I just spent the last couple of weeks with a relative who is empathy impaired. We’ll call this person Terri, just to protect identities. Terri has a long history of self-centered behavior, and I always classified it as abusive, often stupid. Terri has always treated the people around her with disregard that is reminiscent of a slavemaster. She’s from central Georgia, I told myself, and that type of attitude could well be a product of her upbringing. However, I knew her mother well enough to know that she was never treated as such.
Last summer, Terri cared for my children while we completed our cross-country move. I was incensed on many occasions at my children’s daily reports. During many daily phone conversations with my children, I could hear upsetting vocal tones and I was abruptly disconnected too many times to believe that it was anything other than deliberate.
The behavior I witnessed during this visit was no different. Self-centered behavior is normal to an extent, but hers goes beyond rudeness. Ignorance of other people’s needs may happen, especially when a person is distracted or in some sort of pain. Her willing ignorance of my family’s needs — not wants, needs — was impressive. Her response to emergencies, like the recent electrical fire, reveals a level of self-centeredness that is damaging. I’ve come to the conclusion that my previous labels have been incorrect. I believe now that Terri lacks empathy. She has sympathy, but that’s not the same thing and she only directs it toward situations of her choice.
Other words describe her, but I am loath to use them. Yet. The effect of her behavior is that Terri has alienated her children, children-in-law, and certain of her grandchildren to the point where they don’t want to be around her for longer than brief periods. My children have begged me to not leave them alone with her. I cannot explain and can barely ameliorate her behavior, but I can and will spare my children to the greatest extent possible.