Intimacy - WTF is it? -or- empathy vs apathy vs telepathy vs sympathy

Perhaps the most difficult and contentious thing about my life, values, and interactions has always been the apparently obvious fact that emotions are completely internal. People can communicate about what and how they feel, but this is still separate, since there is no direct experience of another’s emotions. Most people who I have ever discussed this with react to the notion with extreme distaste and even visceral horror, offering that the notion strikes them as cynical or misanthropic. Equating this with disregard, wilful ignorance, solipsism, selfishness, or other problems associated with a lack of emotional intelligence or maturity. But this I think presupposes the norm that emotional states somehow are naturally communicated between people, despite a lack of evidence of the actuality behind this. It has always seemed to me that I live in a culture which normalizes emotional contagion and expects this of people. Anyone who sees the impossibility of “playing along” gets derided as either being a callous jerk or otherwise spoiling the illusion.

I think of emotions as being of paramount importance, and I think that it is compassionate to hope that people are well and offer any help that I can. Emotions can be a significant indicator of the health of the organism. But that can also be said of blood and urine, and I do not wander through my life spraying those upon people, either! I do not “share” the emotions of those who I care about any more than I share their blood. It represents the inner state of a person, I can care about it, but I cannot possibly experience it. This seems obvious to me, but so many others seem to find this troubling, deriding it as being an affected detachment. As if an illusion of direct experience of another’s feelings would somehow be more accurate or helpful.

To me, intimacy has always seemed to be fundamentally a matter of communication. And that can be communication about (as opposed to communication of) their emotional and physical health - as well as concerns of the intellect, society, arts, sciences, etc. Somebody who idly “hopes” that I might understand how they feel without any deliberate communication strikes me as being lazy and obscure - I perceive this as a lack of intimacy. In daily life, I often like others, and they like me - yet our interactions are strained by pursuit of a specific ideal of connection/contact/communion which people presume exists because they feel emotionally invested in that being the case, despite a lack of insight as to how this would ever possibly work in practice.

What do you think? Do you relate? Does this sound like a bogus assessment? Are your emotions self-contained, or do they exist outside of yourself as well? Are some definitions of intimacy heavily stereotyped or dysfunctional? Must everybody get stoned?


Honestly, often times, people want to hear about how you feel when it suits them, not when you actually are feeling them. Lots of people feel the need to express their feelings externally, but that’s generally not welcome in our society. We’re expected to deal with any problems we might have in therapy rather than with our friends and loved ones. More and more, we’re expected to not “bother” our friends and loved ones with what might be uncomfortable feelings we might have. How we feel in a world that cares for us as people less and less is now being pathologized and stigmatized.


Two things.



I going to have to think a bit, but my initial thought is intimacy is less about you and more how you perceive the other parties feelings about you. I feel like I CIS splaining this :slight_smile: I need to collect my thoughts.


What most ppl think of as a display of apathy is actually me withdrawing in disgust… :confused:

Emotional states are readily communicated effectively via facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and mirror neurons.

What’s far less often effectively communicated, is the context of those emotions.


The narrator in Will Self’s “My Idea of Fun” says:

go and look these two definitions up in the dictionary. I think you’ll find that you’ve got them the wrong way round, that what you thought was empathy is really sympathy and vice versa. You see, that’s been my problem- all the time I thought I was sympathising I was really empathising. I’m not going to make big claims about this semantic quirk but I do think it’s worth remarking on, for when two key terms tumble over one another in this fashion you can be sure that something is afoot.

I’m not really sure what point Self is trying to make here (is he implying that he values sympathy over empathy?), but I do think it’s interesting to consider.

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Google mirror neurons. There is evidence.

Additionally, there are no feelings which can inspire feelings in others, but there is behavior which can. So there are no wrong feelings. But there IS wrong behavior. Mind your behavior, it’s all you have.


Well, but I think that not everyone can read those. It’s not just the context that can be confusing, but also that no everyone reads those little things effectively.


When speaking in generalities, the default state is speaking to what’s typical, yeah?

Folks who aren’t neurotypical either know it and that such a statement may not apply, or they don’t, and such statements can help them realise it.

Fair enough I guess… but of course, the person who started this thread isn’t neurotypical, so that was what I was speaking to. @popobawa4u has often discussed this here on the BBS (especially when it comes to gifs, which they find ambiguous at best).

I guess in generally, I think it’s a good policy to try and not make assumptions about others, which can be hard, I know.


Well, Popo is carrying on like there’s no way emotions can be communicated, rather than like Popo can’t understand emotional signals…

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I guess it can be hard to understand something that you may not experience?

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Given the depth of Popo’s curiosity and intellect, I’m surprised that mirror neurons are news.

They were news to me, but I’m just a simple country historian! :wink:


I do know about mirror neurons. But they seem to not communicate actual emotional states. That’s why I made the distinction between communicating about emotions, and communicating emotions themselves. As Acer noted, a smile or a shrug are not themselves emotions, but people can use them to try drawing inferences.

Probably the most difficult and alarming thing I experience about people is that being the symbol-using organism, they routinely conflate symbols with what they represent, maps with territories. So when they are using symbols unconsciously they often act as if “this is this” rather than “this represents this”. And that such occurs regularly with regards to emotions where people are eager to act as if others directly share their emotional states.

So yes, my speculation here is about “emotional signals”. Most would probably say that the pragmatic concern would be whether or not I can use them effectively. But my concern runs to the empirical: are a vast number of interpersonal rituals and customs based upon a false pretext of emotions being an actual shared experience, a sort of intersubjectivity?

When I consider the amount of uncertainty and misunderstanding involved in deliberately communicating about tangible things with a shared verbal language, that can already be a lot of work. But trying to draw parallels between basically unquantified feelings, with a completely arbitrary language? It seems a lot less practical than simply using regular language. I can understand why babies and non-verbal organisms rely upon the vagueness of body language, but not why people persist in doing so once they develop the use of language. It would seem to necessitate radical simplification of what can be meaningfully communicated, and/or radical stereotyping of what can be experienced.

Then there is the “trust” issue of many refusing to be very conscious of or deliberate with using such displays, it is either made out to be too much effort, or otherwise simply uncomfortable, and avoided in favor of doing it unconsciously. When I ask people how they feel, and they decline to say, and yet still get resentful if I don’t just happen to know, then it seems more important for people to play lame games than it is to communicate. If you aren’t interested enough to know about how you feel, then why expect me to? My probably cynical answer is that most people are lazy. And it also inspires me to be less curious about how they are doing because they seem to go out of their way to be evasive and obscure.

I have done some experiments in “mirroring” the body language of people, and can sometimes remember and combine complex sequences of gestures. It is usually worse than nothing! Doing it deliberately seems to result in “uncanny valley” situations so acute as to result in outright panic with some people.


So much this. I don’t get the idea that some people have that things like therapy should be left to professionals. Firstly because some professionals aren’t that good and also because what many people need is someone to listen to them and point them in a more positive direction. Often the professional distance can be counterproductive when we actually need people to be there for us. I’ve always thought the same about Catholic confessionals - the idea seems to have been to confess to each other, not one particular person.

While there is wrong or harmful behaviour, I don’t think this is what @popobawa4u is talking about. It’s more along the lines of socially inappropriate behaviour or non-reciprocal behaviour that bothers other people, without necessarily being wrong in and of itself. In other contexts, different rules might apply, and foreigners often get a pass to a certain degree because it is learned behaviour. As you say, a lot of it can be explained with mirror neurons, but that isn’t very helpful to people who don’t have access to them to the same extent. In these cases, it’s not necessarily easy to tell what feelings you are inspiring in someone else and which ones they expect you to pick up on, or to predict their reaction to your behaviour or lack of behaviour.

I tend to vary on how effectively I mirror other people (at least, this is what other people have told me), but it seems that it needs to happen on the subconscious level rather than being forced. Acting without reacting to other people’s behaviour can be seen as rude - you may seem overly passive by not showing a reaction, or unconcerned about them by projecting an emotional state without responding to theirs. I find that asking questions and trying to establish a connection where people see that I understand and care about their perspective can obviate the need to visibly reflect their emotions to some extent. Still, I have had to be explicit before and state that if someone wants me to react to an emotional state that they have, they will need to tell me about it with words. Otherwise they have no right to expect any reaction, and I may just play dumb if I do get a hint (OK, I’ll often ask if anything’s wrong, but if the answer is “nothing” or “I’m fine”, I will take that literally even if I don’t believe it).


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