Friday, 20 November 2015

I Know I Lack Empathy

When I was first starting out in my career, one of my early bosses sat me down one day and said to me, "You need to learn to develop some empathy." I said sure, then stared at him blankly, not knowing what he really meant. Years later one of my ex-wife's favourite accusations became that I lacked Emotional Intelligence. I knew she was saying something was wrong with me, I just didn't know what it was. A couple of years ago, my friend Cheryl told me I was self-centered. This hit home; it actually brought me to tears. But I didn't know what to do about it.

For all of my life, it's as if my empathy switch was not connected. I simply struggle, and often fail completely, when it comes to understanding other peoples emotions and feelings. I can be sitting around a table, completely unaware of the mood of others unless they either tell me or their overt actions make it perfectly clear. If you glare at me, I know something is wrong. I may be completely unable to understand why something is wrong, but I know something is wrong, and it's probably something I did, more likely something I said.

If there is anything which has held me back, both in my career and in my personal life, it has been this lack of ability, the lack of understanding. I am not sure why I am this way, not sure if it's a function of nature or nurture. I know that my Dad was kind of like this, except I think he knew how other people felt, but just didn't care. He would often tell me to think before I spoke. I thought I was thinking. I care; I just don't understand.

Much of the time I feel like I am watching a foreign film with no subtitles. I can see that there is language happening. I can see that there is an exchange of emotion. I just don't know what it is, or why it is. It leaves me at a substantial disadvantage when sharing my life with others. I come off as thoughtless, unfeeling, an asshole. The truth is that I just don't get it most of the time. Unless it is spelled out to me, unless it is plain as day, I am unlikely to be able to understand emotional messages.

My ex-wife has called me both egocentric and a narcissist. The first may be modestly true. I am certain the second is false. Cheryl was probably more on the mark. I really do care about the feelings of others, I just miss them in so many ways. I wish I could do better at this. I am afraid that at this time of life, with everything else going on, this is unlikely to change. So if I upset you, if I misunderstand you, if I seem oblivious to how you feel, it's probably because I just don't get it.

I am certain that this inability on my part played a large role in the failure of my marriage. Self-centered people don't make great life partners. I am certain that my nature has impacted my children in a great many ways. A lack of empathy does not make for great parenting. I wish I could go back and change it, but I can't. In fact I don't even think I can change it going forward. That bit of wiring inside my brain just doesn't seem to connect. It's a shame really. I could have done so much better if it did.

1 comment:

  1. Funny, I have always found you to be very caring, both of friends and family. I think you are too hard on yourself. You have always been generous to a fault. I recognize that, over the years, I have said things to you, usually in jest, which have nevertheless hurt you deeply. I apologize for that. You should know that it is a further indication of your sensitivity. Like so many of us, you sometimes fail to think of the impact things you say may have on those you care for. You are not alone there either.