Sunday, September 14, 2008

Long and rambling: the path to empathy

My nine-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder). One of the diagnostic criteria (apparently the one that was causing problems and school and led to her diagnosis) is "lack of social or emotional reciprocity". The way my mother-in-law explained it, this criteria means a person has difficulty with empathy - they don't understand how their actions affect other people's emotions. She has several other personality traits that were identified as characteristic of Aspergers, too. I keep seeing all of them in other people (to greater or lesser extents), but coming back to that one.

I remember as a teenager, talking to my grandmother after a fight with my father. She was trying to explain to me that a child should respect their parents. In tears and sobbing from the fight, I responded that I just wanted him to know he had hurt me. If he didn't understand that he had hurt me, he'd think it was OK to do that again. She didn't argue with me after that, just looked very sad.

I had a lot of fights with my father that ended like that (although most of them not at my grandmother's house). I became skilled (at least my partner thinks so) at analyzing and verbally explaining emotional reactions, both my own and those of other people. Much good it did me with him - he never did understand. The last psychologist I saw told me that he was very sorry, but my father was an asshole and there was nothing the psychologist could do to fix it.

I think the psychologist was wrong (I stopped seeing him after he said that): an asshole understands they are causing pain, but doesn't care. My father cares, but doesn't understand. To this day he will bring up the subject of our relationship, confused and hurt that I'm only willing to talk about superficial things.

Both of the psychologists I saw told me my pain from my poor relationship with my father was likely to come up in random areas of my life. I sometimes have strong, not completely rational reactions to certain situations, and have wondered if that's the kind of thing they were talking about.

As painful as it was for me, though, I think trying to deal with my father's condition may have saved me from repeating his experience: understanding the emotions of those around me is very much an intellectual exercise for me. This skill may be one that, like language, if not acquired in childhood, cannot be learned with fluency as an adult. He may have positively influenced my life much more than he will ever know.

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