The key takeaway from “Switched On” by John Elder Robison for me was that sympathy and empathy can contradict one another, although these two words are often used synonymously.
The autistic author of this book went through an experimental procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to address his emotional blindness. It successfully “switched on” his latent ability to sense the emotions of others but ironically lead to divorcing his depressive wife because her depression affected his own emotional wellbeing.
Our empathetic capacity causes us pain when we see someone in pain. This is particularly strong between a mother and a newborn. She is not consciously trying to understand the pain of her child; her child’s pain is automatically mirrored within her. She has no control over this mechanism.
One day, when our daughter was about a year old, she started crying in an elevator, and this woman standing next to us told us how glad she was that she no longer has to deal with that situation. She said her kid’s cry used to torture her. The tone of her voice had a mixture of relief and bitterness.
Having a strong empathetic capacity is great for light social interactions because you would be able to immediately assess how everyone is feeling. It would be convenient if you are in a managerial position at work, a waiter, a salesperson, or a party host. Understanding the needs of your staff, customers, and guests would come naturally to you without thinking about it.
But the same capacity works against you for deeper and longer term relationships because the negative emotions of others will eventually drag you down also. In such a situation, you would have no objectivity for offering what is best for the person in pain. Your first priority would be to get out of the pain yourself. It’s understandable.
As cruel as it may sound to abandon a spouse who is suffering from depression, as the author of this book did, what good would it do for either of them if both started suffering from depression? We can help others only if we can help ourselves.
In other words, the more empathetic you are, the less sympathetic you can be to the other because your own pain caused by the other would make it harder for you to do what is right for that person. Your decisions would be biased by your desire to stop your own pain.
For instance, if your kid is crying, you might just turn on the TV because your primary concern is to stop the crying which is causing you pain. Why he is crying becomes secondary. You end up doing whatever is easiest and quickest to stop your own pain, not what’s best for your kid.
This too is understandable because how could you take good care of your own kids if you cannot take good care of yourself?
But what is interesting is the fact that empathetic capacity is a double-edged sword. The more of it does not make you a more emotionally capable or sympathetic person.
As the author of this book said, our abilities are “zero-sum” games. We can’t cherry-pick just one positive trait and expect it to have no negative consequences. And a seemingly negative trait can have a hidden positive trait as its flip side which we discover only after we lose it.