Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
People with OCPD have a natural gift for empathy.
People with OCPD have the capacity to experience great emotional depth because of their hypersensitivity. They are able to feel emotions that most of the world will never be able to feel or understand. People with emotional sensitivity also have a heightened sense of the emotions of others. Even if others say, “I’m doing fine,” people with OCPD have the ability to see right through surface level communication. In an instant, people with OCPD can assess the body language and tone of voice of others and figure out the true emotions behind all the masks that people put on. Some people with extreme emotional sensitivity, such as myself, possess a near-psychic ability to sense even the history of emotions, hurts, and pains of others. One of the things I learned about myself in all my travels was that I can even sense the pain and suffering collectively experienced by the people of an entire nation. People with OCPD have all the right tools to enrich the lives of others through empathy.
Why then are there so many people with OCPD who do not practice their natural gift for empathy? The answer is anxiety.
At a very early age, people with OCPD were once overwhelmed by their strong negative emotions. They needed their immediate caretaker (usually their mother) to comfort them by saying, “Don’t worry, child. You’re going to be just fine. Bad feelings are a normal part of life and they will come and go. Don’t try to avoid them. Just feel them out and let them pass.” Unfortunately, most of the world (mothers included) does not understand how emotionally sensitive we are and fails to provide this kind of security. Without this security, people with OCPD grow up to fear their emotions and try everything in their power to avoid them. Recently, in a post titled “Intellectualization,” I wrote about one of the primary psychological strategies people with OCPD use to prevent themselves from experiencing negative emotions. As long as people with OCPD continue to dodge negative emotions, they will never be able to give others the sense that their feelings are being understood and shared.
In order to redeem their natural gift for empathy, people with OCPD must face their fear of negative emotions. This fear cannot be faced, however, if people with OCPD continue to make use of the very things that prevent them from experiencing their emotions. Therefore, people with OCPD must resist the urge to use their defense mechanisms as well. Every step of the way, people with OCPD must re-parent themselves with the words of comfort that I wrote in the above paragraph. When negative emotions are no longer things that need to be feared and avoided, people with OCPD can then begin to feel the negative emotions of others. When this happens, people will discover that no one can empathize with them as well as their OCPD friend.
Feeling depressed? It might not be you.
The emotional sensitivity of people with OCPD is so strong that, despite all their efforts to avoid negative feelings, people with OCPD will still pick up the emotions of others unconsciously. People with OCPD might find themselves feeling sad all of a sudden. When this happens, most people with OCPD who have not yet familiarized themselves with the power of their emotional sensitivity will likely think that they are the cause of this emotional pain. What really might be happening is that they are unconsciously empathizing with others. It is a shame that people with OCPD do not get credit for this kind of behind-the-scenes empathy. Unfortunately, the burden that people with OCPD feel for others can become so heavy that going into isolation feels like the most liberating thing to do. It is very important that people with OCPD who often feel the pain and suffering of others have outlets, like hobbies, with which they can release the burden that they pick up. I love babies and I find it so therapeutic to hang out with them (my emotional sensitivity hardly picks up any pain and suffering when I am around babies).
SO WHAT NOW?
HOW TO CO-EXIST WITH THE OTHER (OCPD):
When your loved one is experiencing difficult emotions, do not start talking about your psychological strategies. More than anything, your loved one wants to feel that he or she is not so alone in this. Just keep your mouth shut and hold your loved one in your arms. Even if this becomes overwhelming, do not let go. If you cannot do this because you are too scared, explain that your inability has nothing to do with you not caring enough for your loved one. Explain that you are fearful of difficult emotions. Ask them to have extra patience with you as you try to overcome your fears. If you suddenly become sad because you are unconsciously empathizing with others, explain to your loved one that this happens to you because of your emotional sensitivity.
HOW TO CO-EXIST WITH THE OTHER (OTHERS):
Understand that your OCPD friend’s inability to empathize with you comes from his or her fear of experiencing difficult emotions. Do not take it so personally when your OCPD friend appears so emotionally removed from your suffering and pain. Deep inside, he or she really cares about you. He or she just happens to be too scared. When neither of you are experiencing overwhelming emotions, explain to your OCPD friend that when you are going through difficult emotions, what you would appreciate most, more than any well thought-out psychological strategies, would be for him or her to just share your feelings of suffering and pain. He or she may then go on to explain how psychological strategies are more practical than empathy in that they actually resolve the problem. Then respond, “As crazy as it may sound, I don’t care so much to resolve the problem right away. Maybe later. But the first thing I want is to not feel so lonely in my suffering and pain. I understand that it is uncomfortable for you to feel negative emotions, but for my sake, so that I don’t feel so lonely, please try to experience my pain with me.” You will then need patience as your OCPD friend faces his or her fears. This may take some time. Encourage him or her along the way. When your OCPD friend becomes sad or depressed for no reason, do not be so quick to blame yourself or your OCPD friend as he or she may be empathizing with others pain and suffering unconsciously. When this happens, remind your OCPD friend that the feelings may not be his or her own and not his or her burden to carry. Encourage him or her not to drain him or herself out too much if this is the case.