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.

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

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. Cheryl says:

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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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