Empathy begins at home.


I know that for a very long time I’ve had issues empathizing with others on a one to one basis (with a few rare exceptions like my children). It’s not that I like seeing others in pain or want to hurt them (I don’t, at all), more that I have had so much trouble connecting to my emotions, especially tender or vulnerable feelings, that this avoidance extends to everyone else. I’ve always felt empathy when it’s “safe” though–therefore I can cry for a character in a movie or novel, or even a TV commercial. I can get quite upset reading a news story about someone who’s been abused, especially if it’s an animal or a child.

But when it comes to real life people, I just can’t allow myself to get that close. I hold everyone at arm’s length. It’s too dangerous to let them in, because they might stir up emotions I haven’t wanted to feel. Of course this means emotional (as opposed to cognitive) empathy goes out the window too. You can’t feel an emotion for someone else if you can’t even access it for yourself.

It’s a common belief that all people who lack empathy are narcissists or psychopaths (or have some kind of schizoid disorder or psychosis, or autism). But a lack of empathy is also a common symptom in people with complex PTSD. Shutting off emotions–including empathy–is a defense mechanism that protects you from further harm. The problem is, this protection also “protects” you from feeling much joy or being able to really love anyone else.

Recently I’ve been feeling a kind of tender regard for my child-self/true self. Right now she’s not integrated and feels far away sometimes, but I can feel her sadness and pain. I can also feel that she’s a good person, a gentle sensitive spirit with so much love to give. I feel a tender protectiveness now where before I felt only shame and wanted to hide her away, just as she had been hidden away by the narcissists who “raised” her. So how was I any different from them, by keeping her hidden, projecting badness and shame onto her, refusing to see her strengths? Sometimes I just want to hold her like my own child. It’s not self-pity; it’s closer to empathy and even love.

Is this where empathy begins? Does it begin with loving yourself–your true self? If you hate your real self, you cannot learn to expand empathy onto others, since you can’t even empathize with yourself. If all you feel is shame, that is going to be projected onto others. That would apply to narcissists and the personality-disordered as well as people suffering from C-PTSD.   The problem for the disordered is it may be too late for some of them.  They are so thoroughly shielded by a false self they cannot even access their real selves or only with a great deal of difficulty that could take years.  There are much stronger defenses to break through.  They may be so shut off they can’t even see the lie they are living and think it’s everyone else–not them–with the problem.

The root of attachment and trauma disorders is is rejection of the self internalized from the people who were supposed to love you and mirror you; to heal, you must be able to develop empathy for your true self. That’s what my therapist has been helping me do.


8 thoughts on “Empathy begins at home.

  1. I tend to hold people even the ones I love at arms length. I have paranoid schizophrenia and that makes it even harder to love. I have had so much abuse from my foster mother that I can’t love myself, I say to myself that I’m not good enough or that I am bad.

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  2. I think empathy/forgiveness does start with oneself.I can hold back plenty too. I think it’s OK, if you can recognize when it’s happening. But unlike my ex I don’t ward off people with anger from the get go. I’m introverted, and take things slowly. And grew up with somewhat of a small town mentality, lived in the countryside, so socializing was not that easy.

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  3. I think it is very hard to show empathy when we have not been shown empathy, nor learned to feel it for ourselves. How can we empathise with others then? It may help us to understand why others cant empathise too and have more compassion for them.
    It seems you are making a lot of great progress in understanding at the moment.
    I read a wonderful book a few years ago called Fear of Intimacy. Its by a guy called Robert Firestone and he does a lot of work with inner destructive voices which developed as self protections to keep us safe from harm in childhood. Problem is these voices in adulthood function with negative messages to cut us off from others when we start to get too close.
    It starts to feel too scary to trust again and so we may put others down inwardly or tell ourselves things about them which are not true.
    It is something I related to. For if we were hurt in the past when trying to be close to others that can be a huge fear and one that it may take some time to become aware of.

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    • That fear pretty much nails it. I also think that if empathy wasn’t modeled for us by being shown to us, we can’t build the right neural pathways in the brain that make empathy possible. But it’s possible to learn empathy or build on what we already have, starting with yourself. Neural pathways can be enhanced or built. It’s harder when you’re an adult, but I don’t think there’s necessarily a “critical period” for this that gets slammed like a door past a certain age.
      The similarities between the problems sufferers of C-PTSD have and the disordered makes it impossible for me to “hate” people with narcissism, at least as a group of people with a mental illness. Avoid them like the plague, yes. But I do have empathy for them too. People have hated on me and this blog because of my views about this (and have shown their own narcissism by doing so). Oh, well. Too bad.

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      • I agree with you LO, how can you hate someone who isn’t truly responsible for the pain and lack they went through in childhood. But still you cant be around these people too long when you are trying to recover yourself. At least that is what I learned from the last relationship in which my ex was really vehemently opposed to feeling painful feelings.
        I think your attitude shows a person who has a big heart and a deep understanding and is willing to move beyond defences which is never easy. ❤

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  4. Very interesting. Specially about CPTSD. Will read more to know what it is. Hope you can embrace the scared little girl. For codependency they say you also have to speak to the little girl/boy inside and speak and imagine hugging him/her hard.. Have you done that. Hold a converstatiom and end up hugging her in your mind?

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    • Sort of, this week should be interesting because this is the week I present “Chair Girl” with her gifts. I’ll be writing about that on my other blog.


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