Friday, 3 February 2017

Autistic Hyper-Empathy and Emotional Volatility

From time to time, I’ve seen posts or links about hyper-empathy in autistics. These discuss how, far from being totally cold and unempathetic as some ‘experts’ still confidently proclaim, many of us are in fact in possession of too much empathy, and, not knowing what to do with it or how to express it, end up freezing or fleeing. Not all of us are like this of course, but from anecdotal evidence it seems a good number are.

I believe I am one of those hyper-empathetic auties. And before anyone goes “wow, she thinks she’s something special”, I want to explain that it’s far being from all lovely and roses and indigo children spiritual and so on. What in fact happens is that I’m dragged in, and often down, by others’ feelings. I’m an ‘all or nothing’ sort of person anyway, I get over-involved, and it can, and has, many a time, simply been too much to cope with or sort out, at least on the spot.

Sometimes it’s not even what they feel, but what I would feel if I were in their place. Many other times though, it is what they are obviously feeling, I take it on board as if it were my own response, and then I’m overcome by it, not able to detach myself from the situation, often still processing it long after the other person has moved on.

Also add in a measure of alexithymia, whereby I often don’t know what my own REAL feelings are, and that when I do know, they can be, and often in the past were, all over the place anyway, but frequently didn’t ‘show’ on the outside, and people would judge me for that, and then I’d get more upset… The result was, well, I would (and sometimes still can) end up something of a mess, to put it mildly.

I realised a long time ago that I needed to do something about this ‘over-reacting’ (as others called it), that my emotions were out of control, and I’ve worked long and hard over the past 15-20 years to master them. Meditation, together with a quieter lifestyle, has been key to doing this. But it’s still a fragile thing, I can still be dragged off balance all too easily.

What this means in practise is that I am still vulnerable to emotionally volatile people. I can be caught up in their dramas or crises, and lose that balance. In the worst instances, I can even take on not just their emotions but their thoughts and opinions as well. And it can take me ages to disentangle myself and rediscover my true feelings/thoughts/etc afterwards. My last relationship was a prime example of that, but it can and has happened with non-romantic connections too.

Which, as someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I really can’t afford to have happen. The stress of sleepless nights, digestive disturbances (I’m being polite here!) and the resulting exhaustion and debilitation is simply too much of a risk. Many years ago, I reached the stage of being almost bedridden with the CFS and it took me years to recover. There is NO WAY I’m risking going back to that state again. No way. EVER.

And once I realise what’s happening, the only real solution is to back away from such people as fast and as far as I can, even if I lose a lot else in doing so. I have broken ties and left behind friends. I have up and left groups, or moved house or localities even, if need be. I have undoubtedly come across as ‘cold’ or ‘uncaring’ or ‘snobbish’ or who knows what, to others who don’t understand. But I really don’t have a choice - not if I value my sanity or my health.

Please note that I am not putting down or being judgemental here of people like this. I don’t doubt others are able to keep their own calm, and deal with them just fine. I’m just not one of them. And my first responsibility must be to myself. That’s what CFS does for you – it makes you have to be ‘selfish’.

So if you see me seemingly being ‘cold’, or ‘standoffish’, or ‘unemotional’, or any of those things, know that this is not the case. I’m simply a hyper-empath with major physical health issues, trying my damnedest to stay emotionally and physically healthy. And I’m sure there are other autistics out there like me. So please, don’t make assumptions about what we’re feeling or thinking. You don’t know what’s going on underneath our ‘cold’ exteriors – or our ‘hysterical’ ones.