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.

Borderline Narcissism

Narcissism by definition is the personality trait of egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness. Applied to a social group, it is sometimes used to denote elitism or an indifference to the plight of others. The narcissist is described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.
This, however, is not Borderline Narcissism. Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are both Cluster B grouped Personality Disorders (as relevant as that is) but they’re far from being the same thing. As is common with most Personality Disorders there are some overlapping characteristics between the two. How these characteristics present vary in severity and manifestation.
Let’s refresh yesterday’s point: Entitlement or a ‘Sense of Entitlement’ is an unrealistic, unmerited or inappropriate expectation of favorable living conditions and favorable treatment at the hands of others.
   In clinical psychology and psychiatry, an unrealistic, exaggerated, or rigidly held sense of entitlement may be considered a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, seen in those who ‘because of early frustrations…arrogate to themselves the right to demand lifelong reimbursement from fate’.
Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger narcissistic rage.
Belief in the special, exceptional nature of ‘narcissistic entitlement dictates that the patient has a right to life on his own terms…Such narcissistic entitlement plays a central role in borderline pathology, since the borderline sees himself as a special person with special rights and entitlements, such that any frustration of these entitled desires tends to undermine and often shatter the patient’s self-esteem’.
In the wake of Kohut’s self-psychology, a valorisation of narcissistic entitlement might be said to have taken place, as ‘the age of “normal narcissism” and normal narcissistic entitlement had arrived…[a] child’s right and entitlement that its parents are obliged to proffer at the least the minimum requisite “self-object” soothing…to allow the infant/child to develop a sense of self-cohesion’.    
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.
We may not consider ourselves ‘special’ consciously, but we do have an emphasis on our emotional needs that does drives our lives in a way that is of priority or deserving specialized treatment.
Unlike for the narcissist, for the borderline, when this favorable treatment is not met it does not necessarily feel like an attack on our superiority. It feels like an attack on our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.   So while the trigger may be a little different, it’s still a trigger, and can often lead to frustration, depression, upset, and rage.
Hm. Back to yesterday’s post, “Because of the elevated highs and lows in mood that people with personality disorders often experience, it is not uncommon for them to attach elevated sense of importance to their own emotional needs. They may appear at times to care only about their own desires and needs at the expense of other people around them or they may habitually prioritize their own needs above those of others.”
To me, this is what Borderline Narcissism is.
Depending on the Borderline this may be severe and ever present or more situational, as is my case. There’s no denying that I fall to feelings of self-centeredness especially when I’m so emotionally wracked I can barely crawl out of my own head. What other people need simply have no room in my mind when it’s all I can do to claw my way out of my own destructive thoughts. It’s not that I don’t want to think about other people, the torrent of emotion, doubt, anger, frustration is an utterly overwhelming deluge.  I don’t live in a perpetual state of this though.
The sense of entitlement comes from this aspect of narcissism that since we have put such an importance on our own emotional needs, that we may expect that others also hold our needs with the same priority. Especially when we’ve invested so much of ourselves into someone else we would automatically assume that they would give the same exaggerated emotional investment back. Even demand it. And when that demand is not met, the frustration is exceptional.