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Left stranded when the music stops: What to do about the shortage of talk therapists actually available

An article in the Washington Post by Lenny Bernstein: “This is why it is so hard to find mental health counseling right now” (March 6, 2022) struck a chord with many readers.[1]

The article begins by describing an individual in the Los Angeles area who said she was willing to pay hundreds of dollars per session and called some twenty-five therapists in the area but was unable to find an opening. The person willingly shared her name in the article. Be careful not to blame the survivor or victim – the report is credible – and she maintained a spreadsheet!

One of the main points of the article is that after several years of pandemic stress prospective clients and patients are at the end of their emotional rope and providers (therapists) are over-scheduled and burned out too. No availability. 

The problem is systemic. There seems to be no bottom in sight as regards the opportunistic behavior of insurance companies, the lack of behavioral health resources, and the suffering of potential patients. The WP article goes on to document other potential patients with significantly less resources who cannot even get on a wait list. The article documents third party insurance payers whose “in network” providers are unwilling to see prospective patients due to thin

Wait listed? Therapy delayed is therapy denied

reimbursements from the payer – once again, the individual is unable to get on a wait list or get help urgently needed; supply side shortages are over the top in the programs that train psychiatrists, a specialty in medicine. Psychiatrists, when available, are most often interested in lucrative fifteen-minute medication management sessions, but unless they are “old school” and were psychoanalytically trained in the “way back,” they are rarely available for conversations. This all adds up to a crisis in the availability of behavioral health services. 

This leads to my punch line. Often time depression, anxiety and emotional upset are accompanied by negative self-talk, shaky or low self-esteem. One reaches out and asks for help but instead has an experience of powerlessness that is hard to distinguish from the original emotional disequilibrium. The conversation spins in a tight circle – “maybe I deserve it – no I don’t – this sucks – I suck – help!” The person resigns himself to alife of gentile poverty, thinking she or he is not worthy of financial well-being. The prospective patient is left aggrieved. This grievance is accurate and real enough in context, but it is hard to identify what or who can make a difference. Nevertheless, there is no power in being aggrieved. One still has to do the thing the person in distress or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – invest in oneself because one is worth it!

I have spoken with numerous potential and actual clients who pay a lot of money for health insurance. However, when they want to use the insurance for behavioral health services, they find the insurance is not workable. Not usable. The service level agreement is hard to understand, and having a deductible of a couple of thousand dollars is hard to distinguish from having no insurance at all. If the client goes “in network,” the therapists are unresponsive or inexperienced. If the client goes out of network, the therapists are often more experienced and able to help, but onerous deductibles and copays rear their heads. Why don’t the experienced therapists go in network? There are many reasons but one of them is that the insurer often insists the therapist accept thirty cents on the dollar in compensation, and some therapists find it hard to make ends meet that way. In short, as a potential patient, you think you have insurance, but when it comes to behavioral health, you really don’t. 

My main point is to provide guidance as to some things you can do to get the help you need with emotional or behavioral upset and do so in a timely way. Turns out one has to give an informal tutorial on using insurance as well as on emotional well-being. I hasten to add that “all the usual disclaimers apply.” This is not legal advice, medical advice, insurance advice, cooking advice or any kind of advice. This is a good faith, best efforts to share some brain storming and personal tips and techniques earned in the “college of hard knocks” in dealing with these issues. Your mileage may vary. 

Nothing I say in this article should be taken as minimizing or dismissing the gravity of your suffering or the complexity of this matter. If you are looking for a therapist or counselor, it is because you need a therapist or counselor, not a breach of contract action against an insurance company. You want a therapist not a legal case or participation in a class action law suit, even if the insurance contract has plenty of “loop holes.” For the moment, the latter is a rhetorical point only.

When a person is anxious or depressed or struggling with addiction or other emotional upset, being an informed assertive consumer of behavioral health services is precisely the thing the person is least able to do. “I need help now! Shut up and talk to me!” 

Notwithstanding my commitment to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy, here’s the tough love. Without minimizing your struggle and suffering, the thing you least want to do is what you are going to have to try to do. If one is emotionally upset, the least thing you want to do is be an assertive consumer of services designed to get you back your power in the face of emotional upset or whatever upsetting issues you are facing.

The recommendation is to speak to truth to power and assertively demand an “in network” provider from the insurance company or invest in yourself and pay the private fee for an experienced therapist whom you find authentically empathic, then you already be well on the way to getting your power back in the face of whatever issues you are facing. 

If your issue is that you really don’t have enough money (and who does?), then you may need to get the job and career coaching that will enable you to network your way forward. An inexpensive place to start is The Two Hour Job Search by Steve Dalton. Highly recommended. Note the paradox here – the very thing you do not want to do keeps coming up. You definitely need someone to talk to. Once again, the very things with which you need help are what re stopping you from getting help  

The bureaucratic indifference of insurance companies is built into the system. The idea of an insurance is a company committed to making money by spreading risk between predictable outcomes and a certain number of “adverse” [“bad risk”] events. It is not entirely fair (or even accurate) but by becoming depressed or anxious (and so on), you are already an adverse event or bad risk waiting to happen. You may expect to be treated as such by most insurance companies.

In a health insurance context, the traditional model for the use of services is a broken arm or an appendicitis (these are just two examples among many). You definitely want to have major medical insurance against such an unfortunate turn of events. Consider the possibility: Buy major medical only – and invest the difference saved in your therapy and therapist of choice.

But note these adverse medical events are relatively self-contained events – page the surgeon, perform the operation, take a week to recover or walk around in a sling for awhile. The insurance company pays the providers (doctors and hospitals) ten grand to thirty grand. That’s it. With lower back pain, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disorders, it is a different story. These are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat. Yet, modern medicine has effective imaging and treatment resources that often successfully provide significant relief if not always complete cures for the patient’s distress in these more complex cases. 

Consider similar cases in behavioral health. Start by talking to your family doctor. Okay, that is advice – talk to your family doctor for starters. Front line family doctors have the authority – and most have the basic training – needed to prescribe modern antidepressants (so called SSRIs), which also are often effective against anxiety, to treat simple forms of depression and anxiety due to life stresses such as an ongoing pandemic, job loss, relationship setbacks. 

Even though I am one of the professionals who has consistently advocated “Plato not Prozac,” I acknowledge the value of such psychopharmacological interventions from a medical doctor to get a person through a rough patch until the person can engage in a conversation for possibility and get at the underlying cause of the emotional disequilibrium. Note this implies the person wants to look for or at the underlying dynamics. This leads us to the uncomfortable suggestion that it is going to take something on the part of the client to engage and overcome the problem, issue, upset, which is stopping the client from moving forward in her or his life.

There is a large gray area in life in which people struggle with relationship issues, finances, career, education, pervasive feelings of emptiness, chronic emotional upset, self-defeating behavior in the use of substances such as alcohol and cannabis (this list is not complete). 

A medical doctor or other astute professional may even provide a medical diagnosis when the interaction of the person’s personality with the person’s life falls into patterns of struggle, upset, and failure. Insurance companies require a medical diagnosis. One thinks of such codable disorders as adjustment disorder or personality disorders (PD) such as narcissistic, histrionic, schizoid, antisocial, or borderline PD. These are labels which can be misleading and even dangerous to apply without talking to the person and getting to know them over a period of time. It’s not like the Psychology Today headline – top three ways to know if you are dating a narcissist. I am calling “BS” on that approach. 

Nevertheless, if after a thorough process of inquiry, some such label is appropriate (however useless the label may otherwise be except for insurance purposes), then the cost will be right up there with “fixing” an appendicitis – only you won’t be able to do it in a single day – and it won’t be that kind of “fix”. An extended effort and of hard to predict duration must be anticipated, lasting from months even to years. This is not good news, but there are options. 

My commitment is to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy in the individual and the community. I consider that I am an empathy consultant, though at times that is hard to distinguish from a therapeutic process and inquiry into the possibilities of health and behavioral well-being. Therefore, and out of this commitment, I have a sliding scale fee structure for my consulting and related empathy services. People call me up and say “I make a lot of money, and want to pay you more.” Of course, that is a joke. I regularly hear from prospective clients whose first consideration is financial. They do not have enough money. I take this assertion seriously, and I discuss finances with them. Between school debt and the economic disruptions of three years of pandemic, people are hurting in many ways including financially. One must be careful NEVER to blame the victim or survivor. 

The best way for such financially strapped individuals to go froward is to find an “in network” provider. Key term: in network. But we just read the Washington Post article that furnishes credible evidence such networks are tapped out, in breakdown, not working. Those that are working well enough often deal with the gray area of emotional upset and life challenges by moving the behavioral health component to a separate corporate subsidy at a separate location to deal with all aspects of behavioral health. (See above on “bad risk.”) When I had such an issue years ago, I had to search high and low to get the phone number, web site, or US postal address. You can’t make this stuff up. This is because ultimately, the issues that come up are nothing like an appendicitis or even hard to diagnose migraines. Moving the paying entity to a corporate subsidy is also a way that the insurance company can impose a high deductible and/or copay by carving out that section of the business and claims processing. There are other reasons, too, but basically, they are financial. 

You may be starting to appreciate that many health insurance contracts are not really designed to provide behavioral health services (e.g., therapy) the way they are designed to address a broken leg or appendicitis. There is a way forward, but it is more complex (and expensive in terms of actual dollar, though not necessarily time and effort). I will address this starting in the paragraph after next, because, sometimes in the case of behavioral health, people who have insurance do not  really have useable, workable behavioral health insurance. For all intents and purposes, they think they have insurance, but, in this specific regard, they have a piece of paper and a phone number that is hard to find. I hasten to add I am not recommending going without major medical health insurance, inadequate though it may be in certain respects.

This brings us to those individuals who decide to go without insurance. What about them? Such individuals choose to take the risk. They are living dangerously because if they do break an arm or incur an appendicitis, then they are going to have another $30K in medical debt [this number is approximate and probably low], along with a mountain of school debt, credit card debt, and bad judgment debt (this list is not complete). These good people need insurance, not so much to get therapy – because, as the accumulating evidence indicates, it really doesn’t work that way – as to be insured against a major medical accident. Many people are not clear on this distinction, but I would urge them to consider the possibility. 

I spoke with this one prospective client who began with a long and authentically moving narrative that she did not have enough money and could not afford therapy. This is common and not particularly confidential or sensitive. As part of a no fee first interview to establish readiness for therapy, I acknowledged her courage in strength in reaching out to someone she did not really know to get help with her problems. I acknowledged that one of her problems was she did not have enough money. A bold statement of the obvious. I asked if there was anything else she wanted to work on. It turns out that she was a survivor of a number of difficult situations and would benefit from both empathy consulting, and talk therapy – and I might add job coaching. Here’s the thing – when a person is hurting emotionally, they do not want to look for another job – or a better job that pays more money. But one just might have to do that, at least over the short term, with someone who can provide that kind of guidance to those who are willing. I encouraged her to be assertive with her insurance company and I heard she found someone in network at a low rate. 

And if you are a therapist who believes such job coaching compromises the purity or neutrality of the therapy, I would agree. However, never say never. In the aftermath of World War I, when the victorious allies maintained a starvation blockage on Germany and Austria even into 1919, Freud (that would be Sigmund) was reportedly seeing a client in exchange for a substantial bag of potatoes. I have no facts – none – but I find it hard to believe they were discussing matters pertinent to individual and collective survival. So far no one has offered me a bag of potatoes (I am holding out for a quantity of olive oil and basil to make pesto), but see the above cited article from the Washington Post

We circle back to where we started. If the individual named in the Washington Post article has not yet found a therapist, then I believe there are many in the Chicago area would welcome the opportunity to make a difference for her. She has a budget for therapy, she says. If you have a budget, the work goes forward. It can be confronting and difficult to contemplate, but if you were buying a car, you would look at your budget. If you were planning a vacation, you would think about your vacation budget. If you were thinking of going back to school, you would look at your education budget. You get the idea. What is your budget for empathy consulting, counseling, talk therapy, cognitive retraining, life coaching, or medication management services (this are all distinct interventions, appropriate in different circumstances)? Zero may not be the right number. Just saying.  Of course, if the client is in LA and the empathy consultant is in Chicago, it would be a conversation over Zoom. That starts a new thread so I may usefully clarify that I prefer to meet with people in person – the empathy is expanded in person – but the genie is out of the bottle and online can be good enough in some circumstance. (See my peer reviewed article “The Genie is Out of the Bottle”: https://bit.ly/37vxJ0L.)

The insurance system is broken as regards behavioral health (as evidenced by the WP article). There is a vast gray area of people with modest emotional disregulation who genuinely need help. These are not only the “worried well,” but people whose understandable lack of assertiveness in navigating an indifferent (and it must be said unempathic) bureaucracy leaves them high and dry with their moderate but worsening emotional, spiritual, and behavioral upsets. These people deserve help, and are entitled to it even under the specific terms of their insurance contracts. Indeed they are entitled to help even if they do not have insurance, though the revenue model is simpler in that case, though not less costly. 

The insurance company has been unable to make money off of this gray area – therefore, the insurance company does what it does best – it turns to making money off of you. But you need health insurance against a major medical event or accident. You want a therapist, not a breach of contract case in small claims court (where the small claim often goes up to $100k). Therefore, it does little good to document having called ten or twenty-five in network providers with no result. Or does it? You – or a class action attorney firm – have a case for breach of contract. Go out of network and forward the invoices to the payer by mail with a tracking number, requesting that the full therapy fees be treated “in network” for purposes of reimbursement, and, therefore, no or low deductible and copay. Of course, one would have to have funds for that upfront, and lack of money is where this circle started. Back to expanding one’s job search skills?

This is crazy – and crazy making behavior – though only as a function of a system that is crazy. You see the problem. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the insurance payer, when confronted with an actual summons to small claims court, would then find you a therapist – of course, the therapist might be relatively inexperienced or someone who (how shall I put it delicately?) is less motivated than one might hope. Thwarted again! 

As I wrap up this post, it occurs to that while it would be crazy for an individual to seek legal redress – it might even be “acting out,” there might be a basis for an enterprising law firm to establish a system wide “class action” for breach of contract. This will not solve your  problem of getting help in the next two weeks, but it might be a necessary step to benefit the community. You know the insurance company has the money! 

As noted above, your grievance in being over sold unworkable behavioral health insurance may be [is] accurate and real. Nevertheless, I am sticking to my story: the guidance: there is no power in being aggrieved. You still have to do the thing the person in upset or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – dig down, including into your pockets, and find self-confidence – or enough self-confidence for the moment – and invest in yourself because you are worth it!

The one minute empathy training – runtime is actually five minutes, but a personal introduction is included: https://youtu.be/747OiV-GTx4


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/06/therapist-covid-burnout/

Empathy in Time of War – Red Team, Red Team!

Empathy in time of war means two words – Red Team. 

In time of war or threat of war, the power of empathy consists in putting yourself in the shoes of the enemy, thinking like the enemy, and thereby anticipating and thwarting the enemy’s moves. 

“Red Team” also happens to be the title of an eye opening, engaging book by Micah  Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (New York: Basic Books, 2015: 298 pp.). Though it has been around for seven years, it is very timely – and, in many ways, a page turner. Time to catch up on our reading. 

“Red Team” is a drill first developed by the US military to fight simulated war game battles in the Persian Gulf or western Europe during the Cold War. In the simulation, Blue Team is the US – “the good guys.”. Red Team is the other side. Zenko tells how the head of the Red Team really was named “Paul Van Riper.” He was.

Zenko narrates Van Riper’s assertiveness in questioning assumptions and how he brought forth the power of the Red Team in conducting asymmetrical battle, refusing to fight on the enemy’s terms, and acting unpredictably. Van Riper also spoke truth to power in calling out the improprieties of going outside the chain of command to “order” the Red Team not to shoot down the Blue Team aircraft. When the simulation was replayed with more equitable rules in place, the results were eye opening. Red Team was winning – decisively. The “authorities” decided to stop the simulation because the Red Team’s successes were getting to be embarrassing to the “good guys.”  

Zenko provides engaging background on Red Team training and thinking at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS). Instructors and participants are taught how to distinguish the traps of social conformity and the “mind guards” and “blockers” who enforce it. The idea is to find and shed a spotlight on one’s blind spots beforeencountering the enemy. Zenko writes:

Students are taught the basics of cultural empathy and semiotics (i.e., the philosophical study of signs and symbols), without which a red teamer cannot identify and understand the values and interest experienced by those within a targeted institution [in the simulation] [. . . .] The four pillars that UFMCS curricula are based upon are critical thinking, groupthink mitigation, cultural empathy and self-awareness (pp. 38. 39).

Each of these pillars maps to a dimension of empathy or a breakdown in empathy (my view, not Zenko’s). Critical thinking counters the breakdown in empathy described as emotional contagion. Groupthink is the above cited conformity that blocks empathic understanding of what is possible for the other group (“side”). Self-awareness is not specific to empathy and is always relevant to understanding others, enabling an empathic response based on the context, not preconceptions. Cultural empathy is precisely taking a walk in the other’s shoes with the cultural appreciation of differences.

Such top-down cognitive empathy is not limited to the military, but is highly relevant to business, sports, and any situation in which information asymmetries exist in a context of zero sum game competition. Business is an obvious application. Most executives think of themselves as intrinsically better than their rivals. Such commitment to being right is all-too-human and, in certain ways, may even contribute to success – for a while. Thus, we generally find it extremely difficult to understand or empathize with rivals (p. 168). Zenko writes some things that are not flattering to executives;

Virtually all of the research that has been conducted on business decision-making finds that executives are distinctly uncreative, deeply myopic, and overconfident both in themselves personally, and also in their company’s ability to beat its competitors (p 235).

While it is easier said than done, the recommendation to perform red teaming promotes the leader as a fearless skeptic with finesse and a willingness to hear bad news and act on it. As a leader, if you don’t mind problems but really hate surprises, then red teaming is the way forward. Another way of saying that is to have your surprises simulated in a Red Team exercise rather than on the battle field, in the market place, or while trying to land the airplane.

Let us take a step back because, with a title such “Empathy in Time of War,” the reader may expect calls “to bind up the […] wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.” And, to be sure, one can do worse than quote Lincoln’s second inaugural address delivered in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War. Still, this was delivered at the end of the war. The 600,000 were already deceased, and it would soon be 600,001 when Lincoln himself was assassinated. 

Empathy has many dimensions, four to be exact, in both times of war and peace. Different dimensions of empathy come to the foreground in different situations. This discussion looks at all dimensions of empathy, but the one most relevant is that of putting oneself in the other’s shoes. This is the folk definition of empathy – perspective taking – with the other’s motives and context, insofar as one has access to them. Take a walk in the other’s shoes – in this case, the shoes of one who is out to do you no good – the enemy. (An enemy is defined as an individual or institution that is committed to behaving in such a way as to do, enact, or cause physical, emotional, moral, developmental, or spiritual harm to another person or group.) 

Speaking personally, I cannot believe that anyone would try to force a choice between empathy and compassion. The world needs more of each. Why would that celebrity psycholinguist from Yale try to force a choice? (And if you do not know his name, you will not read it here.) Still, if as a thought experiment, one had to choose, go with empathy.

Let us consider a use case. The NY Times reports that Russia has a list of prominent Ukrainian intellectuals, journalists, business persons, politicians, and government officials to be killed or detained as Russian forces sweep across the country.[1] The Red Team empath who takes a walk in the opponent’s shoes knows what he is dealing with – mafia style totalitarianism. What do you do when assassination is central to your opponent’s business model? Don’t expect any mercy. Man the barricades!  The compassionate person may still use the rational part of cognitive ability (and perspective shifting) to arrive at the same conclusion, but the compassionate Red Team decision maker doesn’t really know what to say, at least not from the perspective of compassion. The Russians love their children too (to quote Sting)? It is only a small segment of the Russian regime that proposes to kill everyone in sight? Even psychopaths have a soft spot for children and pets (except that they do not)? This is not a zero-sum game? Actually it is a zero sum contest if the Russian team is attempting to “de capitate” the Ukrainian government. 

It is quite possible that compassion, rational or otherwise, is just not a good fit for certain types of conflicts unless one can rework the situation so it is not a zero-sum game. Once the first stone flies or the first bomb goes off, both compassion and empathy are a lot less useful. Yet never underestimate the power and pertinence of empathy. That is the point of the Red Team initiative – empathy helps one survive in a hostile environment into which one is thrown due to circumstance and live to fight another day. 

It really does seem that Putin and his generals did not Red Team the invasion of the Ukraine, now in its third day (2/25/22)  thing very well, which, of course, does not mean that the Russian forces cannot still flatten Kyiv with artillery barrages. 

Let us consider another use case. Russia threatens to invade the Ukraine – this is prior to Russia’s actual invasion. The Ukrainian team conducts a war game playing both sides. Since the Ukrainians are outnumbered, out gunned, have limited air power, and limited air defense, they are not expected to win. This is of course the reverse of the war games conducted by the US Military where the “blue team” is the USA, and the other side is generally outgunned, which of course why it was so surprising when Paul Van Riper and his red team scored a knock out. In the war game, the Ukrainian Blue Team allows the Russians to enter the country, since they cannot stop them. Then the Ukrainians blow up the bridges behind the Russian Red Team. The explosives need to have been set in advance (which seems not to have occurred in real life). 

The Russians resupply struggles and some of their units run out of gasoline. These are set upon by small units equipped with antitank weapons that were hiding out in decommissioned ICBM siloes. Note that Ukraine was briefly the world’s third largest nuclear power before surrendering their nuclear weapons in 1996 in exchange for security assurances from Russia and The West. (Big mistake. But that is another story.) However, the Ukrainians still have hardened infrastructure, including bunkers, and siloes, albeit empty of missiles. They use this infrastructure to allow the Russians to drive buy, then pop up from the rear and inflict damage. The Ukrainians are defending their homeland, their families, and their lives. Red teaming takes such factors into consideration. Of course, the Russians have elite special forces, but the Russians are also relying on conscripted twenty somethings who have been told that they are going for training but are actually being sent off to war. You can’t make this stuff up. Under this scenario, the Russians expected to accept the Ukrainians surrender in three days. The Russians have enough fuel and resupply for nine days. If the Ukrainians can hold out for ten days, they win.

Update: This just in (12:30 PM CDT 2-27-2022). Unconfirmed reports state that some teenage Russian conscripts (soldiers) are surrendering in tears. Ukrainian authorities are allowing them to borrow cell phones to call their mothers, who are reportedly already lobbying Putin to stop the madness. The power of mothers should not be underestimated! Stand by for update. Meanwhile,,,

Empathic interpretation is a redescription of cognitive, top-down empathy. Engaging the empathic process as cognitive empathy is especially usefully and powerful in the Red Team situation of thinking like the enemy. But do not stop there. Even if one does not have enemies, if one gets stuck and does not have a good feel affectively as to what is going on with the other person, say one’s best friend, then mobilizing an intellectual operation to shift perspective cognitively can free up one’s possibilities for relating and interacting. If I find another person distant or emotionally remote or “on the spectrum,” one may usefully consider what one knows about what the other person had to survive or the challenges the person is facing or what one knows about the person’s role or aspirations or history. All this become grist for the mill of “jump starting” empathic relatedness where relatedness is missing. 

Earlier in the discussion, empathy was described as having four dimensions and the third dimension (3) of empathic interpretation, taking a walk in the other person’s shoes was called out. The other three dimensions include (1) empathic receptivity – be open the feelings and thoughts of the other as a vicarious experience that distinguishes self and other (2) empathic understanding – engage the other as a possibility in his shared humanity (4) empathic responsiveness – acknowledge the other in a form of language or gesture that recognizes the other’s struggle, contribution, or issue. One can easily appreciate how the “bottom up” aspects of affective empathy become less relevant or useful in the context of war. Less relevant, but not completely irrelevant, since, as Lincoln pointed out in the opening quote, even long wars eventually have an outcome and the healing properties of empathy (and compassion) return to the critical path. 

This is highly relevant to psychotherapy, psychiatry, empathy consulting, and life coaching. Only here “the enemy” is not the client, but the person’s disorder, diagnosis, or blind spot. It is truly a “love the sinner but hate the sin” moment (to mix in a spiritual metaphor with the clinical one). Here one must work to form an alliance with the client against an aspect of himself that keeps him attached to his own suffering. Though the suffering is real, it can be sticky and becomes an uncomfortable comfort zone.

It is not appropriate to diagnose public figures based on their crazy statements and behavior, nor do I propose to do that here. Yet there is a concerning parallelism between delusional behavior and the political fabrications (i.e., lies) and fake news of demagogues, fanatics, and fellow travelers of the Big Lie. Politicians as a class have never been known for their rigorous integrity in honoring their word, yet the success that some demagogues have in persuading the people to follow them – often off a cliff – must give one pause. 

Such influence often comes from the would-be charismatic “leader” believing his own lies and fakery. It does lend a force to the fanatic’s message and comes to resemble, without however being the same as, the delusional person’s self-delusion. Though there is too much suffering to bear between where the world is at right now (2/25/22) and some end point = x, the most likely outcome is Putin is finished. Putin is done – a shell of a human being, ravaged by the neurological consequences of power and Covid. We do not know how suicidal he is – think of Hitler in his bunker. Not a comforting thought. The question is whether Putin decides to take the rest of the world with him in a nuclear holocaust, and whether saner minds in the Kremlin can stop him. Red Team that!


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/20/world/europe/us-russia-ukraine-kill-list.html

Empathy: Top Ten Trends for 2022

A new year and a new virus variant? Being cynical and resigned is easy, and the empathy training is to drive out cynicism and resignation – then empathy naturally comes forth. If given half a chance, people want to be empathic. The prediction is that with a rigorous and critical empathy (and getting a very high percent of the population vaccinated), we are equal to the challenge.

Setting priorities is an art, not a science. It is clear that empathy is a priority, not a mere psychological mechanism, a practice and a way of being in the world, creating a safe space of openness, acceptance and toleration. In the face of a contagion of Omicron, we need a contagion of empathy. Empathy is contagious. This is one you want to give to someone else, especially someone who seems to need some – all the while being clear to set firm boundaries against bullying, delusional thinking, and compassion fatigue. Keep in mind this list is a top ten “count down,” so if you want to know what is #1, fast forward to the bottom.

Here are my choices and predictions for the top ten trends in empathy for the year 2022.

(10) Delays in the empathy supply chain continue to thwart the expansion of empathy in the community.

This does not  refer to the distribution of cat food or toilet paper. Empathy is available. There is enough empathy to go around, but the empathy is poorly distributed due to politics, in the pejorative sense. For example, most medical doctors are empathic and they become MDs because they want to make a difference in relieving human suffering. But the corporate transformation of American medicine means they are given onerous “capitation” quotas – they must see thirty patients a day. The coaching and push back is based in empathy: It is a breach of professional ethics not to give a given patient the time and attention s/he deserves, and there is only time to see twenty two patients a day. 

(9) Republicans and Democrats will start conducting Empathy Circles where they get together and listen to one another and respond empathically.

And if you believe this, I have a famous bridge in Brooklyn to sell to you. Yet the key to expanding empathy is to drive out cynicism and resignation. Be open to the possibility: On a more realistic note, the responsibility of leadership, whether in the political or corporate jungle, requires teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking includes skills to analyze conflicting articles in the press, chasing down media reports to their sources and assessing the sources for reliability. Most importantly, critical thinking includes temporarily taking the opponent’s point of view, which is a version of cognitive empathy. One does this not to agree with the opponent, but to have a productive disagreement. Empathy brings workability to political, business, and personal relations. It is like oil to reduce friction and produce results that benefit the entire community. (Edwin Rutsch and The Culture of Empathy are going to like that one!).

(8) Being empathic is hard within the Patriarchy. This does not go away.

The dystopia of Patriarchy (systematic unspoken sexism) crushes the empathy and compassion out of all of us. This is an issue because: in the face of so much gender violence (the vast majority of which is men perpetrating boundary violations against women), can we find or recover a shred of our humanity? I do not need to say “shared humanity,” because “unshared humanity” is not humanity.

It gets worse: the company formerly known as Facebook re-launches as Meta and the Metaverse, a virtual reality world. A quote from the New York Times (12/30/2021): “But as she waited, another player’s avatar approached hers. The stranger then simulated groping and ejaculating onto her avatar, Ms. Siggens said. Shocked, she asked the player, whose avatar appeared male, to stop.” He shrugged as if to say: ‘I don’t know what to tell you. It’s the metaverse — I’ll do what I want,’” said Ms. Siggens, a 29-year-old Toronto resident. “Then he walked away.””  (I do not want to give Metaverse its own trend.) [https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/technology/metaverse-harassment-assaults.html] A specific proposal includes: establish a Desmond Tutu style Truth and Reconciliation commission in the Metaverse where perpetrators can tell the survivors what they did and ask forgiveness. Another proposal: establish empathy circles in the Metaverse (Edwin Rutsch and The Culture of Empathy are going to like this one too!).

Recall that instead of a civil war, South Africa and the late Desmond Tutu innovated a Truth and Reconciliation program for the perpetrators of apartheid to tell the truth about what they did to the victims and to ask forgiveness. The survivors then got to say if and/or what they could see there to forgive. That would be a practical, albeit utopian response. I am no fan of forgiveness, which I consider overrated. But I bought Tutu’s book based on the title, No Future Without Forgiveness. How can there be? It both requires empathy and expands empathy. Empathy is both the cause and the effect. I hasten to add that it does not mean being nice; it means establishing firm boundaries. It does not even mean going in with a forgiving attitude, but actually striving for actual truth and reconciliation tribunals, seeing if the truth on the part of the perpetrator(s) can show forth some shred of humanity and maybe, just maybe, highly unlikely though it is, point to a future of cooperation, communication, and community in which both parties flourish. I am not looking for moral equivalence, clever slogans, or easy answers here, I am looking for expanded empathy!

(7) Along the same lines as (8), the so-called “incel” (“involuntary celibate”) gets empathy, backs away from the ledge, gets in touch with his inner jerk and stops being one. (What the heck is an “incel”?)

Now I hasten to add that as soon as a person, whether incel, Don Juan, or one of the Muppets, picks up a weapon, a date rape drug, or proposes to act like the incel and mass killer Elliott Roger, that is no longer a matter for empathy, but for law enforcement.  (For more on what is an incel – this is genuinely new – see the blog post and book review: The Holocaust of Sex: The Right to Sex  by A. Srinivasan (reviewed) (https://bit.ly/3EACv7W).

After incarcerating or canceling or cognitive behavioral theraputizing the incel, let us try engaging him with – empathy. Key term: empathy. Let us take a walk in his shoes. Knowing full well that the incel is like a ticking bomb, let us engage with one prior to his picking up a weapon. I cut to the chase. It is not just sexual frustration, though to be sure, that is a variable. There is also a power dynamic in play. This individual has no – or extremely limited – power in the face of the opposite sex. He is trying to force an outcome. 

Here we invoke Hannah Arendt’s slim treatise On Violence. Power down, violence up. Whenever you see an individual (or government authority) get violent, you can be sure the individual (or institution) has lost power. The water cannon, warrior cops, and automatic weapons show up. The incel embraces his own frustration like Harlow’s deprived Macaque monkeys embraced their cloth surrogate mother, even though it lacked the nipple of the wire-framed one.[3] Now I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering and incels are definitely suffering. Yet it is tempting to enjoy a lighter moment. The incel’s dystopian life points to his utopia, which consists in two words: “Get laid.”  I would add: this applies to consenting adults, and don’t hurt yourself!

(6) Burned out MDs, teachers, flight attendants dealing with delusional angry unvaccinated and sick people don’t get no empathy – how does empathy make a difference?

Set boundaries with and against bullies.  At least initially, establishing boundaries is not about having empathy for the bully; it is about being firm about damage control and containing the bullying. Ultimately the bully benefits even as the community is protected from his perpetrations; but more in the manner of a three year old child, who, having a tempter tantrum, benefits from being given a time-out in such a way that he cannot hurt himself or others. 

Without empathy, people lose the feeling being alive. They tend to “act out”—misbehave—in an attempt to regain the feeling of vitality that they have lost. Absent an empathic environment, people lose the feeling that life has meaning. When people lose the feeling of meaning, vitality, aliveness, dignity, things “go off the rails.” Sometime pain and suffering seem better than emptiness and meaninglessness, but not by much. People then can behave in self-defeating ways in a misguided attempt to awaken a sense of aliveness.

People act out in self-defeating ways in order to get back a sense of emotional stability, wholeness and well-being—and, of course, acting out in self-defeating way does not work. Things get even worse. One requires expanded empathy. Pause for breath, take a deep one, hold it in briefly while counting to four, exhale, listen, speak from possibility.

(5) Nursing schools and schools of professional psychology and medical schools begin offering classes in empathy. 

Yes, it is a scandal you cannot take a course entitled “Empathy Dynamics” or “Empathy: Concepts and Techniques” in any of these schools. I know, because I checked the catalogs [Q3 2021]. I even got hired once or twice to fill in because they could not get anyone else to do it. You may say, “Well, every course we have teaches empathy” and in a sense, it does – or at least ought to. But that is mainly wishful thinking – if you don’t practice empathy, you don’t get it right or wrong – and if you don’t get it wrong, at least occasionally, you don’t expand the skill. 

(4) Combine empathy with critical thinking – the result is a rigorous and critical empathy. 

I got this distinction – a rigorous and critical empathy – from Xavier Remy, who I hereby acknowledge. What does that mean? You think you are being empathic – think again. It may be empathy or it may be narcissism or rational compassion or pity or self-congratulations or a whole host of things related to empathy, but not empathy. How do you tell? Empathy tells you what the other person is experiencing – be open to their experience, understand the possibility – take a walk in their shoes – acknowledge the shared humanity. Empathy tells what the other person is experiencing – critical thinking tells you what to do about it.

(3) Empathy builds a bridge over the digital divide and encounters resistance to empathy online and in-person.

With the pandemic of 2020, many in person services such as psychotherapy, life coaching, empathy consulting, and others went online. When the provider is having a conversation, then an online session is often good enough – and is definitely better than ending up in the hospital on a ventilator. 

As the pandemic wanes and virus variants (hopefully) actually become more like a bad case of the flu (which indeed kills the most vulnerable), the issue becomes when to stay online, meet in person (with fully vaccinated clients), and how to tell the difference? 

The disturbing trend that I see amongst (some) behavioral health professionals is that online “better than nothing” becomes “better than anything.” Going online is very convenient, and since, as the saying goes, inertia is the most powerful force in the universe, providers prefer to stay home rather than risk being vulnerable in creating a space of acceptance and tolerance in being personally present physically. The latter is a definition of empathy in the expanded sense – being fully present with the other person – in person and unmediated by a screen. 

Now when I call out this conflict of interest, generally based in financial and time considerations (and time is money), most providers acknowledge that the commitment is not to online versus in-person, but rather to client service, delivering empathy, and making a positive difference for the client. 

Clients whose mental status is “remote” even in-person in a physical, shared space present a challenge to the therapist’s empathy and are not initially a good choice to work with remotely online. However, after a warming up period the empathic relatedness migrates quite well to the online environment.

“Better than nothing” versus “better than anything” is a choice that needs to be declined: both online and in-person physical therapy coexist and help clients flourish using empathy to bridge the digital divide.

(2) Empathy and climate change. Empathy is oxygen for the soul – individually and in community. 

In a year when the lead off comedy is about the destruction of the Earth by a killer comet – and a metaphor for global warming – empathy is oxygen for the soul. This is supposed to be funny (think of the film Dr Strangelove (1964)), in both cases, featuring an arrogant clueless President, played by Meryl Streep (instead of Peter Sellers). Empathy builds ever expanding inclusive communities – empathy is oxygen for the soul – and the planet.

“Beggar thy neighbor politics, economics, and behavior do not work.” They did not work in the Great Depression of 1929 – they did not work in the Great Recession of 2008. Do not take a bad situation and make it worse. Take a pandemic – now fist fights break out on airplanes, hospital emergency rooms, and retail stores. Hmmm. 

It is a common place that empathy is oxygen for soul. If the human psyche does not get empathy, it suffocates in stress and suffering. Climate change makes the metaphor actual. If we do not drown as the Greenland and Antarctic ice fields slide en masse into the oceans, we are surely doomed to suffocate as the levels of carbon dioxide and heat overwhelm temperate habitats. Most people are naturally empathic and they an expanding appreciation of empathy suffuses the community. 

The problem is that this eventuality does not live like an actual possibility for most people, who cannot imagine such an outcome – for example, just as in December 2019 no one could envision the 2020 pandemic. The bridge between the gridlocked present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the interesting thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. Lots more work needs to be on this connection. For purposes of this list of tasks, this “shout out” will have to suffice. For specific actionable recommendations, see David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80216393

And, [drum roll] the number one empathy trend for 2022 is: – 

(1) There is enough empathy to go around – people get vaccinated, boosted, and – get this – people get what seems like a version of the common cold – the pandemic “ends,” not with a bang but a whimper. 

This relates to issues with the empathy supply chain, but deserves to be called out on its own. Granted, it does not seem that way. It seems that the world is experiencing a scarcity of empathy – and no one is saying the world is a sufficiently empathic place. Consider an analogy. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet? Thanks to agribusiness, “miracle” seeds, and green revolution, enough food is produced so that people do not have to go hungry? Yet people are starving. They are starving in Yemen, Africa, Asia – they are starving in Chicago, too.

Why? Politics in the pejorative sense of the word: bad behavior on the part of people, aggression, withholding, and violence. The food is badly distributed. Now apply the same idea to empathy.

There is enough empathy to go around – but it is badly distributed due to bad behavior, politics and interpersonal political in the pejorative sense. The one-minute empathy training? Drive out the aggression, bullying, shaming, integrity outages, and so on, and empathy naturally comes forth. (For further particulars, see the video cited in the References.) People are naturally empathic, and the empathy expands if one gives them space to let it expand. 

Empathy is not a mere psychological mechanism (though it is that too), but is an enlarged concern for the other person – one’s fellow human being on the road of life. Empathy has been criticized for working better with one’s own family than with strangers – but these critics do not know my family – okay, joke – but, even if accurate, the solution to lack of empathy for strangers is expanded empathy. Be inclusive. Be welcoming. Expand the community of inclusiveness. All of this is consistent with people with underlying medical conditions needing to take extra precautions. In that sense, people who get vaccinated, boosted, and mask up, are doing it to keep their neighbors from getting sick. And, so, out our concern for others – our fellow humans – we get vaccinated, boosted, masked-up, and the pandemic ends – but – aaahhh, cooh! – the common cold continues to live on. 

References / Notes

[1] Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673–685. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0047884

“The One-Minute Empathy Training” [https://youtu.be/747OiV-GTx4: May I introduce myself? Here is a short introduction to who i am and my commitment to empathy, including a one-minute empathy training. Total run time: about five minutes. Further data: See http://www.LouAgosta.com]

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen (Reviewed)


Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel (2007, Oxford University Press, 242 pp.) can be read as an introduction to empathy studies, fiction (novel studies), and reading in the enlarged sense of engaging with the Humanities. Keen’s approach to these intersecting discourses is nuanced, subtle, and not easily summarized. She provides a great springboard for further conversations, elaborations, and social psychology experiments. 

The usual definitions of empathy are reviewed, especially: a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect (2007: 4). I would add: talking a walk in the other person’s shoes; transiently, temporarily, and selectively identifying with the other person; appreciating who the other person is being as a possibility; feeling and experiencing vicariously what the other person feels and experiences; being fully present with the other person in such a way as to acknowledge and respond to the other’s humanity. Keen’s book is fully buzzword compliant, including accounts of theory of mind, mirror neurons, and storytelling.

A significant aspect of the interest in relating empathy and the reading of fiction, especially novels as in Keen’s book, is to make the world a better place. Read some quality fiction; expand one’s empathy; and take action to improve the world. Wouldn’t it be nice? 

Keen notes: an ideal type case is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which, in its time, was a run-away best seller, opening the eyes of contemporaries to the injustices and inhumanity of slavery, furthering the cause of abolition. Even if such a book as Stowe’s did not directly create a social movement, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it is notable as representing a parallel and behind the scenes shift in the prevailing values of the community. (Sinclair’s The Jungle or Dickens’ Oliver Twist might be added to the list of influential works (2007: 118)). And yet the libraries are overflowing with novels that did not make a difference and are read by few.

Due to the importance of the empathy-altruism hypothesis developed by C. Daniel Batson, Suzanne Keen begins her book on Empathy and the Novel with Batson’s hypothesis and its relation to the practice of reading fiction.

At the risk of oversimplification, I gloss the subtleties and what the empathy-altruism hypothesis gets right: empathy creates a clearing for the prosocial, helping behaviors of altruistic behavior such as one finds in Good Samaritan scenarios. When read judiciously, this hypothesis neither reduces altruism to empathy, nor vice versa. Experimental subjects who are empathically “primed” find that their “empathy” understood as prosocial engagement spontaneously manifests itself in the direction of altruism when challenged to do so. Nevertheless, Batson’s work is a masterpiece of studied ambiguity when it comes to deciding where the boundary lies between empathy and altruism.

Keen’s approach privileges the novel, in which the fictional world brings forth a “safe space,” in which empathy can be applied without requiring that anyone take action: “…[F]ictional worlds provide a safe zone for readers’ feeling empathy without a resultant demand on real world action” (2007: 4). That is quite appropriate from the perspective of a professor of English literature. However, one might just as well reverse the equation. Empathy creates a clearing for acceptance and toleration within which the imagination performs its work of capturing experience as a narrative in which the empathic exchange of emotional and imaginative psychic contents occurs.

My position in the matter is: Empathy opens us to (“tells us”) what the other person is experiencing; our good upbringing, morals, ethics, and professional practices tell us what to do about it. This makes it sound like empathy is a mode of observation or perception, and it is indeed that. However, insofar as empathy is something that requires two people in interaction, the empathizer is required to perform an empathic response in order to complete the loop and validate the empathic interaction. 

One key point of debate is whether reading novels expands a person’s empathy. Though Keen is inclined to favor this hypothesis, she marshals significant evidence on both sides of the debate and concludes that the jury is still out. 

The literary career of empathy (Keen’s incisive phrase) extends from 18th century warnings by the clergy and other learned men that novel reading ranks among the incentives to the seduction of female readers (Keen, 2007: 37) all the way to the enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and, finally, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s guidance to extend the sympathetic imagination to feel with others. “Sympathetic” because the word “empathy” had not yet been coined in the English language (which would happen in 1909 as E. B. Titchener’s translation of the German “Einfühlung”). Fast forward to James Joyce, Sam Beckett, and Berthold Brecht, who become anti-empaths, privileging defamiliarization and estrangement in narrative. 

The moral peril of vicarious emotions to the innocence of girls becomes the emotional contagion that Brecht sees as subverting the consciousness raising of the workers and potential for revolutionary action of the working class by means of his Epic Theatre. None of this is full blown adult empathy, but it is on a spectrum of empathic relatedness that is wide and complex. 

Arguably, the listening and receptivity of the community were ready to respond to the message of these books due to seismic shifts in social and productive relations; and the book provided concise language and a set of powerful images to make the point at hand. Though correlation is rarely causation, sometimes correlation is good enough.

No substitute is available for the “magic bullet” of identifying a specific replicateable cause, and such discoveries are rare. Though many people confuse cause and effect (nor am I saying that happens to Keen!), from the point of view of an alliance between empathy, fiction, and social action, it is almost as enlightening and effective to have the literary fiction represent the “signs and portends” of social dynamics that can then become the target of appropriate political action, fund raising, consciousness raising, and social influence. As Keen puts it, “…[reading literary fiction becomes] a sign of one’s empathy and commitment to human principles” (2007: 167). Reading literary fiction – presumably along with political editorials – would be a source and a method of consciousness raising. Still most readers do not look to reading literature as sources for social action in the real world – or at least the evidence-based studies that Keen sites do not show such a result. (2007: 118).

All the casual, easy generalization such as “altruism results in expanded empathy,” “empathy results in expanded altruism,” “reading quality fiction (novels) enhances empathy,” “empathy enhances appreciation of the novel” have significant qualifications, conditions, and counter-examples. Never was it truer, the devil is in the details; and Keen’s work contains a wealth of engaging examples and background on empathy studies. Incidentally, Keen ends her book with some twenty-seven proposals about narrative empathy (2007: 169 – 171).

In discussing the enhanced empathy of authors, who report that their characters come to life in their imaginations, Keen acknowledges the moral ambiguities of the possibilities of empathy for both good and evil. For example, Keen reports that William Pierce (pseudonym: Andrew MacDonald), founder of a white supremacist organization, published The Turner Diaries (1978), containing hateful depictions of blacks, Jews, and gay people. The novel was apparently written with some literary skill. Timothy McVeigh, the bomber of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995), studied this book, and, based on the account in the novel, “emulated its protagonist by building a fertilizer bomb to explode a government building […] made and deployed in a small truck” (Keen 2007: 127). 

True, it is highly improbable that the novel by Pierce (MacDonald) caused an upstanding citizen to become a mad bomber. McVeigh was already entangled with murderous levels of prejudice and deviance, and was therefore attracted to the novel. Do not confuse cause and effect; yet the evidence is that this white supremacist novel – and the bomb making parts of it – inspired McVeigh and made him a more dangerous deviant.

Another celebrated example of a novel having alleged causative effects, not mentioned by Keen, in the real world is Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, in which the broken-hearted hero commits suicide. There really was an epidemic of copycat suicides across Europe in which romantically devastated individuals would jump off of bridges with a copy on the novel in their respective pockets as a kind of suicide note. More good empathy gone bad? Can’t get no satisfaction – or empathy? More likely, individuals who were already suicidal found an expression of their suffering in literary form thanks to the dramatic finesse of Goethe. 

I offer a bold statement of that which is hidden in plain view. The hidden variable is the practice of empathy itself. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practicing prosocial empathic responsiveness to my neighbors, then empathy is expanded. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practice of white supremacy, then the latter is expanded. 

One could argue, though I will dispute the formidable ambiguities, that even white supremacists can be empathic towards other white supremacists. That is the critique of empathy that asserts empathy is too parochial, limited only to the in group, and, as such, a problematic “virtue,” if one at all. The answer is direct. In so far as the white supremacists [and so on] require one conform to a certain prejudiced, humanly devaluing ideology to qualify as the recipient of the practice of empathy, the empathy misfires and fails. 

Thus, the debate is joined. The celebrated Self Psychologist and empathy innovator Heinz Kohut, MD, gives the example of the Nazis who equipped their dive bombers with sirens, the better to impart empathic distress in their victims, thus demonstrating their (the Nazis’) subtle “empathic” appreciation of their victims’ feelings. I am tempted to say, “The devil may quote scripture,” and Nazis may try to apply some subset of a description of “empathy.” 

Note that Kohut speaks of “fiendish empathy” and the use of empathy for a “hostile purpose” while emphasizing his value neutral definition of empathy as “vicarious introspection” (1981: 529, 580). Nevertheless, the point is well taken that empathy is a powerful phenomenon in all its dimensions and requires careful handling. [For further details see: “On Empathy,” The Search for the Self: Volume 4: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut 1978-1981, London: Karnac Books, 2011: 525 – 535].

The Nazi applies a kind of entry level emotional contagion or affective transmission of feelings, but the process breaks down at the point of empathic responsiveness. Empathic responsiveness requires a core of acknowledgement and recognition of the other person’s humanity. 

But it is plainly evident that the would-be “empathy” of the Nazis (or the white supremacists) misfires and fails in a contradiction. It is a flat-out contradiction to relate authentically to another human being while dehumanizing him or her. Empathy doesn’t work that way. Empathic responsiveness simply does not admit of bombing people or disqualifying them as “less than” or other than human when they plainly are human. 

One of the strongest points of Keen’s book is the final chapter on “Contesting Empathy,” in which she cites a long series of objections, qualifications, and doubts about empathy. Failed empathy, false empathy, fake empathy, breakdowns of empathy, and the social construction of the emotions are engaged and deconstructed. Empathy has to run a gauntlet of things that can go wrong with it, though I suggest it emerges out of the backend bruised but still in one piece.

This point is not well-understood in the empathy research literature where break downs of empathy are mischaracterized as features of empathy itself. To blame empathy for its misuse, breakdowns, and misapplications is rather like using the smoke alarm to decide when Thanksgiving turkey is done. 

Keen is concerned that the empathy-altruism hypothesis with which she launches her project is left hanging by a thread. If the work of Kohut is to be credited (who, by the way, is not mentioned by Keen), the hypothesis is not likely ever to be validated. Yet if empathy is a practice, not a mere psychological mechanism, then by practicing it, we get better at it in using it to reinforce and expand our shared humanity. Empathy becomes a powerful force in creating a clearing to call forth “the better angels of our nature.” The empathy-altruism hypothesis as an aspirational project, not a social psychology given. 

Thus, the really tough question is how does “empathy” as a psychological mechanism relate to “empathy” as a interpersonal process and “empathy” as a practice in relating to people. One starts out talking about empathy as a psychological mechanism, subsumed by a biological mirroring system (even if mirror neurons remain debatable) and invoking identification, projection, and introjection. 

Almost immediately one has to give an example of two people having a conversation in which one is feeling and experiencing something that the person may or may not “get” or “understand.” Then one finds oneself immediately discussing the practical considerations of why, in the course of the personal interaction, the empathy succeeded or broke down in a misunderstanding, and how to improve one’s practice of empathy based on experience.

It makes a profound difference from which definition of empathy one begins, though ultimately one has a sense of traversing all the distinctions and simply coming back to enhanced relatedness and understanding of the other person. 

One goes in a circle. Readers are attracted to the literary fiction that speaks to their hopes, possibilities, and fears, which, in turn, expands and reinforces their hopes, possibilities, and fears. Then, either by accident or diligent search, readers encounter new forms of writing that change their experiences and perceptions. The writing causes the readers to see existing social structures and ways of relating to other people in new ways. The hermeneutic circle of interpretation? The engaging thing about bringing the hermeneutic circle to empathy is that it provides a series of steps, phases, within which logically to organize the process. Even if ultimately such a hermeneutic circle of empathy falls short of a formal algorithm, one gets a coherent guide against which to succeed or fail and engage in a process of continuous improvement based on experience. 

What if a rigorous and critical empathy gave us the data needed to grasp the way to the humanity enhancing actions that need to be taken? The application of empathy would become an imperative guiding our reading and relatedness along with the moral imperatives so important to Keen and Batson. Empathy has not usually functioned as a criteria of literary significance or greatness – until now. 

REFERENCES and NOTES

Since Keen published her book in 2007, several peer-reviewed have appeared that support the hypothesis that reading literary fiction expands empathy. These are useful, but do not decisively determine the outcome of the debate; and, obviously, these researchers did not include Pierce (MacAndrews) on their list. A lot of work gets done here by the adjective “literary.” For example: 

Bal, P. M , Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341;

David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science 18 October 2013, Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377–380, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918; 

Kelly Servick. (2013). Want to Read Minds? Read Good Bookshttps://www.science.org/content/article/want-read-minds-read-good-books [The page # is not available on the web version; but they are short articles.]

The reader may usefully review my blog post on these publications and “reading literary fiction expands empathy”: https://bit.ly/311A2G8

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy: Capitalist Tool (Part 2): “CEO” now means “Chief Empathy Officer”

Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/6nngUdemxAnCd2B2wfw6Q6

“CEO” no longer means “Chief Executive Officer,” but “Chief Empathy Officer.” This time one can hear the groans—from the executive suite, not the cubicles. 

Empathy is one of those things that are hard to delegate. This role shows up like another job responsibility with which the CEO of the organization is tasked—along with everything else that she already has to do. As if she did not already have enough alligators snapping at various parts of her anatomy, one has to be nice about it, too? But of course empathy is not niceness, though it is not about being un-nice. It is about knowing what others are experiencing, because one has a vicarious experience and then processing that further to expand boundaries and exercise leadership. 

This puts me in mind of a mini-case-history reported by Annie McKee in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).[i] In this case, an up and coming executive, Miguel (not his real name), goes from turning around many struggling divisions in a multi-divisional corporation to a kind of identity crisis about who he authentically is in relation to the possibility of empathy. Miguel is a wizard at finding profit and weeding out waste. Miguel goes from division to division (each big enough to be a separate company) working his financial wizardry. It seems to work. 

If the case sounds like a thinly disguised version of the career of Jack Welch, who was CEO of the multi-divisional General Electric (GE) from 1981 to 2001, then so be it. Welch retired from GE with a package estimated at $417 million.[ii] According to some reports, Welch was nicknamed “Neutron Jack,” because, like the neutron bomb, he eliminated the people while leaving the buildings and the profits standing. 

Welch innovated a management approach called “rank and yank,” now widely imitated. Each year, the bottom 10% of his managers, regardless of absolute performance, would be let go. Those in the top 20% were amply rewarded with bonuses and stock options, which were extended liberally from top executives to nearly one third of all GE employees. 

Welch reportedly fought against, but did not solve, the chronic problem of Wall Street pressure to sacrifice the sustainability of long term growth for short term profit. Welch railed against the very system that he outfoxed brilliantly over a twenty year career as CEO, but, note well, only after he got his payout. 

Regarding shareholder value, Welch said in a Financial Times interview on the global financial crisis of 2008–2009: “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy […] your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”[iii]

Now you are going to expect me to say this method was the epitome of lack of empathy, and from the perspective of the employees whose jobs were eliminated, it definitely lands that way. Yet that is precisely what Welch was hired to do. Thus, the context.

Next act, quick scene change back to Miguel. In McKee’s HBR mini-case-history, his corporate superiors inform Miguel that those employees who survived his restructurings now hate their jobs, teams are dysfunctional, and the “by the numbers” culture has become toxic. (I believe this did not happen at GE.) Miguel is told “fix it” or he will never become CEO (which is apparently part of his agreement and expectation). 

Miguel hires Professor McKee as his empathy consultant, and he is making slow, all-too-slow, progress working with her in expanding his empathy when another set-back occurs. Miguel’s wife throws down the gauntlet, pointing out that he is never available for her and the kids even when he is supposedly physically present. This hits home, literally. This inspires Miguel to expand his practice of empathy to a new level. He commits to learning how to listen, relate to others as a contribution, walk in their shoes, and respond empathically. 

Thanks to Miguel’s renewed commitment—and McKee’s consulting and coaching—the empathy training works. Miguel expands his empathy in time. All live happily (and empathically) ever after, both at home and on the job, in this “just so” story. 

However, in the real world, the Miguel and Welch narratives dramatically diverge—as do fiction and nonfiction. As a celebrity CEO, the dynamics of Jack Welch’s personal vicissitudes were played out in the public press, so they are readily available to the interested gossip—I mean reader—and the details of Welch’s three divorces will not be rehearsed further here. This speaks volumes to most ordinary humans. Thus, the lives of the rich and famous.

The empathy lesson? There is an cost and impact to every initiative and project. The cost and impact extend to empathy. Empathy is expanded or contracted. There is a cost and impact to “rank and yank,” even for those doing the ranking (though, of course, especially for those who are “yanked”). 

No one needs to feel sorry for anyone, reportedly the “yanked” walked away with nice packages, but this is not for the faint of heart. On a happier note, Welch goes on to found a management school, the Jack Welch Institute, in an initiative designed to rationalize and replicate the business methods and financial “magic” that he developed at GE. Some thirty-five CEOs heading corporations today have been trained in his method (mostly at GE, not his theme-branded school). The principles Welch developed are also delivered at business schools such as MIT’s Sloan School of Management. With the case of Welch in the background, one realizes that the mini-case-history of Miguel really does indeed conceal an alternative point of view. However, “alternative” does not mean “inaccurate,” but a re-description of events that points to a hidden empathic breakdown. 

Miguel was doing exactly what his corporate superiors asked him to do. If the financial results were not sustainable after his departure, this was so much “regression to the mean.” Even the average profitability of the companies identified by the celebrated In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman dropped sharply within a few years in the absence of sustained leadership. “Regression to the mean” means literally that when one performs above average now, get ready for one to perform below average later; when one performs below average now, get ready to perform above average later. The boss will predictably approve of the above-average performance and disapprove of the below-average one; but the subsequent performance is governed by “regression to the mean,” not the boss’ approval or disapproval. 

For all the ambiguous comments made about Jack Welch such as “Neutron Jack,” he managed to create an entrepreneurial spirit in a giant, multi-divisional bureaucracy. Now that was both the good news and the bad news. For those employees looking to put in their time, performing routine tasks—and conforming—prior to collecting a pension, that was bad news. It demanded a way of relating to possibility that required innovation and transformation that was ultimately career ending for those individuals. 

To his enduring credit, Welch inspired an approach to creating possibilities by his own example that he called “boundaryless.” In short, he broke down organizational silos by giving permission to cross boundaries between traditional functions in search of possibilities, i.e., innovations. The boundary crossing sounds like the skillful use of empathy in building and managing cross functional teams.

Welch formed cross-functional teams to brain storm and implement possibilities that had not previously been envisioned. He championed ideas and possibilities for improvement regardless of whether the ideas came from inside or outside the company. “This is the way things have always been done” became the wrong answer, or at least no longer the default reply. Note that “boundless” behavior should not be confused with boundary violations. Empathy is about crossing boundaries to give the other person the possibility of breakthrough contribution, doing so with respect and recognition, and in a way that preserves the integrity of the boundary.

Welch was in charge at GE for twenty years; he had sufficient time to train divisional leaders in sustaining his practices; and retain them in charge of the divisions he had restructured. During his tenure at GE, the company’s value reportedly rose some 4,000%.[iv] If that is not sustained value, I would not know it. 

Meanwhile, Miguel’s bosses asked him to put relatively short term financial results ahead of team building, retaining the best people, entrepreneurial informality, and, like a good leader, he made it work—for a while. He made it work until the bosses decided they did not want him to do that anymore. Surprise! Then they told him, “Fix it or you’re gone!” Miguel’s listening—a key component of empathy—was operating at an advanced level. He listened well; and he gave his superiors back precisely what he got from them—and what they asked of him. It turns out his superiors didn’t like it as much as they thought they would. 

It does put one in mind of the example of George M. Pullman, who is no longer the model for employer-employee relations. Pullman ordered the workers fired when they presented him with a petition in protest of a 25% reduction in wages.[v] Pullman as Miguel’s boss? Miguel’s superiors changed their minds, having gotten the benefits of the “rank and yank” approach. Boards are allowed to change their collective mind (and minds), and were now looking for a CEO more like Walt Disney, Marshall Fields, perhaps Warren Buffet or Sam Walton, after the latter had made their first billion dollars, and could afford to throttle back a notch, cultivating a kinder, gentler image.

My redescription of events? While it is accurate that Miguel was innovating with his own version of Neutron Jack, Miguel was also on the receiving end of the breakdown in empathy. He could not give what he did not get, and, by the time his corporate superiors figured out what they wanted, Miguel had perfected his version of the Roman invasion of Britain. The surviving Brits were reported to have said: “The Romans ‘make peace’ by creating a desert.” The Brits were not referring to an “empathy desert,” but the idea is similar. McKee’s case history is a nice narrative and a useful cautionary tale. However, the tale lacks credibility and confronts us with the next challenge, empathy: capitalist tool. 

Empathy: Capitalist tool

“The Lone Ranger” is a vanishing breed in today’s corporation. Modern work, from the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy to the bottom levels of the lowest cubicle, requires empathy. 

Whether sales person, software developer, accountant, or business leader, one has got to be “a team player,” “willing to go above and beyond the call of duty,” spend long hours on business travel, and be cheerful about it. One has got to get in touch with one’s empathy; and use one’s empathy to satisfy customers, teammates, stake-holders, and superiors. 

In short, empathy is now a capitalist tool. Managers need to apply ample empathic skills. Managers are required to keep workers contented so that the workers can be productive. Managers are now coaches, facilitating employees feeling valued, so employees are emotionally invested in contributing to the team, team spirit, and the long hours and frequently uninspiring routine work required as a project hits “crunch time.” 

Both managers and line employees must be able to turn empathy “on” for customers; “on” for team work; “on” for co-workers; but “off” for the competition; “off” for efficiency and discipline; and “off” for compliance and rule following. This ability to turn empathy “on” and “off” implies an approach that this book has questioned in arguing that empathy is a dial or tuner rather than an “on-off” switch. However, even if, for the sake of argument, we imagine empathy as an “on-off” switch, this calls for a level of skill in regulating empathy in which most people lack practical skill.

Consider. Customers pay their good, hard earned money for products and services, and it is a low bar to say that customers are entitled to be listened to, treated with dignity, and responded to empathically by a corporation and its representatives. The empathic engagement with and treatment of customers is demonstrably a rewarding investment. 

How about employees? As a person moves into the work force, he is empathic because those in authority advocate for it as a form of team building. It is important that one be empathic in addressing the issues and concerns of co-workers, customers, and stake-holders. 

Employees who feel that they are “gotten as a possibility” by their company are emotionally invested in the success of the company. They are inspired to go the extra mile to deliver value on their agreements, make extra effort for the team, and see their personal contribution in terms of the big picture. They are not just stone cutters banging away at a rock with a hammer; they are building a cathedral. 

Neither the employee nor the manager “above” him have been trained in empathy, and it is not a part of their job description, at least in any explicit way. Though there are dozens of training firms in everything from compliance to conflict resolution, the number of individuals and firms in North American and the European Union delivering empathy training can be counted on the fingers of one hand. While that may be changing, expecting CEO’s to give empathy when they are not in touch with their own empathy, makes no sense. Nor is it fair either to the leader or would-be recipient. Welcome to the age of Machiavellian empathy!

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was famous for saying that it would be best if the leader—the Prince, in his day—was loved, but it is essential that he be feared.

Machiavelli never actually said that the ruler, the Prince, must be perceived to be empathic, even as he ruthlessly wields power behind the scenes. But that is what he implied. In the context of politics, Machiavellian empathy refers to politicians who present themselves as being empathic while manipulating, spinning alternative facts, double dealing, and so on, behind the scenes. Machiavellian empathy shows up in business, too. If managers are not in touch with their empathic abilities, they are counseled to “fake it till you make it.” Many never “make it” and continue “faking it.”

Whether or not one authentically understands the experience of the other person is less relevant to the Machiavellian Empath than scoring points on a check list of concerned behavior. 

Is this then the ultimate cynical moment? Is this the ultimate easy way out? Is this the reduction to absurdity of empathy? If empathy is about setting boundaries, where is the boundary? While not a complete response, one distinct limit to Machiavellian empathy is Lincoln’s famous saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” Ask Travis Kapernick, Bernie Madoff, or Harvey Weinberg.[vi]

Strictly speaking, Machiavellian empathy takes nothing away from empathy’s intrinsic benefits and uses. Even if one wants to present the appearance of being empathic for propaganda (i.e., marketing) purposes, while continuing to operate with dubious business practices behind the scenes, reality has a way of catching up with appearances. Amazon said it was a wonderful place to work. Then the New York Times got some employees to comment on the record about “mean” behavior.[vii] Uber was disrupting the disrupters and creating the Gig Economy, which supposedly set us free. Then a driver, who was not in touch with that supposed freedom, unwittingly interviewed the CEO, Travis Kapernick, on camera.[viii]

So far as we can tell at this writing, neither of these breakdowns has resulted in breakthroughs. There is no guarantee that the Machiavellian Empath will slip up and document his or her own inauthenticity for us; it rarely happens rapidly enough; but it happens. 

Empathy deserts grow: Woe to those that harbor empathy deserts!

Capitalism organizes empathy along with workers and production processes. Under capitalism, empathy is a means, not an end dedicated to the satisfaction of human needs, aspirations, and demands. (When the word “demand” is used, think “supply and demand” for products and services in a market.) Some workplaces are empathy deserts in spite of the appearance of mangers with published “open door” policies.[ix] Key term: empathy desert. After a day at the office, people often feel as if their personality had been erased. One’s humanity withers in the desert. So if you find yourself feeling dehumanized by your job, maybe you work in one of those, regardless of the prevailing rhetoric. 

Instead of the industrial supervisor shouting orders to his workers, who curse under their breath and conform to the orders, today’s managers employ therapeutic strategies to create a convivial environment of trust, relatedness, sociality, loyalty, and care. Happy people sell. Happy people write more software code with fewer bugs. Happy people deliver projects on time, on budget. Value creation in the late capitalist economy is a function of the exchange of emotion and empathy.[x]

The way “empathy” is used in the business media today, it means that corporations innovate in providing benefits to their employees. Many of these benefits enable employees to get away from the job and restore aspects of their humanity that are hard to maintain in the “corporate jungle” (or desert). It means that firms return to their employees some of the revenues that the employees earn for the firm by providing services. Such a proliferation of meanings may be a phase that empathy has to go through before we can really grasp how it essentially makes a difference. 

For example, Procter & Gamble offers a personal leave of absence, which the employee can use to engage in a “life project.” Up to three months off without pay—but with continued benefits—allows the employee to pursue a personal “life project,” and, P&G to retain valuable talent, since the employee returns to work after the sabbatical.[xi] Though Human Resources (HR) has to approve the project, the benefit can be used to: complete writing a PhD or masters thesis that requires dedicated time on task for writing and research; design and implement a database tracking system for a social justice issue for Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders; trek to Nepal and attempt to climb an 8K meter high mountain; sail around the world. 

At Google (Alphabet) parental leave is a benefit: Moms get up to 18 weeks of paid leave; Dads get six. The company also pays “baby bonding bucks” to help with initial expenses such as formula and diapers. 

Prudential Financial is addressing the employee challenge of being a care-giver for a parent or relative by providing adult care in an employee or loved one’s home. The company provides referrals to geriatric care services as well as elder law and adult care-giving seminars. 

IBM contracts with an educational firm to provide a “get into college coach” for its employees with children applying to college. They will not write the admissions essay for the children, but provide detailed guidance as to what different colleges are looking for, test scores, grade point average, and cultural preferences. All these are valuable in reducing parental (i.e., employee) stress. Note this is one corporate benefit that does not require the employee to leave work. Sensibly enough, the worker continues to work, presumably to pay college tuition, while “out sourcing” some of the elaborate, complex project planning needed by the student actually to get into college. Win-win all around.

While my work has repeatedly emphasized that there is enough empathy to go around, empathy is not uniformly distributed. How could it be? Executives who are talented at dealing empathically with customer issues may be less skilled at dealing empathically with employees; and those skilled at dealing empathically with employee issues may be less skilled at dealing empathically with union negotiations, the press, or business partners and competitors (who may be one and the same). 

Arguably, empathy flows from those with more power towards those on the front line engaging with customers. However, if the customer is big enough, for example, contemplating buying a fleet of jets or a global enterprise software system, the ultimate sales person turns out precisely to be the CEO or her close colleagues. The executive suite is now on the front line. But who trained those leaders—or any one—in empathy? If we gave the executive (or front line help desk person) the kind of empathy exam described above by Leslie Jameson, in which an actor learns a script, portrays a client with a problem, in effect being a “secret shopper,” what would be the grade (see p. 121 above)? While we may never know for sure, I predict that the grade will be lower than if the executive fills out a self-assessment in which one can pick out the “right answer” based on common sense and an appreciation of kindness. Thus, the case for expanding empathy through training.


[i] McKee, Annie. (2016). If you can’t empathize with your employees, you’d better learn to, Harvard Business Review, November 16, 2016.

[ii] Anonymous Contributors. (nd). Jack Welch. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_ Welch [checked on June 30, 2017].

[iii] Ibid, Jack Welch, Wikipedia

[iv] Ibid, Jack Welch, Wikipedia

[v] Melvin Urovsky. (1998). Pullman strike, Britannica Online: https://www.britannica.com/event/ Pullman-Strike.

[vi] Meanwhile, more breaking news, as this book goes to press, some 49 men stand accused of sexual misconduct in various workplaces extending from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood production company (from which he was fired) through venture capital to restaurant businesses: 

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/10/us/men-accused-sexualmisconductweinstein.html?_r=0. The problem is that, while it is good that this abuse is finally coming out, it has been hidden in plain for years and years. See Harry Markopolis’ (2010) statement in a different context above, “no one would listen.” Where is Lord Acton when we need him? Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

[vii] Kantor and Streitfeld 2015..

[viii] Seyluk 2017.

[ix] Roman Krznaric (2104) quoted in Belinda Parmar (2014) The Empathy Era: Woman, Business and the New Pathway to Profit, London: Lady Geek: 91. Parmar does not cite a page in Krznaric. 

[x] Tristam Vivian Adams. (2016). The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy. London: Repeater Books: 56–77. 

[xi] Matt Krumie. (2016). Ten companies putting empathy into action, Cornerstone On Demand: https://www.cornerstoneondemand.com/rework/10-companies-putting-empathy-action [checked on July 03, 2017].

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy versus bullying: Part 3: Recommendations for students, parents, teachers and administrators

Listen to podcast on Spotify (via Anchor): https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-versus-Bullying-Part-3-Recommendations-for-students–parents–and-educators-e17j1ts

Bullying: Recommendations for students

If one is being bullied, some guidelines are useful.; though no single, easy answer is available.

[Note: even though these recommendations directly address the “student,” they are intended to provide guidance to the parent or responsible adult on how he or she is to address the student regarding bullying. They are intended to inform the grown up, adult’s speaking and listening in the matter of bullying as the grown up engages with their student.]

First, these recommendations are about getting back your power—or at least some of your power—in the face of bullying. Sometimes that looks like making a tactical retreat, much as one might dislike doing so, in order to reestablish boundaries and integrity. The idea is to de-escalate the potential confrontation. What de-escalation looks like is different according to the situation. 

Second, this is not happening to you—the target of bullying—because you did anything wrong. Stop the negative self-talk (devaluing comments directed at oneself) about being to blame for the bad behavior of bullies. Such negative self-talk results in two problems, the bullying and your own negative self-talk. 

Previously there was only one problem, the bullying. Now two problems exist, the bulling and the negative self-talk. Reduce the problems by 50%; stop the negative self-talk. If you cannot seem to stop the negative self-talk, then get help from a parent or professional with doing so. 

Many different kinds of bullies exist—see the above typology—and it is not your job to be the bully’s therapist or policeman. 

There is probably no reply to the bully that is so powerful that the bully cannot transform it by using a sing-song, condescending tone of voice. 

Even if one says: “Thank you for respecting my privacy,” a statement that makes a great quotation in any subsequent police or administrative report, the risk is that the reply is going to come back at you like yet another confrontation. It might be worth a try, but no guarantees. 

The bully is behaving the way he does to “get a rise” out of the target. The intention is to make the target upset. That is a “pay off” for the bully. That is not to say that one should not shout back if shouted at or push back if one is pushed. That is a judgment call based on the situation and one’s sense that fighting back—otherwise know as “self defense”—may make a positive difference in establishing or maintaining a boundary. 

However, if one is out-numbered or the bully is physically larger and one’s power is diminished, engaging the bully in a back-and-forth exchange is not going to work. If one can maintain some measure of composure or equilibrium, then the process of escalation on the part of the bully may be short-circuited or at least moderated. The bully is “getting off” on upsetting the target, so, tactically speaking, being boring to the bully is a valid defense. You will be “less fun” for the bully, and he will move on to the next target. 

Another thing that is done—and is potentially life saving—is to keep a “bully log,” noting in writing, once one escapes, the occasion on which one was bullied and what exactly was said or done. In the case of cyber bullying, this includes print outs, with URLs and time stamps, or screen shots of devaluing comments from email, Facebook, social media, or text messages. 

I know, I know. The last thing that a kid stressed out by bullying wants to think about is documenting what is happening precisely so that one can escalate and get one’s power back. But that is what is required. One may prefer to forget about it all, but keeping a log with dates and times and names (or descriptions if one does not know the name) and what exactly was said or done, is going to be an important part of getting one’s power back in the face of bullying.

Civic and spiritual leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King have famously pointed out that “no one can diminish you without your consent.” That remains true; and it is always a good reminder to oneself in the face of bullying. However, King and his followers actively trained and role-played non-violent resistance prior to engaging in demonstrations, civic actions, marches, protests, and sits-ins, in which they confronted bullying, hostility, and out-and-out violence. 

Civil rights activists practiced with colleagues, who pretended to be racists, hurling insults and ketchup at the would-be demonstrators in role playing. In turn, the would-be demonstrators practiced not responding with counter-aggression; and all this prior to their actually engaging in anti-segregation sit ins, public protests, civil disobedience, and so on. 

One should not have to undertake training in non-violent resistance in order to survive the ride on the bus to school or the school lunch room, and the fact that we are now discussing such a scenario means that something has already gone seriously off the rails. Attempting to transform a culture of segregation and colonialism as King and Gandhi did—or a culture of bullying—is not for the faint of heart. 

A group of middle or high school kids are not the KKK or the British Empire (though they may seem like it at times), and such kids cannot be forced to include an “outsider” when they really decide not to be inclusive. Thus, the coaching to the outsider is to keep looking for a group that is welcoming. Once again, it takes courage—and a support system—and is always easier said than done. 

People need friends, and, for people in middle and high school, relating to friends is an important part of the fun. It is a part of growing up and the non-academic learning that occurs. If you are with a group of people—also called one’s “peers”—and their behavior and speech towards you leaves you feeling “less than” or “upset,” then you may need to look at your understanding of what is a friend. If your inquiry to your “friends” as to what is really going on seems to elicit more of the same upsetting and “less than” behavior—then you need to re-examine their status as “friends.” I hope you will not shoot the messenger: it is time to move on and seek friendlier friends. 

One bullied LGBT teen made a difference by trying to join a Gay-Straight Alliance group activity at his high school. But there was one catch. Before he could join the alliance, he had to create it. It became a significant project, and a path to engagement for him and numerous fellow students both gay and straight. Never underestimate the power of one person with the courage to stand up and say “Enough—there’s got to be a better way!” 

Friends may argue. Friends may disagree. Friends may engage in drama over boy or girl friends. Friends may even decide to stop being friends and go their separate ways. But if one finds so-called “friends” treating one like an outsider, using de-valuing language towards one, or being mischievous in ways that are cruel, mean, or aggressive, then it is time to find new friends. If one’s peer group lets one down, then it is time to seek a new peer group. Once again, this is not easy to do when one is struggling against bullying. However, if one is unable to take action in the direction of finding new relationships because one is so paralyzed by the upset, then it may be because one is anxious or depressed, and the intervention of a caring third party is warranted. But where to turn?

If you have a good relationship with one or both parents, that is a good place to start. Here “good relationship” means that you can talk with him or her. It means the parent has the ability to empathize with your predicament and listen to your concerns. It also means you are not going to come away from the conversation feeling bullied. Older siblings can also be useful if one has a good relationship. 

The idea is not to have a grown up “fix” the problem for you, but to find a “trusted advisor” to work with you on what can be done to get back your power—or at least some of it—in the face of bullying. Though the analogy is imperfect, this is a tad like getting tutoring in geometry or science. Do not expect the tutor to do your homework for you; but together you work to acquire the skills, so you can not only survive the lunchroom or school bus ride, but also even have fun and prosper. 

If you do not have the kind of empathic relationship with a parent that makes you think the parent can help to improve the situation, then look for a trusted teacher at school with whom one has a relationship. (But see the caution below about teachers and staff being school-bullying-mandated reporters.) Once again, this should be someone who you believe will listen to you—use her or his empathy to appreciate you—and work with you to improve the situation. If neither your parents nor a trusted teacher at school can be mobilized to intervene, then you should look for someone in the community such as a coach at the art or sports center, a pastor at church, or coordinator of the LGBT group in the community with whom you enjoy a relationship of empathy and trust. 

If you are being harassed online, request that the web site take down the content, since the harassing comments violent the rules of most web sites. If the site is Facebook, report the abuse immediately via the dropdown item “this picture is of me and I don’t like it” [or words to that effect]. Facebook says that it is committed to taking the word of the reporter (you) about harassing comments. Print out the cruel or mean content or make a screen shot. Put all such stuff in a folder. You need to show others in authority what is happening. It is almost never useful to respond to the perpetrator. If you find yourself compulsively checking back for mean content, take a time out. Power down. Pull the plug. It is not worth it. It might be better to give online activity a break and drop out for awhile. Good friends will be able to reach you by phone or in person. 

Another word of caution is needed. If you approach someone in school—a teacher or member of the staff—then this person may be required by law to report the bullying to the school administration. This might be okay if the school has a program in place to deal with bullying. This is also where your written record detailing bullying that has occurred over the past period can be useful. I wish I could say that this would not result in further bullying with accusations of being a “snitch” occurring. But the risk of escalation is real and must be considered prior to taking action. 

If the reputation of the school is one of having a culture that seems to permit a certain amount of aggression and discourtesy, whether towards teachers or one’s fellow students, then the risk expands. Retaliation on the part of bullies for complaints about their bullying can become as significant an issue as the bullying itself. 

Once the school administration is involved, the process can take on a life of its own. The administration must (is mandated to) open an investigation, and the requirement to gather evidence of bullying can make you feel like you are inside the “hall of mirrors” at the carnival without, however, anyone having any fun. 

Grown ups are notoriously unable to distinguish adolescent drama from out-and-out bullying. This is sometimes due to grown ups’ lack of empathy, but not always. If the tweens and adolescents cannot tell these apart, why should the grown ups necessarily be able to? What seemed open-and-shut to the target of bullying can take on disturbing nuances once people are interviewed “on the record.” 

Trying to sort out a bullying report can become an exercise in forensic investigation with conflicting testimony full of “he said” and “she said.” Are witnesses denying an alleged episode of bullying—note the legalese “alleged” shows up—because they don’t want to be regarded as “snitches” or because the episode never occurred? 

The school system itself—no matter how empathic and well-intentioned—can seem to work unwittingly to punish all participants—or at least use all the time and effort of all implicated in a given incident in filling out forms, processes, procedures, and attending meetings. The process of determining what happened = x has now become something to survive—a potential breakdown in empathy and a breakdown in community. Ready or not, one has matriculated in the “college of hard knocks.” 

However, if the student is being physically assaulted or harassed to the point where the student’s school work is suffering (grades and so on), then it is best to “bite the bullet,” fill out the formal report—including the police report if appropriate—try to take charge of the escalation, share the suffering, and learn the lesson in community building. 

No one should have to suffer in isolation in the face of bullying. Part of the abuse consists precisely in the bully’s attempt to isolate the target. So the best outcomes are those in which one is able to take action to break out of one’s isolation: finding new and welcoming friends, martial arts lessons, founding a gay-straight alliance at the school, chess or science club, and so on. Once again, this is easier said than done, but it must be both said and done. 

If you are someone who is caught up in drama and you are tempted to bully someone, it is time to take a time out. Take a look at your own behavior. Do you really want to be known as someone who is mean or a bully? While “put downs” or “one liners” might seem like auditioning for a role in a reality television show, hit the pause button. There are better ways of getting into show business. Go out for theatre or sign up for an improvisation class. All the world is a stage, and an important part of the training for theatre—and for success in life—is role playing. Indeed acting is precisely role playing. Try taking a walk in the other person’s shoes. There are other, better shoes—and choices—than to bully or be bullied. 

Bullying: Recommendations for parents

If your child comes to you with an upset about bullying or you see that she or he is upset about something and the story sounds like bullying, then what should a parent do? 

This is where empathy goes a long way. Start by listening. Your job as a parent is to support your child and to help your child regulate the child’s feelings and behavior. Your job is to help the child regain an emotional equilibrium in the face of life’s vicissitudes, including bullying.

Parenting is about setting boundaries. Empathy is about navigating boundaries, and bullying about violating boundaries. Therefore, empathy is about restoring boundaries in the face of bullying. 

Be empathically receptive and responsive: “That’s really gotta be a concern.” “Try to tell me exactly what happened.” “Then what happened?” “Say more about that.” “Okay, but help me understand.” “He said what?!” Ask about the details in a concerned, empathic way. “Johnny is a jerk” may be true; but it is an interpretation. That Johnny said “You are a loser” while pointing at his forehead with his fingers in the shape of an “L” is a report of a devaluing comment. Do not be dismissive. It’s not “nothing.” Note it. Be concerned. Avoid finger wagging or moralizing. Though you are obviously “on the side” of your child, do not assume she or he is an angel. Likewise, if the child is known to have a “devilish” streak, do not assume he or she is the devil. A single example is not bullying in itself, but repeated instances start to form a pattern of concern. 

One word of caution to parents at this point. One issue that should not be overlooked is how the adult is inevitably confronted with his or her own fate as a child in the face of bullying. In short, if you had a bad experience in bullying that is still unintegrated as an adult, it is going to be there when your child comes to you. If you have unresolved issues around bullying in your own history, when your child comes to you about bullying, a challenging situation becomes all the more challenging for you. You have to distinguish the child’s problem from your own in order to do your job. As a parent, your priority is to solve the child’s problem, not your own. 

Now this does not mean the parent has precipitously to go back into therapy (though nothing is wrong with that as such), but that one must be prepared to identify and use one’s own experiences around bullying as a resource. These experiences, long past, will come up. Promise. This is where parental peer support can be essential. Consult with other parents with whom you have a relationship of empathy and trust. It is crucial this be a person to whom one can relate without moralizing or finger pointing. 

If one does have an unresolved issue around bullying, then acknowledge it, so that one can gain some distance and objectivity about bullying today. In a deep sense, bullying and human aggression have not changed, though they now have online technology at their disposal; but parenting norms, schools, school administrators, and community standards have shifted significantly since Baby Boomers and even Gen-Xers have struggled with bullying in a different world. 

If, when you were a kid, the guidance from your parent was “just hit him back,” and it worked, then you are going to be inclined to provide such guidance. If, when you were a kid, you told his mom about his bullying behavior, and it worked (as unlikely as that may seem), then your initial inclination is going to be to provide such advice. Even if you wished that you had “just hit him back,” but were not able to do so, you are also going to be inclined to provide such guidance. You see the dilemma? 

Our empathy for our children in the here and now is a function of our own fate as a child in what was (and is) not always the most empathic of worlds. If one is at a party for five year olds, tweens, or adolescents, then one is inevitably going to be present to one’s own experiences as a five year old, tween, or adolescent. That is a risk and an opportunity. Such experiences from one’s own childhood or teen years can be a useful resource and should not be overlooked. However, such experiences of surviving bullying are most likely to make a positive difference within the context of an empathic listening to the child currently being bullied, not the context the parent had to overcome long ago. [i]  

The point is to appreciate the distinction between your own experiences and those of your child. An outgoing or extroverted parent may have a shy or introverted child—or vice versa. Yes, certain kinds of bullying are such that a child may properly be expected to handle them on his or her own. However, if the child who used to enjoy school now dreads it, if grades are suffering, or if a once flourishing child is now floundering, and it is not clear what is going on, then intervention is required. 

A substantial part of the challenge for the parent is to re-create the context on the school bus, at school, in the lunchroom, or on the sports field. What seems at first to be an open-and-shut case of meanness or cruelty can turn out to be a complex example of drama, pseudo-sibling rivalry, or bad manners. Debates quickly emerge about “Who started it!?” or “he said” and “she said.” Try to determine who said what to whom and then what happened. You may quickly find yourself asking, “Is there a single fact here?” This, however, does not mean that bullying did not occur. As a parent, you want to document what you have learned, and you want to keep open the lines of communication with your child. Is there a pattern? 

In order to be useful in supporting your child, you must have a thorough grasp of what is going on. Get the entire narrative. If what is happening really is bullying, you will want to be as specific as possible in order to make a report to the authorities if the problem persists. 

This is where the difference between handing the child a fish and teaching him or her how to fish is the lesson. Even if the student is an adolescent, the student’s request may be to “fix” the problem and make the bully go away. Wouldn’t it be nice? Rarely is that practical. If the bullying is occurring on the way to or from school, and if one can take a different bus or route, by all means, do so. Band-Aids have their uses. Tourniquets are essential. Buy some time to figure out what is really happening. 

The tough job of parenting occurs at four levels: (1) providing guidance to one’s student on how to fend for oneself; (2) providing explicit training in self-defense or assertiveness if the student can be enrolled in the value of doing so; (3) reaching out to the parents of the alleged bully if there is any chance they are responsive people, who are able to have a civil conversation; (4) intervening with school authorities (or law enforcement) as a last resort if no other solution can be found.

(1) Share with the student the above-cited coaching in “Recommendations for Students” about the dynamics of bullying. Even if you have reason to believe that your child has been provocative and is engaging in drama, begin by asking, “What happened?” “Who said what to whom?” “What happened next?“ Do not begin by asking, “What did you do to cause this?” That can seem like blaming the victim. Do not be dismissive. Trust—but verify empathically.

Providing empathy means that one should provide examples of proper behavior on the part of “friends” and peers; friends do not use devaluing, hurtful, bad language or engage in aggression against one another; and broach the difficult subject that maybe one needs to find new friends or a suitable, different, extra-curricular activity if one is being harassed. One should provide assurances to the child, who is blaming himself, that the child did not do anything to deserve such treatment. 

(2) Time was when “bullying” meant physical aggression. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” We now know that devaluing names, too, are hurtful. This is especially so when the name calling occurs persistently across different environments—at school, on the bus, online after school, and so on. I know—I know. Why is it that parenting usually seems to require ever-increasing commitments rather than less? Yet intervention on the part of the grown ups is important., especially if the meanness is escalating.

If a student, who is being physically assaulted, sees value in boxing or Asian martial arts lessons, the parent may pick up the extra expense and effort of chauffeuring him or her. It may be worth it. Self defense remains a fundamental right. 

However, if the individual is up against a group or the size differential is substantial, such lessons might be good for one’s self-esteem (and the value of such a contribution is not to be underestimated), but it is of limited practical value in surviving an altercation. For some shy or socially awkward kids explicit training in social assertiveness is useful. 

(3) If one is part of a community where one has communications with other parents, then it may be worth the risk to reach out to the other parents. It is important to do so in a way that does not land like an incoming accusation or reproach. That such a conversation would initially be uncomfortable is no reason not to try. 

If you can work with the other parents, it provides an example to all the children of how to resolve conflict in a mature, adult way that benefits all involved. Such a lesson is worth its weight in gold—or at least an associate’s degree in counseling. However, if the parent turns out to be troubled or a part of the problem, then one has perhaps discovered the source of the bully’s misbehavior. One has to move on. Encourage one’s child to leave alone a “friend” who is making his life miserable. 

(4) If one has exhausted individual coaching to the child or outreach to other parents, and one still has concerns about the child’s safety or the impact of bullying on a child’s academic results, then it is necessary to approach the school authorities. Remember that these may be harried individuals. 

School authorities already have a long list of academic, administrative, and educational responsibilities. The state legislature has just mandated compliance with rules that schools take on the task of managing and improving a situation in which 10% of a school population (say) of 1,000 students is either a bully or a target of bullying over a given period of time. A budget increase to support the mandate is still pending, meaning doing more with less is again demanded. 

A parent may have a right to stand up in a school board meeting and express concern or even accuse officials of being indifferent to bullying. 

However, it does put one in mind of Dale Carnegie’s dictum: if you want to gather honey, do not kick over the bee’s nest. 

Rather identify an educator or administrator who has the empathy to hear your concern about your child’s emotional and academic well-being and its urgency. In a time sensitive situation, specific steps can be taken such as allowing the child to keep a cell phone with him at all times to call for help; a designated safe room (say next to the nurse’s office) that the child can go to in case he feels unsafe; a special hall pass or permission to arrive two minutes before class to avoid the bully; or assigning a grown up to accompany her or him through the hallway. It is important that all the relevant teachers and staff know about this or it will just become another breakdown, punishing the victim as the phone gets confiscated, and so on. 

In the case of cyber-bullying of tweens, parents may appropriately have access to the online passwords. Parents may usefully know what sites the children are visiting. Even if one has a phobia for technology, it is imperative for the parents of kids using computers to have a minimum of computer literacy to supervise the kids’ involvement with electronic media. It is a tad stealthy—but I would not rule it out—to have the child train you with her email or Facebook account, and then use what you have learned to monitor theirs. 

You would not simply give the kids the car keys and tell them, “Hey, keep in touch!” Funny. The Internet is different than the open road, but hazards and risks exist in abundance in cyberspace, too. Since no parent has enough time to monitor the totality of anyone’s online activity—it would be crazy to try—start out like the wise teacher who begins with strictness but eases up thereafter based on proper behavior and feedback. 

Manage by exception. Trust but verify. If spending time engaging online becomes an upset to the child, then an empathic inquiry as to what is happening is needed. Expectations for online behavior should be made clear: Just as one would not use devaluing language, ethnic or racial insults in person, so too one should not do so online. If one is the target of such behavior, then it must be documented, monitored, and neutralized through appropriate interventions. 

Why is it that people forget you can turn off the computer or not go to certain sites? Parents’ good examples of laying aside electronic devices and relating in person to other persons speak volumes to kids. So does any behavior that demonstrates a parent’s commitment to drama or using social media to drive personal conflicts. Business people and politicians now have a rule about email and comments on social networks (even if they do not always follow their own good guidance): Write every electronic comment or communication so that it could be published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal without creating an embarrassment. The reason? Because the communication will eventually migrate there! This is an essential rule of thumb going forward. 

Such is especially the case after the US election of 2016 where a seemingly endless stream of hacked emails—containing ambiguous and devaluing comments about the sender’s colleagues—got published periodically. In some cases, no hacking was required, since the candidate published the comments intentionally using Twitter. 

As this book is being published, reports are emerging that Russia—you know, the sovereign state or a clandestine unit thereof—has attempted to influence the US 2016 election by purchasing ads on social media that attempted to aggravate racial, social, and economic divisions, thereby driving voters towards one Presidential candidate rather than the other.[ii] A lesson for us all? The ability to think critically and for oneself has always been an essential foundation of any democracy or any middle school kid’s emotional well-being. Now more than ever. 

There is also a rule—at the level of Sir Isaac Newton’s ironclad Laws of Motion—that naked or compromising photos taken by a person migrate inevitably in the direction of social media. So don’t take any; and delete any that might already exist now—before it’s too late! 

The expectations of privacy are such that online communications can no longer reasonably be expected to be private. Perhaps they ought to be private. Perhaps the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution against unreasonable search and seizure still holds sway in courts and halls of justice in the USA. I hope it does. I believe it does. But cyberspace just does not work that way any more. Facebook is designed so that people are given incentives to broadcast their personal and private data. As Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is supposed to have said: “Privacy is no longer the norm,” implying rather that publicity is. Here take my personal data—please! Here—see what I am eating, who I am befriending, who I am dating, what I am wearing (or not), what I am reading, where I am checking in geographically, what I like, what I don’t like, what I am thinking—and at all times. [iii]

If you really need to have a private communication, send a letter by US Mail. It does put one in mind of Miranda Lambert’s country western song: “If you had something to say—you’d write it on a piece of paper—then you put a stamp on it—and they’d get it three days later—before everything became—automatic.” Words to live by. 

This may sound a tad nostalgic; and I am not sure that I could explain it to an eleven year old. So, if your eleven year old is citing the 4th Amendment to you as reason for not handing over his password, congratulations! You have a Clarence Darrow for the defense in the making. I hope you can afford law school. But you then get to explain that “probable cause” creates an exception—and a parental search warrant. Hand the password over, buddy—or hand over the device!

Bullying: Recommendations for teachers and administrators

The media provide sensational, even tragic, reports about bullying, but they less frequently provide useful guidance or actionable information. We have to separate bullying from conflict and “drama” between peers of roughly equal power. Attention grabbing headlines have provided a “call to action” for educators in middle and high schools (and for state legislatures), who had been distracted by other priorities and looking the other way. 

A few dramatic, high profile suicides, and many low profile emotional breakdowns, not to mention major litigation from outraged parents, have persuaded school administrators of the importance of intervening on behalf of the most vulnerable, bullied members of the community. 

Yet it is also important to realize that grown ups are not the only source of relief from tween and adolescent bullying. In no way is it blaming the victim that the targets of bullying sometimes need to take crucial actions on their own behalf to improve the outcomes of unwanted assaults. 

The first empathy lesson for administrators is that empathy is on a spectrum that extends from being firm about boundaries all the way to “tough love.” As every administrator knows, education is impossible if a school that is “out of control” surrounds the class room. A school is a system, and the hallways and class room must be calm in order for education to work. Before we turn to the details of how empathy plays in this context, some background is useful.

In December 1982 three elementary school students (10 to 14 years old) killed themselves near Tromsø, Norway. All three had been bullied. For example, one had been called a “leper” because of his measles scars, an insult, frankly, that I had not previously heard. These tragedies galvanized Norway. 

Previously, bullying had been regarded as something that kids had to work out for themselves on the street. These tragedies provided evidence that the most vulnerable members of the community required intervention.

Dan Olweus, who had studied bullying extensively in nearby Sweden, but who was without popular support there for his research recommendations, was invited to come next door to Norway to help out. He surveyed 130,000 students. Some 15% were involved in bullying either as perpetrators or targets.[iv]

Olweus’ research challenged many assumptions. It challenged the assumptions that upper class high school students were less frequent bullies than their underclass peers or that urban kids were more likely to bully than their countryside fellows. Bullying was an equal opportunity issue. The targets of bullying were significantly weaker physically and more vulnerable to anxiety; but, for the most part, they did not look or dress significantly differently than others in the group. Space does not permit a comprehensive review of Olweus’ bullying prevention program; but its focus is on transforming the culture of the entire school, providing authoritative and positive role models, improved overall supervision, and intervention in individual cases. In the initial pilot, eight months after the program was introduced, there was 50% less bullying; but also significantly less vandalism and theft. 

Olweus’ approach anticipated the crime fighting approach of reducing major crimes by fixing the broken windows in abandoned buildings and arresting the petty turn-style jumpers on public transit. These are individuals who might escalate to more serious offenses, if they are allowed to get away with mirror ones. They are halted early in the course of their boundary-violating careers. Their relatively minor criminal behaviors get cut short before they can advance to more serious misdeeds. 

Norway devoted significant resources to the issue of bullying. Here in the USA legislative compliance mandates ordering schools to solve the problem of bullying without providing resources or money are taking the easy way out. And mandates to comply often do not work—precisely because a mandate without resources is at best a well-intentioned, but empty, gesture. To be sure, the indifference of some school administrators has been a cause for concern regardless of the (in)action of state legislatures. But the commitment of many, if not most, administrators is a cause for hope—and engagement. 

Emily Bazelon reports on a case study—a school, Old Mill North, that had a reputation for roughness and was demonstrably spiraling downward. But it was pulled back from the brink and turned around by a program inspired by Olweus. This is not a one size fits all narrative, but numerous lessons exist that can be generalized. 

No matter how inspiring or talented the individual teacher, education is impossible if a school that is out of control surrounds the class room. The hallways and class rooms must be calm in order for the process of education to get the traction it requires to produce educated students. 

Bullies are put on notice that teachers and administrators are decidedly not happy about their behavior. Such individuals have been poorly socialized, and it is going to catch up with them. They need to get in touch with their inner jerk—have a conversation for possibility about recognizing one’s peers as peers—and learn how to respect boundaries. They can do better. If one can get the peer group to validate the language of respect for boundaries, courtesy, an optimum measure of toleration, and empathy, then their behavior eventually catches up with the rhetoric of respect and improves.

As noted, empathy is on a spectrum that extends from being firm about boundaries, but nice about it, all the way to “tough love.” Some students are not interested in respecting the boundaries that mark a commitment to education, and they really do not belong in school. Some 52 kids were expelled from Old Mill North. Likewise, the teachers were assessed. If they were not committed to transforming the culture of the school in the direction of excellence in education, they were encouraged to seek positions at other schools in the system. They were not expelled, but were counseled out. Some 22 out of 66 left the school. 

How shall I put it delicately? This was no longer business as usual. At Old North, a significant minority of the student body was still more than a tad rough around the edges by the time they got to middle school. Some students literally did not know what to do when one student bumped into another student passing in the hallway. They needed to be taught to say, “Excuse me!” or “Pardon me,” instead of telling the other person, “Drop dead, loser!” Similarly, with common courtesy in the cafeteria. At Old North a broad intervention with the students provided explicit guidance in what was expected of them by way of behavior. Thus, the students were drilled in social skills such as acknowledging the feelings of others, making eye contact, and conflict management skills such as making a request, saying “no,” or agreeing to disagree. In short, they were trained in empathy. 

Some bullies are indeed thugs, and need to be removed from the community to protect the community from them; but other bullies are themselves survivors of abusive situations (e.g., at home). They exhibit mental health issues, have a diagnosable cognitive impairment, and require intervention. 

That is no excuse—there is never an excuse for bullying behavior. However, it does mean that to prevent repetition of the bullying after a suspension has been served, these individuals need guidance. Many need treatment. Whether such treatment is full-blown dynamic talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, bullies may usefully undertake an inquiry into their own abusive behavior in order to shift out of a pattern that is creating misery around them. It is worth repeating: If it’s mean, intervene. 

However, intervention is not the same as automatic discipline. Suspension and expulsion should be used only when the immediate concern is safety; and followed up with evaluation for the individual for depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, other emotional issues, or problems at home. Extrinsic motivation was also applied at Old North. 

Using Positive Behavior-Based Interventions and Support (PBIS), along with the Pledge of Allegiance, the school day began with reciting the school commitment: “Be respectful, responsible, and on task.” That means: say “please” and “thank you”; do your homework; and participate in class. 

An internal currency of courtesy was introduced. “Patriot passports” were blue slips that teachers handed out when students were identified as doing something well. The teacher meant it as a recognition and statement: “I liked the way you did that.” 

A gimmick? Perhaps, but the underlying value was in building a positive relationship between student and teacher. Instead of handing out detention slips, getting into an adversarial role, teachers were in a friendly role of recognizing students for a job well done. Those teachers who used up all their blue slips got a gold star on their door—and more slips. The slips could be redeemed for PTA sponsored school supplies, ice cream at the social, a school movie, or getting to the head of the line in the cafeteria.

One word of caution. Peer mediation is not a good method for dealing with bullying. Peer mediation makes sense when the two kids are of roughly equal power. However, putting a bully and a target in the same room together is a bad idea. This is so even if a grown up is present to help mediate. Bullies are skilled at saying the right thing in the moment, and then retaliating later. If the students are roughly equal in power, and the infraction involved drama (not bullying), then peer mediation may perhaps make sense. But otherwise, it is just putting the fox to guard the chickens. Things are not going to go well.

Once a measure of calm was restored to the hallways at Old North, then those students who continued to be disrupters tended to stand out. They could be provided with the services they required to gain control over their behavior and emotions instead of missing even more academics by being sent to the principal’s office or suspended. 

Instead of being given a suspension and sent home, the disrupters were given confidential psychological assessments for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-esteem. They were required to watch videos about bullying, and consider their own behavior in relation to what they saw. Teachers who were chronic yellers were trained in other methods of de-escalating conflict with students who were disrespectful or difficult. This was not a two week effort. 

Six years into the program, scores on standardized achievement tests had improved enough for the school to introduce the International Baccalaureate Program to further drive academic excellence. Reducing bullying is good for academics. 

In summary, schools that support such efforts find that bullying of all kinds is reduced, not merely that directed at kids who are eccentric, socially awkward, new to the community, or LGBT. Of course, if the school’s grown ups are still struggling ineffectively with their own homophobic issues, then survivors must look for alternative communities outside of school. These alternatives outside of school run the gamut from sports to book clubs. It is not blaming the survivor to say, “Hey, it’s gonna take something from you, too, in building a community that works for everyone.” Martial arts and boxing are powerful compensatory activities for people who tend to be shy; but such people have to overcome their own introverted tendencies even to sign up. The very behavior that is stopping them is also part of the behavior that is leaving them vulnerable to bullying. The breakthrough is already present in stopping procrastinating and taking action to get such training.

In conclusion, the lesson is that empathy builds community; and communities demonstrate empathy by being inclusive. Yet rare is theindividual who transforms the authenticity and integrity of an entire community in order to join a community with integrity and authenticity. What would an anti-bullying club even look like? It might look like a LGBT alliance; but it might also look like a jogging, biking, or history club. Don’t just be “anti,” as proper as that is in the case of bullying; but be “pro” engagement, inclusion, and community.

As Daniel Burnham said in different context: “Make no small plans.” Empathy is the foundation of no small community.


[i] Christine Olden. (1953). On adult empathy with children, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 8: 111–126. 

[ii] See “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal Investigation,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039 [checked on Sept 27, 2021]; see also (now “ancient” history): Mike Isaac and Scott Shane. (2017). Facebook’s Russia-linked ads came in many disguises, The New York Times, Oct 2, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/technology/facebook-russia-ads-.html [checked on Oct 15, 2017].

[iii] Bernard E. Harcourt. (2015). Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 90–93. 

[iv] Olweus 1973/1993 in Bazelon 2012. Dan Olweus. (1973/1993). Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Wiley/Blackwell; Emily Bazelon. (2012). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House. This post and the corresponding chapter in Empathy Lessons rely significantly on Bazelon’s journalistic synthesis of the literature and her incisive interviews; see also James Garbarino and Ellen deLara. (2002). And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence. New York: the Free Press (Simon and Shuster).

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy versus bullying: The biggest bully in my life

[This is the first in a series on bullying and empathy.]

Listen to this podcast on Spotify (via Anchor): https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-versus-bullying-The-biggest-bully-in-my-life-e16v57j

The biggest bully in my life

The biggest bully in my life was a member of my family, my father. Most of the time, he was a nice guy, a good neighbor with a lot of social skills. However, he had a nasty temper that would go off unpredictably. 

Dad would lose his tempter in unpredictable times and unpredictable ways about three times a year, and then there was hell to pay. I would get hit, pushed, knocked down, and called devaluing names. Over a period of ten years, between seven and seventeen years old, that adds up. A bold statement of the obvious: it was unpleasant. 

Persons (and therapists) who later heard about my struggles would ask: “Did he drink?” No, he just had a nasty temper that got triggered by what he (and apparently only he) perceived as narcissistic slights or injuries. His bad behavior satisfied the criteria of bullying in that it was verbal and physical aggression, occurring repeatedly, and in a context where the individuals were significantly unequal in power. 

I have documented the recovery process without describing my father’s behavior explicitly as bullying in an earlier book, A Rumor of Empathy (2015). As part of my recovery, I even published a book chapter on empathy and the treatment of domestic violence.[i]

The new information disclosed here is that Dad’s behavior improved significantly when, at the age of seventeen, having finally grown up physically, I hit him back. Just one punch. Well placed, it gave him a bloody lip. A technical “knock out.” It had a calming effect on him, and I never got hit again. The fight was called in my favor, by mutual agreement. However, do not make too much of it. I was heading out the door and off to college, never to look back, with my academic scholarships.

Dad only bullied members of his own family. To the neighbors and his colleagues at work he was a friendly, even wonderful guy. In years of dynamic psychotherapy beginning when I escaped to college, I explored a process of treatment that included recovery from domestic violence. 

I now believe that the triggers to Dad’s bullying outbursts were some slight provocations—real or imagined—to his narcissism. This means that he was not your typical school yard bully. The school bully may “go off” if one bumps into him in the play ground, but the school yard bully is both strategic and opportunistic in his aggression. With my Dad, he seemed to lack emotional regulation once his sense of self was knocked out of kilter—dis-equilibrated—by a real or imagined narcissistic injury. Dad was at the effect of his rage. He did not seem to be having fun. The people around him were definitely not having fun. 

Dad had a narrative about teaching me a lesson as he lashed out and described me with devaluing names. This was a self-serving narrative at best. Whatever distorted lessons might have been intended, they were not empathy lessons. His bad behavior was in the service of venting his emotions and restoring his own equilibrium. Everyone else around him was dis-equilibrated. As a boy, I was trying not to cry any more in order not to be given more of “something to cry about.” 

In those days, a college student on summer vacation could still get a relatively well paying job in a factory or working construction, and I never returned home. Dad and I patched things up years later. However, the years of misbehavior had taken their toll. There was neither a sentimental reconciliation nor a truth and reconciliation commission to frame the encounter between perpetrator and survivor. Dad never thought of asking for forgiveness and, near as I could tell, he never told the truth about how violently he had behaved. It seemed not to occur to him. 

Forgiveness is over-rated, thought I, at the time; though I eventually came to endorse Desmond Tutu’s approach and bought Tutu’s book based on its title alone—No Future Without Forgiveness. It is about a formal truth and reconciliation commission. The perpetrators have to stand up, face the survivor(s), and tell the truth about what they did to the victims (who did not survive) and to the survivors (who did) in such a way that they agree it is the truth. The perpetrators have to acknowledge what happened in such a way that the survivors recognize it. The process creates a set up—provides a clearing—to build a case for forgiveness. The survivor then gets to say whether he or she accepts the representation of what happened and whether the survivor chooses to grant forgiveness.[ii]

Self-forgiveness is an entirely different matter. Sometimes the hasty forgiving of others is a clumsy way for survivors to get to self-forgiveness, which is a worthy goal. The survivor may usefully forgive himself for incorporating the devaluing descriptions of the bully into the survivor’s low self-esteem. This is an important step, which, speaking personally, years of therapy helped me to attain. The benefit is to empower the survivor to put the past back in the past and create a clearing for positive possibilities going forward into the future.

In comparison to Dad, any school bullies that I encountered were “boy scouts” (with apologies to the Boy Scouts). Any bullies that I encountered at school were more like jumping in reverse back from the fire into the relative coolness of the frying pan. They were physically bigger, but I had other sources of power including humor, a rapier wit, a sharp tongue, and, most importantly, an ability to run amazingly fast over short distances. It worked well enough. 

I was still physically small in middle school; and I had potential as a target of bullying. However, I would speak out of turn in class, playing the class clown, so the tough kids were amused, even entertained. 

The tough guys saw that I spoke truth to power—or at least was not afraid to get an occasional punishment exercise from the teacher for trying to be funny. 

I gained a certain kind of reputation—not exactly popular, unless you consider the notorious outlaw Jesse James to have been popular. Think of “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters at the post office. So the tough kids—and there definitely were some in my pubic middle school—didn’t mess with me. By the time I got to high school proper, I was still below average in size for my age, but it was a private, all boys school. That was the main challenge.

Virtually without exception every kid at my high school was so afraid of the teachers, who were mostly Jesuits, that even the meanest of one’s fellow students seemed like an alter boy in comparison. There was no talking in the corridors between classes; and if one did talk, a teacher, who had been lurking quietly behind you out of sight, would suddenly emerge and bang your head against the lockers, which lined the hallways, making a formidable hollow sound. The locker, not the head, that is. 

Most classes in my high school would begin with the Our Father (the prayer)—nothing wrong with that—but you knew that The Lord—along with big brother (those were the Jesuits who were not formally ordained as priests)—were watching. If the tactics were to put the fear of The Lord into everyone’s head, creating an atmosphere similar to boot camp in the armed forces, then it seemed to have worked. This raises the delicate question whether the teachers were actually the bullies; and I am sorry to report that, yes, some were. 

Sadly, it was not empathy but a common oppressor (the teachers) that helped to build solidarity among the student body. I hasten to add that the majority of the teachers were humane and caring, indeed many were talented educators, creative and engaging. Many had a sense of humor, which sometimes extended to sadistic hijinks. Most would simply give one a week’s worth of detention for daring to talk out of turn. 

The boot camp atmosphere had a tendency to displace the bullying from school itself onto the school bus or the athletic field. I did see a couple of kids bullied on the school bus, and I am ashamed to say, I was not enough in touch with my courage to intervene. Indeed at one point a couple of the mean boys seemed to notice me, and hurled a couple of insults in my direction. I was anticipating a rough time; but then, without explanation, the bus route was changed, and the bullies simply disappeared—to another bus. 

Thinking back, I now believe that the rambunctious kids were motivated by the draconian atmosphere in the school to express their extra adolescent energies by participating in sports (which was perhaps the intention); or going home and raiding their well-to-do parents well-stocked liquor cabinets (not an option for me—Dad did not drink, he was just a bully); or seeking solace for their lack of social skills in their studies. The last was my favored approach. I did find someone to hang out with in the cafeteria—the food was so unpalatable that I further stunted my growth by not eating lunch for four years, though I ended up being an average height. 

After reviewing the research on bullying in depth, I have reached the conclusion that if kids have enough time for interpersonal drama and conflict, the latter often as practice for out-and-out bullying, then the kids have too much time on their hands. They are not nearly busy enough. They would benefit from more homework and extra-curricular activities. Note, however, that this implies the school has the resources to offer the extra-curricular activities, which is not always the case. Unlike Hollywood films of the depression era with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, many schools do not have the resources or organizational skills to say “Hey, let’s put on a play to raise money for the orphanage!” The kids are already the “orphans.” 

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying. Where empathy lives, bullying is rare. Where empathy lives, bullying has no home. 

In environments where empathy is taught and practiced, bullying does not get traction. Situations in which empathy is valued are situations in which bullying is devalued. One might say exactly the same thing about common courtesy. 

In communities—whether middle school or high school or, for that matter, the US Armed Forces—where common courtesy gives way to disrespect in relationships, bullying expands and spreads; but where common courtesy holds sway in relationships, bullies head for the exit or at least hold their (lack of) peace. 

The point? Empathy and courtesy have in common a careful treatment of boundaries in relationships. What empathy and common courtesy share is recognition and respect for the boundaries between individuals in relationships. 

Another bold statement of the obvious: every bulling remark is a breakdown of courtesy—and of empathy. Every bullying gesture is some kind of a boundary violation. We have to be careful with words like “every,” “all,” or “never,” but in this instance they fit. “Please” and “thank you” and requesting permission are discarded. Pushing, shoving, and devaluing language are front and center. 

Empathy is about moving back and forth across the boundary between self and other in relating to other persons, and doing so in such a way that the boundary is treated with integrity. In contrast, in bullying, the boundary between persons is violated, and, so are the space and integrity of the target of the bullying. In bullying, the boundary between persons is crushed, and so is the emotional integrity of the intended target. 

The response of empathy to bullying is to engage in a process of reestablishing the boundary between persons in such a way that people are left authentic and whole. As we shall see, this is different than being nice or even trying to induce empathy in the bully.

Bullying defined

Before we say any more—and there is a lot more to be said—let us define our terms. We rely on the definition provided by the pioneer of bullying research, Dan Olweus, whose ground breaking studies in his homeland, Sweden (and Norway), have provided a rich source of further research.[iii] Olweus was thorough in his research interviewing some 1,000 children as well as their teachers and parents. He administered projective imaging tests (the “ink blot” Rorschach) to those he had identified as bullies or the targets of bullying. 

Olweus defines bullying as (1) aggression (either verbal or physical abuse) towards a person; (2) that occurs towards the person more than once over time; and (3) is between persons of unequal power (whether physical or social rank or both). [iv] The special thing about bullying is that kids do it especially when the targets seem helpless. Kicking someone when they are down is precisely an identifying feature of bullying. 

According to Olweus, what is most distressing about bullying to its targets is repeated domination to inflect pain. If the aggression happens only one time, it is aggression; and that is not good; but it is not bullying. If the people are of equal power or almost equal power, then the behavior is conflict, drama, or a fight, not bullying. 

The distinction between bullying and drama (conflict) is not always easy to determine, so look at physical size (height and weight), formal rank in school or professional status, and job roles. When someone who has power, whether formal or physical, over another is treating the other in such as way as to violate their dignity, that is a strong candidate for bullying. 

Olweus found that about 5% of the boys in his studies were bullies and about 5% were the targets of bullying, “whipping boys” as Olweus called them. 

What the latter had in common was they were physically weaker and anxious. Olweus studied only boys. The discovery of the “mean girl” phenomena still lay in the future. We now know that among girls, physical strength is less of a factor, and girls  have been known to bully by indirect means. 

When relationships become weaponized

When cruelty relies on what one knows about the other person or can plausibly attribute to them, then it is as if the relationship itself becomes weaponized. Insults, injuries, slights, discourtesies, racial and ethnic slurs, are used to deliver pain and suffering to the target. 

Since the bullying is a boundary violation, the way to reestablish empathy and order (where “order” means common courtesy) is to reestablish the boundary between persons. 

A word of caution upfront. Let’s say one is the adult hall prefect at a high school, and an act of bullying is perpetrated in full view in one’s presence. It is tempting to attempt to induce empathy in the bully by asking: “How would you feel if that (aggression) were done to you?” Ultimately such an intervention may be useful, however, not here. If Jack is calling Jill “Fatso!” it is precisely to make her feel bad; it is likely that he knows it; and that is exactly why he is doing it. 

One says to Jack in a loud voice: “Stop! I don’t like what you are doing.” Or “That behavior is unacceptable. Cut it out!” Jack replies: “But Jill doesn’t mind.” An obvious lie—or maybe Jill is so depressed that, in the moment, she is just numb. One clarifies: “I don’t care how Jill feels—I don’t like it. We do not talk to our fellow students that way. It is disrespectful.” Or words to that effect. 

There are numerous scenarios here. If kids are whispering in the presence of another kid such that the target is supposed to imagine devaluing things are being said, the response is similar: “It is impolite to whisper in the presence of others—stop it—it is discourteous” (said in a loud, authoritative voice). The point is to reestablish the boundary in the relatedness, so that even if people do not want to be empathic, they can at least be courteous. It may sound paradoxical, but that is the most empathic response one can provide. 

If the relationship between the bully and the intended target includes hurling insults, then the bystander establishes a “no fly zone” in one’s presence. The metaphor is telling. Stop the insults from flying around. Shoot them down. 

The bullying approach to relating is de-weaponized—at least in one’s presence. The bully may also be better off, at least indirectly, since he (or she) may be trying to use bullying to regulate his own de-regulated emotions. Think of the intervention as regulating the dis-regulated emotions that the bully is experiencing, but which, if only the bully had some interpersonal skills, he would be able to regulate for himself. While there is no silver bullet here, the intervention itself provides the regulation—in the form of a firm boundary to help the bully contain himself and regain an emotional composure without hurting anyone. 

If we use empathy as a method of data gathering about bullies, we may be surprised to learn that bullies are a diverse group of people:[v]

(1) The stereotypical bully: The stereotype really does capture features of the real world. Think of Bill Sikes (see Figure 5) from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Bill Sikes beats his dog and his girl friend. The relationships of power are one-sided and physical violence is prominent. 

Other examples of classic bullies include Carrie’s schoolmates in the revenge movie of the same name; Nelson in the Simpsons; Malfoy in Harry Potter.

One person who reports in great detail on bullying, Emily Bazelon, calls the stereotypical bullies “thugs in training.”[vi] These bullies rely on superior physical strength. They trip you in the corridor, and steal your lunch. They exemplify the descriptions that bullies do poorly academically (except perhaps for Malfoy, who is all the more sinister for being smart and psychopathic). These bullies habitually cause conflict with others, Bazelon reports, and are 4 times more likely to become criminals. 

Bill Sikes bullying his dog in Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Figure 5: Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, bullying his dog

According to Olweus, to whom Bazelon is indebted for the definition of bullying, 60% of childhood bullies have at least one conviction from breaking the law; 35% have three or more encounters with the police. These are the kids who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorder such as cruelty to animals, damage to property, casual disrespect in addressing others—along with bullying behavior. 

Many of these kids, stereotypical bullies, feel miserable, and, are attempting to regulate their disregulated emotions by making others suffer. Yet these bullies would not necessarily agree or endorse the judgment that they are unhappy. This is because they are out of touch with their feelings. They would have to be taught how to feel their feelings prior to asking them, hypothetically, how they would feel if something similar was done to them. If they are out of touch with their own feelings, it is likely that they are unable to get in touch with the feeling of others. They are out of touch with the grain of empathy, which we generously attribute to them. 

In most bullies, the bully’s conscience developmentally lags behind his age cohort. That is especially the case with these individuals. Even if they have a capacity for empathy, empathy is not effective in appealing to their conscience. The conscience is stunted or they dismiss its influence. They may have a trace or sense of empathy, even though undeveloped, but it is often misused to increase the suffering of the targets. 

Instead of tactically trying to induce empathy, external surveillance and behavioral incentives are likely to be most effective in reducing their bullying behavior. If they could find a positive role model to admire and imitate—someone who is not a member of a street gang or “bad boy” rap star—then they could get guidance from him or her. Admiration for a role model would allow the person to acquire ideals and ambitions, contributing to their integration into the community. It just might save their lives. 

(2) The clueless bully: The aggression of this kind of bully does plenty of damage. Yet, at another level, these bullies just don’t get it. He may be socially awkward, or even fall on the autistic spectrum. One kid who fell into this group called his targets “stupid.” He hurt the feelings of many, and, made some kids cry; but in the process he became extremely unpopular. If he thought bullying was a way to get ahead with his peers, it didn’t work. His status plummeted. 

Our empathy suggests that the empty wagon makes the most noise, and this kind of bully is one of those. He is not filled with sadism and malice, but definitely lacking social skills. This is small consolation to those whose days he wrecked, yet it does give one pause. This is the kind of bullying for which the adult’s advice to “fight back” makes the most sense. This is not easy to do. Taking “assertiveness training” or “boxing lessons” assumes the target of bullying lacks skill in one of these areas, and has incentive to develop it. 

The target has been selected precisely because this is someone who does not like to fight. The problem is that prior to assertiveness training, and so on, most targets of bullying are unable to act effectively on their own behalf—or assertively. Lack of experience and skill in dealing with hostility as well as out-and-out fear rarely improve the judgment of the person who is the target of bullying. 

The target of bullying ends up being a deer in the headlights when it comes to fighting. When the power equation is out of balance and a hostile environment exists due to physical size or social conditions (e.g., apartheid (“legal” segregation), anti-Semitism, etc.), fighting back can become a suicidal gesture, literally if not emotionally. Rarely does any benefit exist in getting into a back-and-forth with the bully. 

Still, this is precisely the scenario where the possibility of the would-be victim fighting back in self defense makes the most sense. In many bullying scenarios one may need to beat a tactical retreat or call for backup prior to engaging, since the power equation is so unfavorable. However, in this case, the idea of attempting to set one’s own boundaries by pushing back and confronting the clueless bully is potentially useful and self-empowering. No guarantees, but it might work. 

(3) The bully who is also a target: These bullies are vulnerable to peer pressure. They succumb to peer pressure to abuse others. Nor are they good at protecting themselves from bullying. Unlike the first group, who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorders (which used to be called “juvenile delinquency”), these kids do not feel okay about themselves. They do not subscribe to the philosopher Socrates’ maxim that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. These kids experience the worst of both worlds, but it feels less bad to bully than to be bullied. 

These bullies are relatively more in touch with their feelings than the first two groups, and here is a chance that an “empathy induction” might bear fruit. “How would you feel if this were done to you?” These kids are depressed or anxious or both. They experience a conflict between the fear of being bullied and the “easy way out” of succumbing to peer pressure and becoming a bully. 

Instead of intervening with a suspension from school for the bully, punishment has to be supplemented with treatment, rehabilitation, or guidance. With treatment such as counseling or therapy a possibility exists of improving the behavior once the student returns to the school community after the suspension. A continuum of interventions from online training to individual counseling to working with parents can produce positive outcomes. 

(4) The bully who is a “popular” kid: These individuals score high on social skills. They are good at reading the emotions of others. They have empathy skills, though often they lack the basic foundation of authenticity and integrity needed to use the skills to benefit others or build community. They find relating to other people is relatively easy, and they know how to say just the right things to make friends or placate the grown ups. If the reader is expecting me to say that they are secretly insecure or wracked by self-doubt, that is simply not so. On the contrary, these kids are popular and mostly happy with their lives. Often their parents are well off. The kids get gear and stuff. Yet something is amiss and missing. 

Here bullying occurs as a play for power and social status. A pecking hierarchy exists in which the most popular kid gets a minion to perpetrate the “dirty work,” the bullying. This is the Machiavellian moment. It is best for the Prince—I mean, bully—to be loved; but it is essential to be feared. Likewise for the Princess. When perpetrating wrong doing, one should nevertheless be perceived as being gracious and generous. What is the point of having power or status unless one is able to exercise it? 

Boys provide numerous examples of popular kids who can be mean—see McFly in the Back to the Future series of films—but this is where “mean girls” come into their own.[vii]

When relationships get “weaponized,” the discussion cuts across gender lines, though girls have provided the “poster child” for meanness in the popular press. While boys bully both boys and girls, girls mostly bully girls, bringing a sublimated aggression to the act. 

Up until the age of four, girls grab toys, hit, push, play rough, and shout as much as boys do. At some point, social expectations from parents, extended family, biological programming, school teachers, and so on, drive such behavior underground. 

Conforming to community standards, whether helpful or hurtful, about “sugar and spice and everything nice” requires that girls become stealthy in their aggression. Fisticuffs are out. Queen Bees are in. One definition of a “Queen Bee” is a popular girl, who collects various “minions” around her. The minions, in turn, conform to her expectations in behavior, dress, language, and bullying. 

Girls use threats, blackmail, gossip, rumors, attacking reputations, whispering in provocative ways, the silent treatment, or non-verbal gesturing. Opening up in relationships can leave one vulnerable to aggression from those one has trusted. Following the bad example of the grown ups, cliques of kids will “vote someone off the island.” Nor is it progress that, in some subcultures, girls are becoming almost as ready to throw a punch as the boys. 

This is where empathy may be misused to increase the misery of the target of bullying. Social skills enable the would-be bully to “get inside the heads” of their intended targets to inflict the maximum upset. 

One can find many, diverse examples in which the bully takes the perspective of the intended target, thinks about what would be most shaming or hurtful, and goes about implementing it. The bully has a sense of what the target is experiencing through a refined empathic receptivity. 

What one cannot find is an example in which calling someone devaluing names or giving them “the silent treatment” is an example of empathic responsiveness. While the point is controversial, I am calling this out as a breakdown, indeed a “pathology,” of empathic responsiveness. 

The description of empathy is crucial here. For advocates of empathy as a fundamentally “pro social” attitude, simply “getting” someone else’s feelings and perspective and then using this verbally to bully them isn’t really empathy. An empathic individual would recognize and anticipate the potential hurt, and, therefore, would not respond to the other person in a devaluing way.

The empathy lessons developed in this work takes account of the possibility that empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, and empathic interpretation can be misused to hurt people. But empathy without empathic responsiveness falls short of the definition of full functioning empathy. Such an approach fails and breaks down when empathic responsiveness is tested. One does not give back to the other person that person’s own experience in such a way that he recognizes it as his own. Instead one bullies the other. So empathy must be informed by one’s good upbringing and ethics not to misuse empathic responsiveness to hurt others. 

In conclusion, the recommendation and response of empathy to bullying – and in every case – is to set limits, establish boundaries, and get one’s power back in declining to take the bait of provocative gestures. Self-defense is always appropriate is one is the target of aggression, and so is retreating in the face of disproportionate unfavorable odds.

The challenges is to contain and disarming bullying without becoming an even bigger bully than the bully against whom one is struggling. The proposal is NOT to use empathy to get in touch with the bully’s suffering. Many bullies enjoy misbehaving and they get off on the conflict and making others suffer. Rather the recommendation is to use top down, cognitive empathy to put oneself in the place of there other person (the bully) in order to understand what might be motivating him so that one can deflect, defuse, or deescalate (including implementing a tactical retreat). 

Even if the bully is the boss at work or members of the local police force who have a monopoly on violence, the recommendation is still the same: set boundaries, establish limits, and try to defuse the situation. Note well: this is not a suicide mission – one may have to retreat, call for backup, and find other methods of restoring boundaries and integrity such as civil disobedience, finding powerful allies, documenting and escalating to sympathetic authorities in the establishment (if there are any), or seeking a personal solution in another context. The devil – and the empathy – is in the details and in further podcasts in this series on empathy and bullying, additional guidance will be provided. 


Notes

[i] Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery in Psycho analysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge: 141–194.

[ii] “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” requires telling the truth about what happened and what one made it mean. In asking forgiveness one is required to say for what one is asking forgiveness. I ask: If the perpetrator does not think to ask forgiveness is one obligated to make an unsolicited offer? Forgiveness is a possibility and a recommendation, not an entitlement? 

[iii] Dan Olweus. (1973/1993). Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Wiley/Blackwell. 

[iv] Ibid. 

[v] Emily Bazelon. (2012). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House. This chapter relies significantly on Bazelon’s journalistic synthesis of the literature and her incisive interviews; see also James Garbarino and Ellen deLara, (2002), And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence. New York: the Free Press (Simon and Shuster).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Rachel Simmons. (2002). Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. New York: Harvest (Harcourt). 

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project