Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Empathy and Me: Part 1 - Borderline Dissociation

Empathy is not the easiest topic to delve into. My penchant towards introspection and self-awareness make this easier for me than for others, but as my perspective is the only one I have, I can only tell you how I feel. Is how I experience empathy the same as how anyone else experiences empathy? I don’t know. I suppose you can be the judge. 
For me there are basically four different types of emotional states where my empathy is distinct.
1.)    Dissociation
2.)    Emotionally turbulent
3.)    Emotionally calm
4.)    In love

Bet you weren’t expecting that last one. Trust me, it’s important. I’ll go over each of these individually.


I’ve talked about Dissociation before, particularly Depersonalization which is my biggest problem. When I dissociate I can always, ‘check in’ and know that I am actually in the real world, I just don’t ‘feel’ like I am real.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm in the wrong body. Like I'm watching myself, my body, do things from someone else's perspective. Cognitively I know it's my body but the person that feels what's going on is somewhere else, removed. My feelings are gone. Here, but part of me is left somewhere else, on the outside, not inside me where it belongs. Going through the motions of what I know I would normally do but without any connection to the motivating forces that would drive me to do these things. 

I don’t process emotions directly, internally. I process them from a dissociative place, “outside”, of my sense of Self. This creates a huge disconnect in how I think and how I feel towards the things I am thinking about. It’s like having two separate bodies; one to process thoughts, one to process feelings, but I’m only connected to one at any given time.  They don’t work symbiotically like they should. I either experience as an observer with detached emotions or I FEEL everything but don’t temper it with my rationale. Where most people have a natural balance I can either experience my emotions, my environment, or I can observe them. Seperately.

Having taken an objective look at, or talk about, my emotions I feel fine. I feel fine because I feel nothing. The act of talking about my emotions or experiences, causes me to not feel them.  But since feeling nothing is better than feeling emotionally destroyed, nothing = fine. When you can recognize that a situation should produce an emotional reaction, and instead all you feel is {blank}, it can be very disconcerting. It seems like nothing was ever there in the first place.

As you can imagine it’s very difficult for me to feel for other people when I am quite literally incapable of feeling for myself. I feel rather like a robot, void of humanity. This probably sounds scary, because if I don’t feel human, what’s stopping me from making very terrible and destructive decisions? Well, I’m not stupid and I haven’t lost hold of my good senses. I can reality check. When I dissociate I become emotionally numb. Nothing moves me in any direction. I don’t feel love, nor do I feel hate. I cannot be happy, but I also cannot be sad. It’s a defense mechanism due to past trauma, shielding me from the deeper well of emotions that threaten to overwhelm me now. In short, I have no motivation to do much of anything in any way. All that keeps me going is a cognitive decision to continue running my life because I’m still aware of the consequences of my actions. I just don’t feel attached to the body that would suffer them.

It’s odd. I see myself as just another body on the street walking amongst the masses. My own Self and those around me are like specimens under a microscope, or behind a glass wall. Curious. I see them, I could probably reach out and touch them, but they’re so separate from me as to feel almost alien. I can’t empathize when I feel this way. I am completely and utterly shut down. Numb. Floating above the hollow shell that continues to walk around in my shoes.

Sometimes this is nice. I wouldn’t have this defense mechanism if I didn’t need it after all. I’m almost entirely rational when I fail to feel in this way. It can make me a little callous though. Towards myself and others. I have a sharp wit at times, and I have a tendency to be very blunt with the truth. When I no longer feel an attachment to the people around me I can forget to add a touch of sugar to the bitter words that I can impart on those around me. I’m no easier on myself.

My saving grace is the ability to remember that I need people in my life. I may not care about the things I say because I can’t actually care, but cognitively I know what is appropriate and what is not. I have certain people in my life for a reason and those reasons are important. Those PEOPLE are important. I don’t want to destroy that. Also, my impulsivity is tempered with no emotional motivation pushing me to do things right now. It gives me the split second I need to think things through and catch myself before saying something I know cognitively could be hurtful.

Being around people is also uncomfortable, so it’s likely that I won’t interact at all and the need for empathy becomes a moot point. It’s uncomfortable in an uncanny valley kind of way, except pretend you’re coming from the perspective of the proto-human. You know you look like the people around you, but something just isn’t right. Off.  You can’t relate to them, and you can’t grasp the concept that anyone else relates to you.

I don’t expect sympathy. In fact, as I can’t feel it myself, I can’t understand how others would feel it for me.  It’s a two way street here. I don’t feel, but I also can’t fathom how someone else could feel for me. It’s very isolating.

In short, in terms of empathy during a state of dissociation I am almost completely emotionally unavailable.  It’s important to remember that when I am in a state of extreme dissociation I probably have had a build of trauma and emotional stress that I am fighting. Most neurotypical people can only handle so much. Being Borderline it’s like running on overload for extended periods of time. When the emotional stress finally becomes too much and my mind shuts down in order to cope, this is not a choice. There is absolutely no control over this state. It happens, and it’s there. There is no turning it on and off at will. It’s not that I don’t want to be there emotionally for the people I care about, in fact I’ll probably still try, but feeling empathy is beyond my ability.

I’d go so far as to say that the inability to feel empathy is necessary when trauma has induced dissociated states. When your own mind is trying to protect you from your own overwhelming stimulus, introducing that of another’s could push you over the edge.

Part 3 - Self-Destructive Empathy

Part 4 - Grey Area in Empathy

Part 5 - Yes, Borderlines do feel Empathy


  1. how long does your disassociation last Haven? like hours.. or..?

  2. Hours at minimum.... usually days, weeks, and months at a time. It's pretty disconcerting.

  3. I think I'm disassociating right now

  4. This makes total sense. I have had disassociation-like experiences, on a much lesser scale I think. (The way you've described this anyways). I can count on one-hand the number of times I've experienced it in the last 10 years, but I remember it. (I think anxiety disorders sometimes experience this, dont' they?) Anyways, it was exhausting - because you have to think so hard on how to respond to everything, because it doesn't come naturally, because you are just completely unconnected. So you want to just stay away from everyone, so you don't have to figure out the next play with human interaction. I was at a conference one-time recently when this happened, pictured the entire day and conversation from the outside of my body. I remember walking outside my body throught the airport thinking PLEASE PEOPLE don't f-ing look at me, talk to me, engage me, because I'm too tired to think through how to respond, and I don't give a shit to. I just remember it being so exhausting having to be around people when you're like that. Because like you say- you know how you're supposed to respond and you know what you have to do to act acceptably, but when you feel like this your natural instincts to react appropriately go away. Very tiring.

    Empathy is interesting! Thanks! emily

  5. Very cool, especially since my undergrad work was all in Psych. Off topic, but this reminded me of the Hellblazer storyline "Empathy is the Enemy" for some reason. I read too much.

  6. Haven. Then some asshole asks you, "And how does that make you feel?"

    I have a friend who suffers from too much empathy, she has displaced attachment syndrome, or whatever it's called. She wishes she didn't care for anything sometimes.

    Thank you again for a thoughtful post.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful post. These are wonderful things to think about for a writer like me. Honestly, you have defined character traits that I never imagined.

    I'm sorry you suffer through it, but maybe one day everyone will read a book that helps define this to them.

  8. Am angelic,am demonic sometimes its feelings of extreme reverence,and my dissociation to this plane of existence that is the here,there distortion of perception"two seperate bodies",that gives me a sense of power,my alien body,feels comfortably numb inside when in the act"self",outside the act is pure torture"around others self"

  9. This is exactly what I'm feeling right now... thanks for your blog, it's really helpful

  10. Thank you.. im an empath and i knowihave BPD and I never lookeduntiltoday if they are connected its always nice readingother peoples stories because for so long i felt lost and didnt understand what was wrong with me its nice to know im not alone and im learning to pull out of my moods!

  11. also sorry my space bar sucks

  12. " an uncanny valley kind of way."

    LOL you geek! :o) No one's going to understand that.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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