Using writing, and meditation, and ice cream, and reading, and dreams,

and a whole lot of other tools to rediscover who I am,

after six years living with a man with OCPD.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Walking A Mile in Their Moccasins -
Developing Empathy

Photo by Paul Martin Eldridge
at FreeDigitalPhotos
One of the most painful aspects in my relationship with my ex was his expectation that I did - or should - see the world through his eyes.  At best, he would act hurt; at worst, he would be in a towering rage if  I didn't enjoy the foods he liked, appreciate the same TV shows and movies, have the same views on politics, religion, housecleaning... the list went on and on.

The problem wasn't that we never saw eye to eye on anything.  We had many likes and beliefs in common.  It wasn't that I couldn't see and understand his point of view in areas where we differed, because I could and did.  It was that I (stubbornly, to his point of view) refused to be him.  He was unable to understand and appreciate that I was a separate person with different ideas, thoughts, and feelings, which were as equally valid and logical as his own. 

It seemed as surprisingly outrageous for me to express a different opinion as if his own hand had turned around and said, "Hey You!  From now on, I'm not gonna zip up your pants or press buttons on the remote anymore.  I've decided to go into archaeology.  See ya!"

from rebeccaselah at Flickr
Even if I was standing in front of him, telling him, "Here's how I feel, and here's why I think I feel that way," he couldn't put himself into my moccasins, as the old saying goes, and understand what I felt.  He could only go as far as to imagine how he would feel in such a situation.  It was like he expected me to walk in his moccasins, rather than him attempting to walk a mile in mine.

He lacked empathy.

Too often when we talked, he would launch into OCPD in rant/lecture/rambling mode, in which I did not even get an opportunity to speak.  (After all, if you're not really a separate person, what do you possibly have to say?)

Possibly he didn't mean to devalue me as a person, or to ignore my feelings or experiences.  However, whether he meant to or not, that's what his actions did.  To be treated as a non-person - OCPD or non, adult or child - as if one does not have (or is not entitled to have) separate thoughts, dreams, likes and dislikes, and feelings, is one of the most painful and dehumanizing experiences possible.  (And one that many with OCPD themselves experienced as children at the hands of a possibly OCPD parent.)

These and similar behaviors have been related time and again, not only by many partners and children of those with OCPD, but also by those who struggle with a loved one with  Asperger's Syndrome or autism.

Part of the problem seemed to be lack of listening, and part of it seemed to be not hearing.  Human beings communicate not just verbally, but with facial expressions, body language, gestures, tone, even odor (fear-stink, ovulating pheromones, etc.).  Even if one hears and processes every single word (which my ex did not), there's still a whole lot of information that gets missed, if the facial expressions and body language are either skipped or misinterpreted.

Does OCPD perhaps fall under the umbrella of SEPD - Socio-Emotional Processing Disorder?
...people with SEPD may have normal or even superior verbal skills, yet may still have a lot of trouble with social communication. Conversations may often be one sided. The person with SEPD may carry on a monologue on a favorite subject and not be aware of attempts of his/her listener to interject comments. At the same time, they most likely do not recognize the frustration or other emotional response their listener is showing. Consequently, it is difficult for them to develop emotional relationships, friendships, and even normal interactions with coworkers. 
Is the empathy center (if there is such a thing) which comes naturally to most people missing?  Or perhaps present, but underdeveloped or damaged?   Recent research points to drug abusers also having difficulty recognizing emotion from facial expressions.

How Do We "Grow" Empathy?

from Salvatore Vuono
at FreeDigitalPhotos
First, make sure we always allow our conversational partner adequate time to speak.  If we know we tend to monopolize a conversation, use an egg-timer, a stopwatch, or allow our partner to do so, but don't allow ourselves to run on for more than 2-3 minutes at a stretch.  FYI, allowing someone time to speak means giving them time to say more than Uh-huh, You're right, or Okay.  They are even allowed to change the subject!

Ask, don't tell others how they feel.  Listen without judgment.   Instead of "I can't believe you don't love my chile rellenos.  I think you do and just don't want to admit it," try "Thanks for trying them.  What was it about them that you didn't care for?"

Try not to take things personally.  I didn't like my ex's chile rellenos.  That doesn't mean I didn't like him, as a person, nor that I didn't truly appreciate all the time and energy that went into preparing them. (Goodness knows, I would lavish compliments and thanks on him for every meal he prepared.)  I'm a supertaster; I don't like spicy food, I have never liked anybody's chile rellenos.  My ex seemed to take every difference of opinion as a personal criticism of him, and be crushed by it.

Our spouses, our parents, our children, our boss, our dog - nobody is ever going to love every single thing we do and say.  We need to find a way to be okay with that, and to not plunge into fear/panic mode if somebody expresses disapproval or dislike of one thing we have done or said.

Ask follow-up questions, without passing judgment.  "I'd never have picked Animal House as one of the best movies ever made, but am curious as to why you think so.  Tell me more."

Ask open-ended questions.  "I'm trying to do a better job of listening to you.  Is there something else I can do that I'm not doing?"

Go for the five-to-one rule.  For every single criticism or negative remark, try to find and say at least five things about the person that we like, admire, or respect.

eHow thinks we can even build up our skills at reading facial expressions.

Read as much fiction as possible, to stretch our imaginations and to glimpse inside other people's minds and motivations.  Consider empathy and imagination not as some ethereal gift - we're born with X much and that's all, folks! - but as flabby muscles, which can be exercised and built up.

From Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran  (bolding is mine):
"...This carelessness, a lack of empathy, appears in Jane Austen's negative characters: in Lady Catherine, in Mr.s Morris, in Mr. Collins or the Crawfords.  The theme recurs in Henry James's stories and Nabokov's monster heroes: Humbert, Kinbote, Van and Ada Veen.  Imagination in these works is equated with empathy; we can't experience all that others have gone through, but we can understand even the most monstrous individuals in works of fiction.  A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way a novel is called democratic - not that it advocates democracy, but that by nature it is so.  Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels - the biggest sin is to be blind to others' problems and pains.  Not seeing them means denying their existence."
We all want people to "see the real me."  The only way people can see us, and we see them, is through empathy.

One caveat - for those who tend to err on the side of co-dependence, rather than not enough empathy, it's important not to dive too deeply into the pool of feeling for and understanding others.  We need to reserve a healthy amount of time and energy for ourselves.

Got an empathy story?