My Level of Empathy Has Changed
From a teen in Australia: When I was a small child, I had a hard time controlling my anger, distress or any feelings of anxiety. My behaviour would sporadically change from isolating myself (hiding in a closet) to lashing out at others (verbally and I would physically intimidate, but never attack). But I also have a few memories of seeking out attention via coming up with poorly-constructed lies and faking injuries.
Overall, I believe this behaviour was due to emotional neglect from my parents; I was never taught how to properly compose myself in times of anger (both my parents are short-tempered and handle it poorly) and I was seldom nurtured or comforted in times of distress.
What I cannot explain, however, is the almost 180 turn I’ve had in my line of thought and behaviour now that I’m an adolescent. I say almost because I still handle anger and distress terribly; opting to isolate myself to punch concrete walls and cry as my most effective coping method.
But things that used to make me very angry and distressed do not do so anymore; it’s hard to figure out what brought this up. For example, I once had a very unstable friend who would vaguely insinuate that she was going to commit suicide; this, of course very much upset me and I had desperately (and stupidly, upon reflection) tried to comfort and convince my friend to not do so. This friend and I are no longer in contact, mostly because my threshold for her topsy-turvy changes of mind weakened and she decided to cut off communication.
I have come to learn that she could be alive or dead and I seriously do not care. In fact, I have deliberately gotten into contact with other people who are in extreme distress (thinking of committing suicide, or otherwise just having a meltdown about their whole lives) and I no longer try to comfort them. I instead, try to dig for information and experiment with my responses.
I have written legitimate notes about my findings, and so far I’ve only expanded my horizons by catfishing pedophiles on anonymous media and toying with them. I derive enjoyment out of my manipulation and education surrounding these people.
I still experience empathy, but it seems to have rapidly declined and because of this, I am engaging in strange practices. Could you explain this, and tell me what I should do?
A: That opposites are the same thing is an idea that goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Hippolytus said that the road up and the road down are the same. This is called the unity of opposites.
These days, we would say that behaviors that are apparently very different are only two sides of the same coin. In your case, you have gone from being overly empathic to being uncaring. You’ve gone from desperate attempts to help someone to playing (catfishing) with others’ feelings.
Your own analysis may be correct. Your parents didn’t provide a role model for how to manage anger or distress. They also didn’t provide you with the comfort and caring that kids need to internalize how to provide it to others. As a result, you are bouncing back and forth between the extremes, with little understanding of how to have balance in relationships.
I very much doubt that you can change this on your own. You’ve had years of “practice” with the extremes with nothing to moderate it. For that reason, I encourage you to find a therapist who specializes in work with adolescents. A therapist can hear your whole history and can help you reconsider the conclusions you reached as a child. With therapeutic encouragement and support, you can learn a more balanced and meaningful way to relate to others.
I wish you well.
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2017). My Level of Empathy Has Changed. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 23, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2017/04/21/my-level-of-empathy-has-changed/