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More on empathy
ADHD makes it incredibly hard to think from someone else's point of view
Earlier this month, I was in Jordan with my family on a week-long holiday. Apart from some hiccups in getting in, it was an absolutely wonderful and diverse experience - we floated on the Dead Sea, saw Roman ruins at Jerash and Amman, even older ruins at Petra and the amazing wilderness of Wadi Rum. The food was great as well - I put on 3 kgs in a week.
At Wadi Rum, we were taken by jeep to see some of the more interesting “sights” in the desert. Most of this involved climbing - either sand dunes or rocks - in order to get even more spectacular views of the desert. Also, the rock climbs were all mildly challenging, which got our daughter rather excited.
The previous day, my wife had rolled over her ankle rather badly at Petra, and was thus out of action for the climbs (she stayed in and around our jeep). This meant the job or taking the daughter for the “hikes” fell upon me. And my not-so-old fear of heights took over.
I wasn’t like this as a child - I loved climbing things. I know I wasn’t like this in college - I would be most commonly found sitting on the parapet in front of my room reading a newspaper. Sometime in the last 15 years, though, I’ve developed a fear of heights. Sometimes even standing on the edge of a platform waiting for a (metro) train to arrive is enough to make me jittery.
Such a boring dad
My troubles started at the rather spectacular Khazali Canyon. To enter, you need to walk along a rather narrow ledge. I chickened and refused to take my daughter inside. “I have such a boring dad”, she complained to her mother who had by then hobbled to the entrance of the canon. “He doesn’t take me anywhere”.
Thus shamed, and having seen other tourists navigate the ledge easily, off we went. We went a fair way into the gorge and then stopped because there was a largish (~ 1.5 m diameter) pool of water we had to cross. I didn’t know how to both get myself and my daughter across.
Next we went to the “rock arch”. Again I quickly decided the climb was a little freaky. Now, my daughter has trekked a bit already, and learnt to climb rocks on a school excursion. She was enthusiastic to go but I slammed the brakes. “Such a boring dad”, she went off again.
At “Lawrence’s house”, which we went to next, I made a conscious effort to be more adventurous. Here, we got halfway up and then I saw this piece of rock that would be hard for both of us to cross.
The issue, I realised, is that I was afraid of getting both of us across that rock. Had it been me alone, I knew how to climb it (with big steps there were enough footholds). Had it been my daughter alone, given her little training, I’m sure she would know how to climb it.
However, with me “supervising” her, and being responsible for her, and not wanting to risk another injury on the vacation, I chickened. I couldn’t perceive the climb from her point of view. And that meant I couldn’t let her climb. Both of us, in hindsight, were the poorer because of this.
I’ve spoken here before about how because of my ADHD I lack empathy. Putting myself in someone else’s shoes is a highly impossible task because it means believing one stream of thought (their viewpoint) that is likely at odds with my own. Simultaneously holding contradictory thoughts in my head means that I can get confused, or hallucinate, or indulge in flip-flops. Hence I’ve inadvertently trained myself against doing that.
This results in my not being able to understand others’ viewpoints and thus underestimating or overestimating them. This also results in my inability to understand other people’s feelings and emotions (since I can’t reason them), and more than occasionally saying things that are potentially offensive.
The only person I can remotely be empathetic towards is my daughter, and that might be down to because she is so much like me (on avg. we share 50% of our genes). This means the effort required to think like her is much less compared to anyone else.
However, on this trip, I figured that even this empathy has limits. I can understand my daughter (largely - I don’t know what she’ll think if and when she reads this) fairly well mentally, but literally speaking I’m unable to put myself in her shoes. I’m unable to fathom how a person of her size and agility might approach that rock that I balked towards.
Maybe I should have just stood back and let her climb it by herself, and then followed her up. However, my sense of responsibility at that moment meant I couldn’t stand back, and we ended up not climbing.
Lack of empathy, when I think about it, happens because I can’t understand that other people are different from me, and have different motivations and objective functions. At best, if I have to think of their “feelings”, I imagine how I would feel if someone would tell me what I would tell them. That others can react differently to the same thing is something that I don’t intuitively get.
This can work the other way also - there are times at work when I feel incredibly guilty passing on what I consider to be “shit work” to others (whether they are from my team or elsewhere). What I fail to realise a lot of the time is that what is “shit work” for me is not shit work for others. And vice versa.
This plays out when I give advice to people as well. A lot of times, that gets clouded by how I would react to that situation and what I’m optimising for. I assume that they are optimising for the same thing as well, while in most cases that is seldom the case. Of late, though, I’ve become more cognisant of this and try to the best of my abilities to only describe the tradeoffs and leave the final calculation of the objective function to the recipient of the advice.
Now, my daughter might look like me and occasionally talk like me and walk like me, but she is just not me. When it comes to the part of her that is not like me, I find it incredibly hard to empathise. What makes this harder is that I assume that I empathise with her, and when I find that she is different, it creates a bigger dissonance (Bayesian prior and posterior are farther from each other).
In the rock climbing example from above, she was obviously different from me (in size and adventurousness and agility and flexibility), and it was incredibly hard for me to think from her perspective on how easy or difficult the climb was. An attempt to think from her perspective left me thoroughly confused, and I decided to play it safe and turn back, and expose myself to more “I have such a boring dad” taunts.
Over the last 20 odd years, enough people have let me know that I’m sorely lacking in empathy. There are times in life where a lot of these comments come together. At those times, I decide I need to do something about it, and I need to become more empathetic.
My problem is that because empathy doesn’t come naturally to me, I tend to overdo it. I literally put myself in the other person’s shoes and start thinking about how they would optimise that situation.
A lot of times this results in my making decisions that are against my own interest. And even when I will it, my ability at empathy is such that I make decisions that are also against the interest of the person I’m empathising with (these episodes usually happen with my wife). So by attempting to be empathetic, I end up harming both myself and my counterparties. A lose-lose situation if ever there was one.
When I decide to make a conscious effort at being empathetic, it inevitably leads to a few such lose-lose situations. Then, I quickly see the pattern and back off. “This shit is not for me”, I declare and return to my base unempathetic self. At least, this way, I’m optimising for myself.
And because my empathy is binary, I sometimes indulge in a sort of “bang bang control”. A sort of “mixed strategy” between optimising for myself and optimising for others. Again, inevitably, I end up making a lot of wrong decisions. I suspect the hiking example from last week can go into this category as well.
Tit for tat
While a lot of my lack of empathy is unintentional, I must admit that there are times where I make a deliberate decision to NOT be empathetic. And this stems from a feeling of “tit for tat”, or to put it more elaborately, “why should I be empathetic towards people who are not empathetic towards me?”.
As I have explained in some other posts, people with ADHD (or any other kind of neurodivergence) think and optimise differently from most neurotypical people. Things that disturb most people may not disturb us, but we might get massively bothered by things that most people may not even notice.
This means that for people to understand us and know what we are like and how to treat us, it takes special effort. My wife, for example, seems to have made that kind of an effort, having known me well for over 13 years now. A lot of my other close relatives as well. Similarly, parents make this kind of an effort for their children, children for their parents and long-term colleagues for one another.
For everyone else, you are inscrutable. They find it hard to understand why you think the way you do. Even if they are inherently empathetic (like most people are), it is not easy for them to be empathetic towards YOU. And because most people are not empathetic towards you, you don’t bother being empathetic towards them!
I can talk about vicious cycles and all that but I’ll stop here.