Empathy and Me – Part 2: When Empathy is Beyond Me

When I am emotionally turbulent my ability to empathize with you does not exist. At the very least it is greatly diminished in the face of my own internal turmoil.

This isn’t because I no longer care for you. It’s not that you are no longer important to me. When the weight of an emotional building is crashing down around me, how you’ve stubbed your toe is going to get lost in the chaos. It’s not that your pain or problems aren’t significant, they might be, but in the midst of my mental maelstrom, when my heart is split and spilling apart, there is no more space left to fissure for you.
Contrary to popular belief, Borderlines are not always running in emotional Armageddon. We tend to spend the majority of our time in a sort of Detached Protector mode (at least I do). However, the emotional outbursts are the defining feature so that is what everyone remembers. Those emotions can be completely overwhelming. Our hearts and heads filled to capacity with what we are going through, struggling with, and fighting against. When my glass is filled to overflowing with my own problems, there isn’t room to add yours.
Especially if I’m angry. When my fury boils over, if someone has pushed me beyond my breaking point, all I see is red, and no amount of anything else can penetrate this veil of seething until I’ve had time to cool off.
I shut down to the outside world. I withdraw into myself. I feel too much. Every emotional stimulus is like a little torch lit upon my skin. I hurt so much within myself, hurting for you too creates that added pain that can push me into shock. I shut down.
Eventually this deadens me. I can only run on overload for so long. Like any machine, when your circuits are pushed past capacity, you reach a breaking point and the fuse fizzles out. It takes time to find a flashlight, feel your way down to the basement, open up the breaker box, and replace the fuse. I know this is not convenient for you, trust me, it’s not convenient for me either.
For the time though, I simply don’t care. I feel nothing for you, and eventually I may feel nothing for me as well. It’s a defense mechanism created by the brain to compensate for the lack of emotional regulation we deal with.
That doesn’t mean it’s not painful, or hurtful for you, the Non-Borderline that has to deal with us. Times like these are when we are most turbulent. I no longer Act Out. I work very, very hard to keep my behavior and feelings hidden. I Act In and take things out on myself. But this hasn’t always been the case. When I was younger I would rage, lash out, verbally attack those closest to me, with no regard for the feelings of those around me. It’s not that I wanted to be malicious, but in the face of what I was feeling I didn’t have the ability to recognize that other people were still feeling too. My scope of my world was focused on me. I’ve talked about this before. This is what I call Borderline Narcissism.
For someone with Borderline Personality Disorder narcissism does not manifest as a belief that we are actually better than anyone else. (At least I don’t generally feel superiority over anyone.) It’s more a sense that our emotions can be so overwhelming that it’s difficult to see past our own scope and sphere of influence long enough to take into consideration the needs of others.
I strongly suggest reading the article I wrote on this. This isn’t a constant state for me, thankfully.
I also have a problem with relating to the severity of another person’s pain. When you’ve dealt with the abuse, neglect, and trauma that someone with Borderline Personality Disorder may have dealt with, many things simply don’t seem so severe by comparison. That doesn’t make those things are any less important, but it’s hard to relate. I’ve been emotionally battered beyond recognition to the point where small abuses no longer register as points of pain. My tolerance to such things has been built up so much that it’s hard for me to understand why someone else is so affected by something I see as so seemingly small. I also have a problem with Emotional Inhibition and EmotionalSubjugation. Growing up I was constantly told to suck it up, not to express my pain, internalize how I feel, don’t express it, that I don’t always understand why people complain about all the things they complain about. I love my Roommate to pieces. She’s one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever known. Every time she gets a paper cut or small bruise she points it out and analyzes the “injury”. I am completely incapable of caring or empathizing with her in such cases. Rape and attempted murder aside, I’ve had to send myself to the hospital to get stitches for wounds I’ve inflicted upon myself… wounds that didn’t even make me bat an eye. Something so small just seems so silly.
My threshold for pain, emotional and physical, is so high that you need to get past a certain point before I can even feel it.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this translates into emotion empathy as well. I know how severe and all-consuming my emotions can be; if I can survive that, than you can probably survive too. I think this is a projection of my emotional inhibition. And probably why my father always told me to stop reacting to things he considered inconsequential. He grew up in a household with abuse, alcoholism, and neglect. In comparison to everything he went through, and ultimately persevered over, much else seems trivial.
I think I used to feel more. I’ve run my life at emotional capacity for so long, with so little support, that I don’t think I have the ability to give of myself the same way anymore. In order to protect my mind, I’ve shut down to a lot of the outside world. I mentioned this video that I saw the other day that nearly broke my heart. This has become rarer for me, but I remember a time when every injustice would move me like this. Often things like hurricanes, tsunami, earthquake, massive event trauma, no longer phase me. I feel nothing. Cognitively I recognize what these people are going through, but to let myself become emotionally attached would be too much. If it’s not affecting me directly, unfortunately I can’t allow myself to care (this is a subconscious reaction, not an intentional one).
When I’m in emotional pain, everything in my world is about me.  
No matter how much I know I care about you, what you need is beyond my emotional ability in this moment. This is not constant and all enduring, it will eventually subside and we can be there emotionally for you again in the future, but in the moment of our emotional turmoil it is what matters. Even then, I may still try to be there for you. I’ll listen and provide what comfort I can because I do remember what you mean to me, but that’s all I can do. This can come across as hollow or mechanical, like we’re not fully there with you. Yeah, that’s a failing on our part. But you should probably keep in mind that you’re going to someone who is emotionally stunted for emotional comfort. People, Borderline and Non-Borderline alike, have selfish needs (< — this is OK!). We want what we want when we want it, or need it. So many Nons are hurt by our lack of emotional connectedness. I always try to take responsibility for how I act. But at the same time, those Nons need to remember that they want something too, from someone that they probably know isn’t capable of providing what they need. You wouldn’t ask a one armed man to juggle half a dozen knives now would you? Just because we want something from someone, doesn’t mean they can provide it. As a Borderline I try to recognize my limits, and the limits of those around me, but the Nons need to do this as well. Believe me, I know how psychotically difficult this can be. And it doesn’t stop it from hurting when our needs aren’t met. The reality of our situation is that we may not be as emotionally capable of dealing with things as you, you can’t force us to function at a level we haven’t achieved yet. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take responsibility for ourselves. We should. That’s why I’m doing the therapeutic work I’m doing after all.
When I am in emotional pain, you can’t rely on me for emotional support. I don’t have the ability to empathize. If I didn’t cause your pain, I can’t attach to it. I can sit next to you, I can listen, I can keep you company, I can bring you tissues and soup and ice cream, but that’s all I can do. I don’t understand why this isn’t enough either. Why would you want me to feel the pain you are going through? When I need emotional support from someone that did not cause my pain, I don’t hope the other person can feel what I’m feeling. It sounds kind of mean actually. I’m hurting, so I want you to feel what I’m feeling? That just sucks. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. Just having someone there is enough. Cognitively I imagine it has something to do with not wanting to feel like you have been singled out and are suffering alone. But why do you want me to suffer with you? Why would I want you to suffer with me? Simply being there shows caring. Just because you don’t understand my pain, doesn’t mean you don’t care. If you didn’t, you’d have left. Just because I don’t understand your pain, doesn’t mean I don’t care. If I didn’t, I’d have left.
I don’t expect empathy from anyone. I’m so disconnected from people most of the time I honestly cannot fathom that people do empathize with me. I do desire someone that cares (even though I have no expectations that anyone does). Knowing that you care is important to me. Knowing you’re there for me is enough. I don’t need you to feel what I’m feeling though. In fact, that just sounds cruel.  Or maybe I do need this but I’ve had the hope of it broken from me. I’ve learned to live without it. Hm.
There is an exception to this, but I’ll get to that later…

** Please try to keep in mind that this description is only in times of extreme emotional turmoil. Often it is very possible for us to feel empathy. It is not always about us. I’ll get to this in more detail soon.

*** I also have a Dissociative Disorder which makes my ability to connect with people even more complicated. This is not representative of everyone with Borderline Personality Disorder.

8 comments on “Empathy and Me – Part 2: When Empathy is Beyond Me

  1. "As a Borderline I try to recognize my limits, and the limits of those around me, but the Nons need to do this as well. Believe me, I know how psychotically difficult this can be. And it doesn’t stop it from hurting when our needs aren’t met. The reality of our situation is that we may not be as emotionally capable of dealing with things as you, you can’t force us to function at a level we haven’t achieved yet." This is a really great point, and one that I've failed at repeatedly with my friend. Even after I figured things out, I found myself expecting more out of him than I knew possible. Me doing that hurt us both in a lot of ways. Em

  2. Wow, Haven! What a great post. I've read all your writings and I've learned so much, but this one really had an impact on me. I hope you realize how invaluable your postings are to those of us who are nons. The light you shed is so bright I need to wear shades to read it! Thank you. Keep on shining girl!

  3. I appreciate you posting this. I think my husband sometimes views me the same way: he's not borderline, but like you said, his level of trauma has been so high that he can be totally indifferent to the pain of others. He's trying, though. Your post was helpful to me.

  4. @Em … Thanks darlin'. I always read your comments because they're so insightful from a Nons perspective. I still have more posts about this coming up that your insight has definitely helped me shape my thoughts with. I know reading this doesn't necessarily make the actions feel any better or make any of the experiences easier to have gone through, but I hope they shed some light on where we're coming from. Maybe if we could all communicate better this wouldn't be so harrowing an experience. Communication never seems to be as easy as it should be though.

  5. @Anon 10:02 … Thank you. It means a lot to me when people can take something away from what I write. I feel like a broken record when I say that i know writing things down and explaining them doesn't necessarily justify the behavior, but I hope raising awareness allows for healing and forward progress. @Pippi … Trauma is such a tricky thing. Consciously you know that it is in the past, but the the body reacts as if it's an ever present threat. Which isn't fair to the people around us that do genuuinely care. I wish there was a switch we could flip for this. I can only imagine the strength it takes to cope coming at this from the other side. Thank you stopping by.

  6. I hope that some of the stuff I write isn't hurtful. I am pretty blunt as it is, but I'm also still so angry with him, so my words may be shorter than even my normal nature. I love him with all my heart, and if I don't stay mad, I'll run right back. But our ultimate destruction was two-sided, and I see that. I have as much difficulty with boundaries as he does, and also the whole expectation thing. This hit me hard today. I've expected things from him that he and I have both clearly recognized are not possible. But it's difficult to accept and stick with realistic expectations from the Non's perspective – because the Borderline can function so normally at times, and on the surface appear so capable of being what you need. And they so clearly want to be that. So it's cyclical. And with each cycle, I would start out with the realistic expectations and I would believe in them. Then as time would pass, I would see this hope and I would unintentionally (? maybe, maybe not) change my expectations. And I would push, and push, and then an explosion. And it repeats, over and over. I recognize that I can't be what he needs right now, just as much as he can't be what I need. And it sucks, but this is life. Thank you so, so, so much for sharing! I looooove the empathy series. Em

  7. You explained this unbelievably well. With a mother with bpd it sheds alot of light on it for me. As a person myself who might have bpd some of the things you write definitely resonated with me.

  8. I have known two people who suffer from BPD. I lost one. It became a relationship, I felt, of three. Her, BPD, and me. By reading your posts, I have a better understanding of what she is going through. Unfortunately, it is too late for our friendship. It isn't, however, too late for my romantic interest and me. I don't have to lose him.

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