I feel incredibly awkward and/or can sense I’m about to feel incredibly sad. Funerals and wakes are an intersection of both emotions.

Detachment turns off my empathy. It turns off all of my emotions, but the appropriate one in most situations I find myself detaching is empathy.

I perfected the art of detaching as a young kid. I think it was from when my babysitter would put me in a dark room, and I didn’t know how long I’d be there. I learned to trick my mind into seeing two hours as 15 minutes, or more accurately, suspending the typical sensation of time elapsing in my head.

It’s not all bad. I can sit at the DMV, or any waiting room, for an hour and barely notice it. Detachment is what made driving 9,000 miles this past August seem like a breeze and when I was in jail in early 2016, detachment let the days bleed into one another until I somewhat lost all sense of normal time elapsing.

The problem with detachment, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to address throughout my recovery, is that it’s lead to a lifelong lack of empathy. When I hear or see my mother crying, it’s easier – and more natural for me – to shut down than to process it.

I think detachment and lack of empathy go hand-in-hand. I also think that I have empathy deep down, but I know that when I start to let it out, it doesn’t stop. I’m not mean to really old people or developmentally disabled people. They just make me so, so sad. I don’t like watching movies designed to make me cry either. And, in my very grueling therapy appointments that came early in recovery, I had to learn to schedule them at the end of the day because I’d be an empathetic wreck thinking about all the people I hurt. I didn’t want that to happen early in the day because then it was a lost day.

Sympathy I can do. Empathy I still have trouble with. For those who don’t know the difference, I described it this way in rehab once and the counselor said they were going to adapt it because it’s the bluntest they’d ever heard:

Sympathy = That sucks for you
Empathy = Sucks to be you

It’s a subtle difference, but with empathy, you’re putting yourself in a person’s spot and understanding how they feel. It’s relating to another’s emotions. With sympathy, it’s a sterile recognition of what the person is going through.

I’m not an idiot. I can recognize my mother is very sad by the fact she was crying on the phone and will probably be experiencing more of that in the future as this ordeal with my uncle continues. But I also either can’t, or don’t want to relate. I know that I should. I know that’s the right thing to do, but despite my recovery going smoother than most people’s, this is still a giant hurdle. I love my mother and I love my uncle. I don’t know what to say to either of them that is both genuine and won’t leave me a complete mess. In the past, my way of handling it is to just not say much of anything or pretend like it’s not happening.

I know what the comments are likely going to say on this post because I’m telling myself the same things: Suck it up, you’ve got to be there for them. Sometimes life is uncomfortable and avoiding it doesn’t help anyone. What would you want your child to do in the same situation?

I get it, I really do. And to give myself a tiny bit of credit, I’m better at this kind of stuff than I was before recovery. Several people, including my mother, have made mention I’m an overall better human, but that’s easy on most days. The dark days ahead are going to be challenging.

I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me at the beginning of recovery that the toughest part was going to be emotionally connecting and allowing myself to feel empathy for others. Now, it seems obvious it was going to be the toughest part. Hopefully I can learn to better deal with it.

15 thoughts on “I’m Still Failing at Empathy

    1. Thank you. It’s been rough seeing what he’s gone through the last few years and I think my mother is finally, truly facing his mortality. I thought recovery would be a full 180 from my previous personality, but it’s really not.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Ooh, I LOVE posts like this! I get bored easily with long posts, but when one grabs my attention like this one, I’m sucked in till the very end.

    Your honesty is fantastic and I think this is helpful to you also, because you are able to express yourself so wonderfully and think through why you are feeling the way you do.

    The brain is an amazing organ isn’t it? Detachment and that other thing…I’ve forgotten the word…when one becomes someone else in order to cope with the extreme evil it is witnessing or enduring…dissociation, that’s it. Well, when one dissociates or detaches, an amazing thing is happening in the brain that no psychologist can really explain fully. It’s like there’s this default button that gets switched on in dire circumstances which helps one to cope in an otherwise impossible situation.

    Phh! Vicars have been lying to people at funerals for a long time. I agree that the person is in a different state. My personal relationship with Jesus leads me to believe something different from you, but that’s okay – whatever. I’m not on here to argue points – goodness knows we’ve got enough of that going on in the White House, Westminster and places in between.

    No, I just wanted to say that I love the way you describe things and I think you are doing what your mind feels it can cope with.

    I feel a little like how you are describing, at the moment. Here in England with these floods and people being stranded, rendered homeless and left with nothing. I feel for them so much and I’ve been praying for them, but my prayers somehow feel insincere. Coz I am not really tapping into how I think they are truly feeling.

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sharon, I appreciate this nice response. I hope you’ll continue to read my entries as a lot of them are this kind of writing.

      I’ve been able to tame the detachment to a place where I don’t need a traumatic event for it to kick-in. It’s like I hold a doctorate in zoning out and becoming numb. It’s a double-edged sword I need to fight when inappropriate.


  2. Ok blunt: empathize with yourself maybe. You sound so harsh on yourself! (in my reading at least)
    I think everybody feels uncomfortable around the topic of mortality and also when mothers cry. They are not supposted to cry as they once were superwoman in our existance.
    You can ‘just’ listen to your mom when she wants to talk and just be there.
    When you experience the detachment as something that is not serving you anymore, it is time to let go. To face the feelings that are somewhere present. There is maybe a reason why the detachment is still there, maybe it needs to go away little by little to prevent some sort of ‘crisis’. I don’t know but I believe things are sometimes like they are for a reason, acceptance is the first step (no?).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, the first thing I’m impressed with about your entry is the bolding of the first two words. Do you use HTML tags for that?

      I think part of the problem is that I’m not good when cast in the role of consoler, especially to people with who have been that to me. Aside from my wife, and probably my brother, I can’t think of anybody I have an equal consoling relationship with. When tasked with stepping into that role, I just freeze up and would rather be anywhere else in the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see no bold anywhere …. I was trying to be blunt 😆

        I can not add anything that would made sense to your answer from my keyboard. I think it is really a good question for your therapist, which knows about it I presume. It seems a very specific and an individual question.

        What I do when unconfortable around chlidren, special people, is try to adjust a bit to them, follow their lead, see what they want to do or talk about and follow the flow. My reasoning is: since I freeze and will come up with nothing, I’ll have a look what they propose.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s there far more than it was in the past, especially with my wife and kids, but I think the tank is far emptier in almost all other situations than most people. I mean, I don’t think I’m a sociopath, but I’ve conditioned myself not to feel a lot of emotion personally, so it seems somewhat logical I’d have just as much if not more trouble feeling it for someone else.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am sorry to hear about your uncle. It must be very hard for both your mom and your extended family. I appreciate you writing about empathy. My husband struggles greatly with empathy as well. He’s getting increasingly better at it, but it’s really hard – sometimes visibly so – for him to pull off. He spent a lifetime searching for ways to not feel uncomfortable. Sitting with discomfort is the exact opposite of what his addicted mind tells him he should be doing. When he can flee, compartmentalize, or disassociate, those are occasionally still used as defensive mechanisms. If connection is truly the opposite of addiction though, none of those things are healthy or helpful. I’m not going to tell you to suck it up, but I do think that empathy is like a muscle that needs to be used and exercised in order to work well. Maybe consider using this sad occurrence as an opportunity to grow and strengthen that muscle. And give your mom a hug whether she’s crying or not. That will mean more than anything you could say.

    Liked by 1 person

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