Performative empathy

Published on 2024-01-30

Content warnings: discussion of war, entropy

Yesterday I was having a conversation about empathy and I think it crystallized a lot of what I'd been struggling to articulate before, so that's what I'm going to share with you today:

Every once in a while I hear a take about autistic expressions of empathy that sounds something like this:

Autistic people show empathy differently than neurotypical people. In particular, autistic people show empathy by connecting other's experiences to their own. For example, if a person expresses some feelings, an autistic person may express empathy by saying "My experience with that feeling is..." The fact that autistic people express empathy this way doesn't mean they're "bad" at it, it's merely that autistic people navigate these social situations differently than neurotypical people might expect.

Usually, the implication here is that if neurotypical feel upset or unheard when someone expresses empathy in this way, then they're being ableist. The person seeking empathy should be the one trying to understand other's expressions of empathy, as opposed to others working to express their empathy in the language that the one seeking empathy will understand.

I don't like this take. It makes sense on the surface but it never really sat well with me.

For one, I consider myself autistic and I don't think I express empathy in this way. It's certainly not something I notice myself doing, and it's not something I try or want to do. I find it quite uncomfortable when I'm making myself vulnerable to someone, telling them about my feelings, and then they start talking about themself. I don't even really feel like this helps me to connect with the person, because it's quite rare that the experiences other people bring up in these moments will be ones I feel are meaningfully compatible with my own; we are different people with unique lives, after all.

But still, even if I feel like this text-to-self-style expression of empathy doesn't feel good to me personally, is there still merit to the idea that I should recognize and appreciate the diverse ways people express empathy when I need to share how I feel?

No, I don't think I do, and it's not because I think there is a "right" way to express empathy that certain people get wrong. It's because I don't think empathy is something that is "expressed" at all.

Empathy isn't about signalling, it's about feeling.

For example, I have the privilege of never having lived through a bombing campaign. I don't share that experience with those do did. I can, however, visualize what it'd be like if my home and everything I owned was destroyed in a senseless act of violence. I can imagine the people I love dying for no reason. Even if that's never happened to me personally, I know what it's like to have my loved ones in my life and I can imagine how horrible it'd be if they suddenly disappeared, along with everything I cared about. It's a horrifying thought. It's challenging. And that's what I think empathy is: putting yourself in someone else's shoes, using your imagination to feel their feelings.

And when I'm done, I can stop imagining those things. That's the privilege I have as the person doing the empathizing--one not held by those who have those real experiences.

In this sense, empathy is actually a quite revolutionary act, because to a certain extent, it allows privileged people to feel the pain they've been selectively chosen to not have to endure. It transforms statistics into real experiences. On a more individual level, it enables real connections. It allows you to share in someone else's pain.

When people talk about empathy, it often sounds like they're talking about something else entirely. It sounds like they're talking about a particular social ritual we are expected to perform in the face of someone's heretical act of Being a Real Person with Complicated Feelings.

For what it's worth, neurotypical people also suck at performing empathy, not that I think there really is a "good" way to perform empathy. Steven Covey had an okay algorithm for navigating these situations: when someone complains about something, slightly rephrase it and say it back to them.

For example, if someone says:

I'm so mad about school!

You might say something like:

I understand that school has been bothering you.

Repeat until they shut up. +1 Emotional Connection.

Whereas the conventional advice is usually to just keep making affirming grunts or something, maybe asking clarifying questions to show that you're engaged:

So, if someone says

I'm having a hard time facing the universe's unquenching thirst for entropy.

You might say:


Compare this to our first straw man's understanding of how autistic people express empathy. If someone were to say:

We are living on the rotting corpse of God. Everything is temporary; in the end we shall all return to dust.

You might say:

To me, the inevitability of death is [...]

Here's where I think the problem lies:

The "neurotypical empathy signal" gives you plausible deniability on whether or not you're actually being empathetic under the hood. Remember: all these phrases and algorithms are purely performances. While performing empathy, you may or may not actually be trying to feel the person's feelings. Grunting "hmm" or turning people's words back on them signal that you're engaging with what the speaker is saying, and apparently that's often enough for the person expressing their feelings to feel empathized with.

The "autistic empathy signal" does not give you that plausible deniability, because it very explicitly tells the speaker that you are not engaging with their feelings--you're engaging with your own. This, I suspect, is why so many neurotypical people get upset when autistic people signal empathy in this way: it shatters the illusion.

Personally, I think I'd be most likely to believe someone was actually empathizing with me if they didn't do anything at all. Real empathy demands some level of concentration to imagine the feelings being presented to you.

Though, personally I end up going with the neurotypical-style empathy signals because it seems like that's what most people want--including other autistic people, in my experience. I suppose that whether or not I can individually experience the feelings of someone else is mostly a personal exercise. Often, it's a lot more valuable to ensure that someone you care about feels understood. Truly understanding them on an emotional level is more of a long-term project.

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