Can I be Objective and Have Empathy after my Brain Injury?

Cheryl Green

Cheryl Green

Brain Injury Blog by Cheryl Green

October 2, 2013

Can I be objective and empathetic?


One thing that has confused me since my Traumatic Brain Injury is empathy. I want everyone to have it and forgive me when I’m rude, forgetful, and overwhelmed. More than anything, I wish I had it for others. I’m sure I used to have a whole lot more of it.

I love spending time with my peers. But over and over, when someone tells me something difficult I have these two uncomfortable reactions: 1.) I think “Hurry up so I can tell you something terrible that happened to me, ” or 2.) I laugh. Even as I have heard someone’s beloved family member or companion animal has died, I start to laugh and think about how bored I am and what’s for lunch. What’s worse? If a character on TV I like dies, I sob and scream at the loss.

Now and again, though, I get a taste of that old familiar tug of the heart strings. When my friend told me about the driver high on meth who hit him and left him with a near-fatal severe TBI, I got tears in my eyes. My throat closed up. I looked at my friend in a new light and had a swelling sense of curiosity about him. The feeling passed a minute later. Dang it. Where did it go?

Being objective

Now, I’m really nervous because I am creating and co-directing a feature length documentary film on artists with brain injury called “Who Am I To Stop It.” Having to organize and control that much is difficult and confusing. I have temper tantrums on set. I forget to tell the person I’m coming to film that I’m coming. But I love it, and the work is making me step up my game. For a while, I thought all the organization and leadership was going to be the hard part. Well, it is. And there’s another part: being objective and empathetic at the same time.

It’s hard to admit this, but sometimes when I’m filming for the documentary and someone says something horrible, I get too excited. I think “Yes! I’m so glad the camera was on!” What documentary filmmaker wouldn’t be excited for capturing a wonderful, deep story? I get so caught up in having a great film, that I don’t even recognize the humanity of the person saying the horrible thing.

Or if I do get choked up on set, I tell myself to be more objective. It’s hard because most of the people I’m filming are already friends whom I love and am interested in. When they say something interesting on set, I have to just nod. That’s a good thing. But it scares me how easily I can brush off terrible, painful things they say when the camera’s rolling. I sometimes don’t ask follow-up questions because I don’t comprehend how important something was that someone said. Or, when the cameras stop, I go on and on with them in too much detail about what they said, returning to friend mode and taking up my film crew’s time.

What if I can’t stop it?

What if, when the film ends next year, I still hang out with these people and laugh and say “Oh, I wish I had recorded that!” instead of “How can I support you in your pain right now?”

I am not empty of feeling, compassion, or empathy. It’s just that those things are not always there when I want or expect them to be anymore. Making a documentary might be good for someone who can listen to a gut-wrenching story without getting emotionally involved. But is it the best thing for someone who doesn’t have a firm grip on empathy and objectivity? I guess that, too, will become part of the story in some way.

12 responses to “Can I be Objective and Have Empathy after my Brain Injury?”

  1. What an amazing and compelling story you have! Thanks so much for sharing with all of us!

  2. Simon Limbrick says:

    I would answer a very definite ‘yes’ to that question. I found that empathising with others opens the doorway to further communication. Empathy is different from sympathy. When I became a hospital porter eleven years after my tbi, I could relate to others in similar situations where even trained staff couldn’t. In fact, training as a nursing auxiliary in my spare time, I was able to offer an insight to a patient that the nurses were unaware of. The sister welcomed this insight and said they had been trained to deal with it but inside knowledge was priceless. Similarly, bearing the physical scars of my trauma give credence to my story and build trust with others who are just starting their journey’s on this path or are well behind you in terms of experience. See it as a gift rather than a curse. Gifts don’t always come in pretty boxes with a bow on top!

  3. Simon Limbrick says:

    Life makes us who we are in accordance with the ‘gifts’ we are born with. Affected by my parents’ divorce at an early age, I could be emotional at times and, being a male, this could be embarrassing at times. Definitely effecting how I viewed myself, this was made worse by others taking advantage of low moods. That brings us up to 1979. Then 15, I had aspirations of joining the Royal Air Force. On 25-7-79, my life took an unexpected turn for the worse. Apparently, I was knocked off my bicycle by a car. I have no memory of that day or much of the three weeks proceeding. Emerging from a coma two weeks later, I learned why I couldn’t move. I’d broken my neck in three places and paralysed from the neck down! I also learned I’d survived brain surgeries at two different hospitals and had a tube in my throat. As the months dragged by (5 in all), I was showered with praise for my attitude and having survived something the best medical opinion said was extremely unlikely. I guess that praise was incorporated into my belief – I could achieve anything! This made it so much harder to cope with things that were not returning as I believed they would.
    Unfortunately, I could not return to finish my last year of school and the familiarity of a place I had called home for many years, the friends and family I knew so well, were being left behind by a planned move being brought forward when I was discharged. In deference to my mother, I could not blame her for wanting to leave when she did. So, I was an introverted, quiet, shy type before the accident. The tbi gave me the gift of ‘inhibition’. I embraced this gift and delighted in the new found freedom to express myself. Even so, I discovered this ‘gift’ to be a double-edged sword. I could not engage brain before putting mouth into gear – something which caused no end of problems for me and others. Trying to get control of this aspect of my behaviour is like trying to break in a wild horse. Yes, you get ‘thrown’ many times and end up hurting yourself and others. But I would encourage all ‘new riders’ not to give up.

    Anything in life worth achieving doesn’t come easy. There are cost, of course, but the rewards you get are definitely well worth the effort. How do I know? Well, hand in hand with my recovery, ware the ever present storm clouds of failure and depression. It tries its hardest to convince you the fight just isn’t worth it – the costs are more than you can bare – you’re not worth it. This isn’t ‘normal’ depression, this is severe, clinical depression. At my lowest points, I nearly did something unforgivable – I nearly succumbed to that choice. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t.

    It took me some six years to achieve my first full time job. Four years later, I was privileged to start work as a hospital porter, at the same hospital that saved my life! It was the best job in the world. I met a lady who would become my partner and mother to my children there. I became epileptic four years after starting there. They were very understanding and gave me three months paid leave to recover. Lorraine and I argued frequently and I believed this triggered the epilepsy. The job meant everything to me, a place of sanctuary from domestic turmoils. Because of my work ethic, I was supported for many years. My memory and concentration were effected to such an extent that I was forgetting patient’s appointments and routine jobs. But I clung to that job as a life line. I got involved with Union work for the disabled and became the hospital’s disability spokesperson.I did two parachute jumps in my own time, despite impaired balance. I won a gliding scholarship. 17 years later, due to a crumbling relationship at home and the effects of the epilepsy, I lost my job and home. That was the last time I was tempted to take my life.
    I heard an engineer say he was going up to the roof of the tower block. I was very low at that point. I got off at the ninth floor and made my way up to the roof. I got within 3ft of the edge and looked over. If depression were a person, he would have shoved me off there and then. I thought of other people who I had inspired with my story, staff, patients and others. I thought of the example I would be setting if I killed myself. And what about the people who saw me jump? Who would have to clean up the mess? I couldn’t do it. Depression was going to lose again. After my partner and I separated, I spent seven months in respite care. Now, I live in a bungalow with my dog, am co-chair of my residents’ association and enjoy close ties with our children. I am happy.

    Returning to the aforementioned analogy of breaking in a wild horse. When you’re ‘thrown’, don’t just sit there and give up, keep getting back in the saddle! OK, you can’t change your situation but you can change the way you think about it. You are stronger than you believe you could ever be! I know.

  4. Nada day says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your story and experiences. I feel so much better knowing that I am not the only person in the world who lacks empathy and cries over sad movies ! I always used to care so much for others and I lost it after my brain injury. I felt guilty and worried that my brain was not healed yet and lack of empathy was proof of it. I have more understanding about brain injury now

  5. Jeanne says:

    I just stumbled upon this post and am extremely grateful to have done so. I have told people that every job I ever had, from babysitting onward, was based on my empathy for people. I have had jobs invented for me just because of this ability. It is the greatest loss I have experienced since my accident. I have to make myself ask others how they are etc.; before it was the first thing out of my mouth. Being unaware of others’ pain makes me feel less human. Thank you so much for this post…I have never heard anyone with a TBI address this issue. I am a writer and poet who cannot write because of this lack. I live in hope that it is not forever.

  6. Cheryl says:

    Bill, Lili and MYB, thank you for your thoughts here! I wish my lack of empathy was because I’m too concerned with my own injuries, but I think it’s not in my case. More often than not, I actually forget I have impairments, and I sign up for too much work that is too hard for me. Then, like Lili said, I have nothing left to give in emotions for others in the moment. But on reflection, I often have much more compassion and interest once the heat of the moment has passed.

    I’m coming to realize that my emotional connections to people are very, very different now because of my cognitive overload, inflexibility, and other tbi problems. I’m not lacking in compassion. I simply can’t access it when I think I “should.” And the “should” is compared to the old me and how quickly and easily she could call up interest in others. But once the pressure of keeping up with a fast conversation and other pressures are gone, I have my emotions back.

    Thanks everyone for commenting. That means a lot to me. And it’s extremely helpful to get others’ opinions and perspectives on it!

  7. Dear MYB,
    You may also find Cheryl Greene’s blog on this topic helpful as she talks very frankly about her loss of empathy after the brain injury.
    marilyn lash

  8. myb says:

    I believe what Bill Jarvis said is true. My daughter suffers from a mild TBI. Sometimes her symptoms aren’t noticeable at all, but empathy is an area that has changed. Being empathetic toward others was her nature before the accident, but not so much now, because she can’t concentrate long enough on a conversation to be able to understand what’s being said, much less offer empathy. She is too exhausted to expend energy on anyone but herself. Empathy isn’t high on her priority list anymore, and I don’t blame her!

  9. Lili C says:

    Thank you so much for your willingness to share. I experience something similar. It feels more like empathy displacement or delay, even as you explain it. Our virtues (including empathy) suffer under pressure. Moments are so often filled with too much to process and something has to suffer. When there is a job to be done, sometimes the work saps all of our resources, especially when important deadlines are looming. When the work is done and at some point when the pressure is off and the mind has “recovered,” we are able to see things upon reflection that we are not aware of or able to control, “in the moment.”

    “What if?” you ask: We keep trying, we keep growing and we keep being patient with ourselves.

  10. Cheryl says:

    Thank you so much for your feedback, Marilyn! I appreciate that so much.-Cheryl

  11. Bill Jarvis says:

    I have experienced the same thing, but my TBI was extremely bad. I had a lot of injuries other than TBI. I wonder if lack of empathy is more caused by over concerns about your own injuries that prohibits the ability to understand that orher people are going through pain too! I think all TBI Survivors have to remember this as they get back into life.

  12. Marilyn Lash says:

    This is so interesting. I often hear the phrase “loss of empathy” but you have really explained it in a way that others will understand. I think this will help many family members who are often frustrated and angry by the absence of that emotional connection. Thanks for being so honest.

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