Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Empathy and Me – Part 4: A Grey Area in Empathy

Empathy and the Borderline Personality can often run a blurry line. A Reader mentioned her experience with a Borderline friend and how he seems to have two different types of ‘empathic’ responses.

1.      When the situation requiring empathy is not due to something he has done.

2.      When the situation requiring empathy is caused by something he has done.

I actually think this is an insightful distinction. I mentioned the other day that I often have problems empathically connecting to how another person feels if I am not directly involved in the situation. True empathy means understanding a person’s pain because you have experienced something similar, know what it feels like, and their situation has inspired those feelings in you on their behalf. If you haven’t had that experience before, well, you can feel for the person, feel sympathy, but empathy may just not be possible. Plus, if we’re preoccupied with our own emotional turmoil, feeling for someone else may be too much for us to handle. It doesn’t mean we don’t care, it doesn’t mean we don’t want to be there for you, in fact if we’re sitting there, listening, trying to be supportive, I think this means a lot. Feeling empathy, really putting your Self in the emotional shoes of another person, isn’t a choice. I think people forget that this isn’t something we have control over. An inhibition of empathy is usually a defense mechanism created by trauma from another aspect of our life. Things that are ingrained in our character like that do not come with an on/off switch. You may want a certain reaction, but you need to remember who you’re dealing with.

But this isn’t really what I’m interested in.

What interests me is this second point. She writes, “If my reaction is a clear consequence of something he’s done, something he’s done has caused me hurt – the difference is clear. He not only recognizes this, but it feeds his emotions. The difference between him and me however, is his emotions aren’t for or about ME, they are about him. (And to me, this is not empathy). The best I can tell – when he hurts me, it creates a definite and linked emotional response in him of guilt/fear/inadequacy. Again, I don’t ever feel as though he hurts because he hurts ME, it’s that he hurts because he feels bad about himself and that he fears he’s lost a connection because of his actions.”

I find this to be a valid observation in terms of my own experience. I won’t speak for everyone with BPD, but for me this rings true.

I know when I am in an emotionally turbulent place I can say and do some pretty callous things. Worrying about someone else isn’t always at the forefront of my mind (though  9 times out of 10 I do spend much more time taking care of other people than I do myself – hence the buildup of resentment when my needs are not taken into consideration. Anyways.). I know this can be hurtful.  

Now, if it’s something I’ve done to hurt you, the concept of empathy can be tricky. I can have a spontaneous and appropriate emotional reaction to pain I’ve caused. True empathy. Sometimes though, if I’ve been running at emotional capacity for too long, my empathic response is more self-centered. Cognitively I recognize that what I’ve done is hurtful. This recognition creates a fear response in me. It triggers my fear of abandonment. Yes, I can trigger myself with my own actions. If it’s someone I care about, and I’ve managed to hurt them, I’m afraid of losing them. I probably care more about losing them than I do about how they’re actually feeling. I feel fear, and panic, hurt, and remorse… all things that you may be feeling, but instead of sharing an other-directed recognition towards you, it’s filtered through my own emotional system first. This affects me too. My empathy is self-directed before it’s directed at you. I don’t want you to remain in pain because I don’t want to lose you.

Do I really care that you are in pain? Yes, of course. But I may be more worried about how you being in pain affects me. If it’s any consolation, we wouldn’t be concerned about this if you didn’t mean a lot to us.

It's okay to have a sense of humor too.
Is this really empathy? Honestly? I think there is empathy in there, but it’s a secondary response because it is in part selfish** at first.

I’m going to say a couple things here that I think some people will not like.

First. I know I can be a selfish person at times. I am ok with this.

Second. You are a selfish person at times too. BPD or Non alike. This is basic human observation. As humans, we are selfish creatures. Pure altruism does not exist. This is not a character defect. This is simple evolutionary survival. Everything we do, in some way, links back to a need we have. Even basic friendship. No one likes to think of themselves as selfish though, because the connotation associated with that word is negative. I have news for you though. It’s simply human nature. We want what we want when we want it. And when someone that we want something from is unable to provide us with that thing, we get upset. Everyone has times when they feel their needs are more important than those of someone else around them. Maybe this is more prevalent in someone with BPD, but in general, everyone feels this way at some point.

I have a lot of problems with self-sacrificing too much. It burns me out after a while. I do need to take care of my own needs, and eventually I feel like my own needs need to take priority over someone else’s. I don’t have anyone taking care of me. I am completely self-sufficient. If I don’t take care of me, no one else is going to. As one person, I can only do so much, as sometimes I need to put myself ahead of you, regardless of what you think you deserve.

Another statement made was “It goes both ways though. You mention how a Borderline’s empathy is often self-centered – I think us Nons’ obsession in whether Borderline’s have it or not is equally self –centered. We have been hurt by a Borderline and at least want to know the score is even. What they did hurt us; we want them to hurt back because of it.”

I relate to this statement a lot. Any time someone has hurt me, or I’ve perceived someone has hurt me, I feel this desire for them to feel that hurt back. I think this is normal.

I think people forget at times that we’re people too. Some of the most severe trauma I’ve been through was at the hands of someone who was for all intents and purposes just a nuerotypical guy. No personality disorder. No nothing. Just a jerk. And by jerk I mean a cheating, abusive, rapist.  I know how it is to be so injured by someone that you want nothing more than for them to hurt. To feel how badly they’ve hurt you. For them to hurt in the same way you are hurting. That is something I can definitely empathize with. I understand the anger that people have at those of us with BPD whom they’ve been wounded by.   I’m not going to apologize for anyone though. I have no problem apologizing, and meaning it, to people that I’ve hurt. I think it’s important to keep in perspective the realization that we have been hurt as well. You may have done something that you didn’t think was a big deal or even realize you did (or someone in our past did), but to our highly sensitive emotional skin was deeply painful. We may have been so lost in our own selfish emotions that we didn’t pay attention to how badly we affected and ultimately hurt you. Not in the moment.

But we do eventually. And for someone we care about, it’s important to make up for it. Emotional reactivity aside, our brains usually work alright. I may not always feel connected to my emotions, but cognitively I know when someone is important to me. I wouldn’t bother trying to make amends with someone if I didn’t know that. It may not be the motivation you’re hoping for, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

 ** I'm tempted to recommend reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins... he provides a good analytical look on the concept of human selfishness, but he's also an atrociously boring and tedious writer. Your call.

*** Pleases try to keep in mind that this is still under that emotionally turbulent category for me. If I’m in a relatively calm place than my empathic response probably won’t have that self-centered aspect.

Part 1 - Borderline Dissociation

Part 2 - When Empathy is Beyond Me

Part 3 - Self-Destructive Empathy

Part 5 - Yes, Borderlines do feel Empathy


  1. Hi Haven, This is really great!! Gives so much clarity to the relationship between BPD and empathy, I can really identify with it, thanks! I'm really enjoying all the wisdom that I'm finding to support understanding of my BPD!! I will read more . . . thanks again!


  2. I also think it's fair to say that a Non's capacity for empathy is impacted by their current emotional state too. If I'm under incredible stress, or pain myself, I have a more more difficult time connecting to others' tragedies. You gave the example a day or so ago about the natural disasters and how you may or may not feel for those people. I can honestly say I do somewhat the same thing. I can decide how much emotion I invest in thinking about their hardships, and while I know it's horrible, I often don't connect with those situations just to avoid feeling sad for them. And even with people I know, if I'm at war myself - empathy does not come easy. But I actually think I turn it back to a self-pity life sucks too so I don't know that they deserve any of my pain (as harsh as that sounds). So honestly, the whole idea that empathy is driven by your own emotional state - I think that might apply to everyone. It's just that the Borderline is usually fuller of emotion a lot of the time, so the empathy battle is more frequent for them. em

  3. "I think that might apply to everyone. It's just that the Borderline is usually fuller of emotion a lot of the time, so the empathy battle is more frequent for them."

    Em... I really think you're right here. Everyone human capable of empathy and emotion is sometimes overwhelmed by their own issues. It's the emotional dysregulation of the Borderline that makes us so much more extreme though, and therefore easier to set us off. Humans are emotional creatures (with the exception of some incapable of feeling emotions). Some of us are just a moreso than others. It doesn't mean we don't affect each other, and it doesnt mean we're not responsible for our actions, but at the same time we are responsible for who we allow into our space as well. We have a lot we can learn form each other. Or ultimately, avoid in each other.

    I'm really glad you read my blog and give me your opinions and experiences. It really does help me consider my own actions and how I effect those around me. Thanks, Em. =)

  4. I'm a member of the fan-club for sure :) I came to your site in search of an understanding of a Borderline friend I love very much. But ultimately I've found a lot of self-realization towards myself too. You do an amazing job explaining things. While not everyone has a true personality disorder, I think there are familiar traits scattered amongst so many of us. I know I experience little segments of things you describe, just not the whole package. And you find them in nearly everyone you know at some level. Relationships are difficult - the hardest being the one with yourself!

    It's hard. The last contact I had with my friend was over a month ago. And ironically, what sent me over the edge, completely over the edge, was something he'd done a million times before. And he had no obligation to me not to do it. But he so carefully crafted it so I wouldn't find out, so pre-meditated; I still see red. Truth is - he had every freedom to do it. He simply didn't want me to find out because he knew it would hurt me. Had a date with some newbie. I can rationalize that, but it didn't prevent my explosion, and doesn't take the anger away even today. I left him a voicemail telling him I hated him and immediately blocked him. Told him to never talk to me again. That was over a month ago. I know my reaction was wrong, but I would do it again if the same thing happened. I know this. I cannot stay in the boudaries and I cannot contain my expectations. This is selfish of me, for sure. But this is a crazy and normal woman, right?!

    I had another letter in my mailbox tonight and it breaks my heart. But I can't go back. I don't even know how to really. I recognize both our limits - and it never works. Em

  5. Understand there is more to the story than the ending I described. I'm a bitch, but not as big of one as how that sounds. He couldn't make time for me to do anything that week, and said he was going to bed. He always made time for strangers, made himself the best he could be for complete strangers who knew nothing about him. I got whatever was left-over. Until I get mad and tell him to fuck off, then it's sorrowful pleading and sorries and I miss you - like the shit in these letters. The self sacrificing you describe, he only did that for strangers, and for short periods of time. Like me for example, who was a constant - I always played second to whoever the new attention-giver was. This is the hurtful foundation that led to my dramatic leaving. And I'll be totally honest with you, there is a part of me that is truly happy he's hurting right now. A big part of me. Yikes! :) Em

    1. Emily. I realise it's two years later and you probably won't see this, but your comments have brought me a lot of comfort as a fellow non. Thank you.


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

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