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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.
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
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
Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) was originally designed as a treatment for victims of war, persecution, and torture. Civil wars (e.g., Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Iraq) often target civilians and include widespread atrocities and human
rights violations. For example, the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war and the recruitment of child soldiers in the civil wars of east Africa have left entire populations traumatized even after the cessation of hostilities.
Engaging with these survivors is not for the faint of heart. Therapists are at risk of compassion fatigue and burn out. Many survivors have had to run the gauntlet of multiple, complex traumas, requiring a raid on the inarticulate even to bring their suffering to language. NET is such a raid on the inarticulate.
The colleagues at the Universities of Konstanz and Bielefeld have innovated in the matter of an intervention that aims at restoring the survivor’s humanity, does not leave the therapist overwhelmed, is scalable, is relatively brief, indirectly gathers data to pursue justice against the perpetrations, and is evidence-based in reducing the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) even in populations with limited resources.
In a Grand Rounds session on NET at Rush Medical Center, Chicago, in March (2019), I raised the issue of empathy and the risk of burn out with Dani Meyer-Parlapanis Doctor of Psychology, University of Konstanz). Dr Dani is notone of the authors of the text under review here. However, she trains NET practitioners and is providing leadership in extending NET to other applications, including girls and women who embrace violence. I said to her: “If this is not empathy, I would not know it: Empathy LIVEs in NET and in the work you-all are doing. You are engaging with child soldiers and really tough cases. What about it?”
Dr Dani of course acknowledged that compassion fatigue (“burn out”) was a significant risk in engaging with large numbers of survivors of complex trauma, so the NET trainers, are, in effect, counseling the lay counselors notto go into unnecessary detail at first (or words to that effect). Just get the time-line and a label for what happened. But then acknowledging full well that the work was precisely to go into the details she said: “The idea is to be like an investigative reporter.” Though acknowledging the matter may be controversial, I took that to mean empathy in the sense of data gathering and sampling the survivor’s experience, not immersing oneself in it. The investigative reporter is not hard-hearted, but in tune with what the survivor is experiencing. That indeed is the heart of the investigation.
Thus, “empathy” is distinct from compassion. Empathy targets a form of data gathering about what the other person experienced, a sampling of the other’s experience. Such empathy is in tune with the boundaries between self and other and leaves each individual whole and complete in a context of acceptance and toleration. I believe the definition of empathy of Heinz Kohut (1959) as vicarious introspection aligns remarkably well with that employed in NET.
In the face of compassion fatigue, dial empathy up or down by simulating the role of an investigative reporter. If one can say exactly what happens, the trauma begins to shift, lose power, and shrink, typically by being reintegrated in the context of everyday life and experience. In this case, the investigative reporter also uses vicarious introspection. Easier said than done; but necessarily both said and done.
The reader in Chicago may say that’s fine, but what has it got to do with the situation here in the USA? We do not have child soldiers or wide spread traumatized populations.
Think again. Gangs are recruiting children of tender age not only as messengers but also as triggermen, because they know youngsters will face a different criminal justice system and process, generally more lenient, than adults.
After two wars, stretching back to the consequences of the 2001 terrorists attacks, the population is peppered with wounded warriors, both men and women, with a diversity of untreated symptoms from subclinical substance abuse to PTSD, thought disorders, and depression. Violence against (and abuse of) women is no longer an issue in the inner city, but is acknowledged to be a challenge from Hollywood to corporations and the US Supreme Court.
So, while NET has not received much application in the USA (or the first world), the unmet need is great and it deserves consideration. Hence, the value of this overview.
In some four to fourteen sessions of 90–120 minutes each, the therapist and client create an autobiographical time-line that names the events that have stimulated the most affective arousal in the person’s life. These include traumatic events such as aggression, sexual boundary violations, deaths of loved ones, becoming a refugee, and so on. Positive events are also included on the time-line such as births, marriages, graduations, and life successes. Fast forwarding through the process, the client is handed a copy documenting the narrative at the end of the sessions and a copy is retained just in case the client wishes/agrees to submit the report to the authorities for judicial, prosecutorial follow up.
One of the innovations and most challenging aspects of the narrative in working with former child soldiers (who have grown up in the interim) is to create a context of acceptance and tolerations. Naturally the therapist must employ empathy, but he or she does so as an investigative reporter gathering data about what happened. To become a child solider the survivor is generally required to commit an atrocity such as kill a member of his or her family. Issues of shame and guilt along with the deadening loss of one’s own humanity are powerfully present and evoked.
The first session begins. Diagnosis and psycho-education occur up front. The client may not even know what is PTSD. The client may be living a basically resigned and hopeless existence, and she or he must be enrolled in the possibility of recovery. The education includes information on symptoms, what is involved in the therapy, as well as a statement about the universality of human rights.
An initial pass through the client’s autobiography occurs. A time-line, the life span history, is completed during the second session. The task is to name or label the event in the course of one 90–120 minute session without calling forth the details and hot emotional impact of the traumatic incident. A rope line is used with a variety of stones for traumas, flowers for positive events, and sticks for when the client perpetrated a dignity violation against another. The subsequent work of sessions three through fourteen is to engage sequentially with the events. The work at hand is to find words to express what has previously been unexpressible.
The narrative work consists of going through the events of the time-line. When? Where? And what? The five senses are invoked. Hot memory, sensation, cognition, and emotion are called forth. What did the background look like? What were the people wearing. Small, cold details call forth powerful hot emotions.
The idea is to put into words and capture verbally the hot affect and experience. The session is not over until the client (often with the support of the therapist) is able to describe what happened in words – that is the narrative.
Now “what a person made it mean” also starts to emerge at this time, and those meanings will naturally be compared with reasonable (or unreasonable) assessments of what to expect of children or people literally with a gun or machete to their necks.
Talking about what happened in the course of the traumatic events calls forth the hot experiences. Talking about what happened following the traumatic events put the hot events back into the context of cold experience. Talking about what happened following the trauma enables the client to reintegrate the trauma into the all-encompassing, greater life narrative. The client is reoriented in time and space to the present, the trauma is contextually situated as to emotional meaning. Before the session ends, the therapist verifies and validates that the client’s arousal has subsided to standard levels and is oriented to the present.
Cognitive restructuring occurs automatically in the days after the story telling. The client may return to the next session with new insights, meanings, and understanding of her or his own behavior in the trauma. Formerly inaccessible details (memories) may emerge and should be included in the narrative.
For example, one child soldier reported that he killed his sister by cutting her neck with a machete as part of the initiation, for which he bore a great emotional and moral burden; but he subsequently remembered that one of the paramilitaries hit his sister in the head with his rifle butt, a fatal blow, prior to his own action. Therefore, though he did in fact cut his sister, he did not kill her. Small comfort; and not a choice anyone should have to make; yet a significant step in recovering this individual’s dignity and humanity.
In the final session, the client is given a document of her or his narrative lifeline with the details filled in. Where appropriate, the client is asked if he wants to forward the data to the authorities for prosecution of the high level authorities and perpetrators who organized the war crimes. Follow up occurs at six months and a year, often documenting further improvement in symptom reduction, acquisition of life skills, and accomplishments.
NET is trauma focused but unlike many trauma focused therapies that require the survivor to identify thetrauma or select the worst trauma (“good luck with that”), NET acknowledges that survivors of war, torture, and persecution have encountered a sequence of traumas. This is call a “life span” approach.
Granted NET evokes a grim calculus, the number of traumatic event types – beating, rape, killing, torture, branding, amputation, witnessing these, destruction of home by paramilitaries, domestic violence and/or substance abuse by family member, perpetrating or participating in these, and so on – predicts the symptoms of PTSD over and above the actual number of traumatic events.
The results? Studies showing the effectiveness of NET have been independently conducted (Hijazi et al 2014, Zang et al 2013). Centrum 45 in the Netherlands and the Center for Victims of Torture in Minnesota use NET in treating survivors and refugees. NET manuals are now available in English, Dutch, French, Italian, Slovakian, Korean, and Japanese and are also available from the authors in Spanish and Farsi.
Further detailed evidence of the effectiveness of NET is at hand. Reorganizing traumatic memories seems to be inherently stress reducing. Chronic stress causes a weakening of the body’s resilience and defenses against disease and emotional disorder. Reducing stress improves one’s health and well-being. “Morath, Gola et al. (2014) showed that symptom improvements caused by NET were mirrored in an increase in the originally reduced proportion of regulatory T cells in the NET group at a one-year follow-up.” “These cells are critical for maintaining balance in the immune system and regulating the immune response to infection without autoimmune problems. This finding fits with the observation that NET reduces the frequencies of cough, diarrhea, and fever for refugees living in a refugee settlement (Neuner et al. 2008, Neuner et al 2018).”
NET works. NET produces positive results for those suffering from PTSD. This brings us to the question: Why does it work? Thereby hangs a tale – and a theory.
NET conceptualizes PTSD and related disorders as disorders of memory.
For example, hot memories include the sounds of people screaming for help, the sight of dead or wounded persons, the smell of the perpetrator pressing his body against the victim, the taste of one’s own vomit, the experience of being unable to move and helplessness, and so on. These are “hot memories.” These occur or occurred in a context of coldmemories of place, time, and standard activities.
For example: “We were working in the garden behind the house when the paramilitaries drove up in a truck.” In the case of an individual trauma or series of traumas of the same type, as a defensive measure to preserve the integrity of one’s personal experience, the individual may take himself out of the situation in thought automatically, watching and experiencing the situation as if he was an observing third party. How this occurs is not well understood, but it seems to support survival of the organism in extreme situations.
This disconnects the “hot” and “cold” contexts. In the case of an individual surviving multiple trauma types, beating, rape, loss of home, the cumulative traumatic load causes the traumas to be grouped into a network disconnected from the standard, cold context of everyday life. Fear generalizes forming a fear network. Emotional, sensory, cognitive and physiological representations interconnection with the excitatory force of hot memories. Ordinary, random events become triggers of this network.
The trauma LIVEs. It takes on a life of its own as the fear network. PTSD survivors learn to avoid triggers that act as activators of hot memories. The client isolates. He or she has difficulties with the cold context of autobiographical memory. A negative cascade of experiences is mobilized as symptoms suck the life out of the individual, leaving him or her as an emotional zombie. “Shut down” replaces intrusive thoughts and hyper-arousal with passive avoidance and disassociation.
The effectiveness of NET consists in reestablishing the connections between hot and cold memories, the hot traumatic events and the cold, everyday occurrences that situate them in place and time. In a context of acceptance and toleration (i.e., non-judgment and empathy), the client is supported in reliving the details of what happened by putting them into words without losing the connection to the here and now. If one can say what happened, the emotion is called forth and reintegrated into the context of the person’s life. The trauma starts to shrink.
The imagined exposure to the traumatic event is maintained long enough for the affect, especially the fear, to be called forth and allowed to begin to fade in intensity. The narrative is essential. Absent words, retraumatization – invoking the trauma in an uncontrolled way – is the risk to the client. Even if time is running short, the session must not end until the client (with the help of the therapist (as appropriate)) has found some words to describe what happened. (If the trauma involves organized or domestic violence, the testimony may be recorded or documented for forensic purposes.)
Two of the strengths of NET are the low drop out rate and the scalability due to building a network of lay therapists. Lay therapists?
The World Health Organization endorses this approach for those communities with limited resources (Jordans, Tol 2012). Given the limited resources of third world countries or even many communities in the USA due to the monopoly-like rents being collected by healthcare insurance providers, NET embraces “task shifting.” “Task shifting” consists in training lay therapists to perform the intervention.
Regarding the training and use of lay therapists to deliver NET, it is scalable, affordable, and workable. It is also controversial. In the State of Illinois (USA) one needs a license to cut hair. However, so far as I know, one does not need a license to have a structured conversation for possibility with another human being about what they had to survive. No doubt the graduates of PsyD programs may have an opinion about that; but personally having taught in two PsyD programs, I know the dedication, commitment, and hard work of the students and teachers; and I also know that one cannot take a course entitled (or with the content of) “empathy lessons” or with “empathy training” in any of these programs. I know because I proposed to do so, but it simply did not get approval due to other priorities.
NET offers significant potential not only to treat PTSD survivors of violence and trauma. Anxiety and panic disorders, depression, eating and substance abuse disorders, borderline personality disorder (BPD), all report intrusive memories filled with upsetting content but lacking cold memory context.
One final thought. Those suffering from PTSD are suffering from reminiscences – disorganized, toxic memories. The astute reader may recall this is what Freud said, in slogan-like sound byte, about hysteria (Breuer, Freud 1893). Each memory has to be transformed into words, into a narrative. Each memory has to be expressed in speech so that the body no longer has to function as the corporeal narrator in flashbacks, startle response, panic attacks, intrusive ideas, emotional numbing and overstimulation. Narrative exposure therapy gives new meaning to the phrase “the talking cure,” and it is one. How shall I put it delicately? My “French” fails me: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Breuer, Josef and Freud, Sigmund. (1893). Studies on Hysteria. Translated from the German and edited by James Strachey. (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. II.) Hogarth Press, London 1955.
Hijazi, A. M., Lumley, M. A., Ziadni, M. S., Haddad, L., Rapport, L. J., & Arnetz, B. B. (2014).Brief narrative exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress in Iraqi refugees: A preliminary randomized clinical trial. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 27(3), 314–322. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.21922
Jordans, M. J., & Tol, W. A. (2012). Mental health in humanitarian settings: Shifting focus to care systems. International Health, 5(1), 9–10.
Kohut, Heinz. (1959). Introspection, empathy, and psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association7. (July 1959): 459–407.
Morath, J., Gola, H., Sommershof, A., Hamuni, G., Kolassa, S., Catani, C., … Elbert, T. (2014).
The effect of trauma-focused therapy on the altered T cell distribution in individuals with PTSD: Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 54, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.03.016
Neuner, F., Onyut, P. L., Ertl, V., Odenwald, M., Schauer, E., & Elbert, T. (2008). Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder by trained lay counselors in an African refugee settlement: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(4), 686–694. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.76.4.686
Neuner, Frank, Elbert, Thomas, Schauer, Maggie. (2011).Narrative Exposure Therapy: A Short-Term Treatment for Traumatic Stress Disorders, 2ndEdition, Göttingen, Germany: Hofgrefe Verlag.
Neuner, Frank, Elbert, Thomas, Schauer, Maggie. (2018).Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) as a Treatment for Traumatized Refugees and Post-conflict Populations: Theory, Research and Clinical Practice. 10.1007/978-3-319-97046-2_9.
Zang, Y., Hunt, N., & Cox, T. (2013). A randomised controlled pilot study: The effectiveness of narrative exposure therapy with adult survivors of the Sichuan earthquake. BMC Psychiatry, 13(1), 41. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-13-41
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
This work aims to be educational in a brain-storming way about the role of empathy in the community and the market for empathy services. Hanna Holborn Gray has said that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” I hereby also add: The intention of education is to expand one’s empathy. Amazingly enough that is not as comfortable as many people might imagine, which brings up to the first trend – resistance to empathy.
10. Resistance to empathy grows and is acknowledged. I may be a tad late with this one, since it is actually front section news in the New York Times, but just in case you have been living in a cave: Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? Yet people can be difficult – very difficult – why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy – emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip and devaluing language – are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding and building community.
9. Empathy is not an on-off switch; it is rather a dimmer or rheostat (and the public debate acknowledges this). Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable to burnout and compassion fatigue. The risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one is doing it wrong. The listener may get a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or problem, including their suffering, so the listener suffers vicariously, but, strange as it may sound, not too much. As noted, if one is over-whelmed by suffering, one is doing it wrong, and one needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. Empathy is like a dimmer – tune it up or tune it down. Empathy is like a filter – increase the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or decrease the granularity (i.e., open the pores) and get less. That is the whole point of a vicarious experience – and training one’s vicarious experiences as distinct from merger or over-identification – to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being overwhelmed by it. Empathy is not so much an on-off switch as it is a dimmer or rheostat to gradually turn the lights up or down – gradually expand or contract the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. This point is completely missed in the otherwise engaging and spirited public debate feature in the New York Times where Hamid Zaki identifies empathy with compassion – and – how shall I put it delicately? – it is a conversation of deaf persons about the importance of listening from that point onwards[see http://tinyurl.com/gwmfpxp%5D. The recommendation? Listen, interpret the resistance and apply conflict resolution principles – identify and express grievances, invite self-expression, apply the soothing salve of empathy to the narcissistic injuries, elicit requests/demands, propose compromises / action items, iterate – until resolution.
8. Empathy is too important to be left to the psychologists. For psychologists empathy is by definition a psychological mechanism. For example, identification or transient identification or projection plus introjection (or visa versa) or mirroring or mirroring plus recognition of the other or inner imitation or motor mimicry. (This list goes on and this is not complete.) And while there is nothing wrong with psychological mechanisms or neuropsychological narratives built around their operation in the cerebral neural cortex and basal ganglia, there is something missing – empathy. So what then is empathy? Very short definition: It is being in the presence of another human as a human being with nothing else added. This [big word trigger alert] is the ontology of empathy – being in the presence of the other individual without anything else added. (This is called “ontology” – the study of being and ways of being, and it is definitely not psychology.) For example, Heinz Kohut, a psychiatrist from a time when psychologists were either psychoanalysts (or behaviorists), had a definition of empathy as vicarious introspection. This has an key ontological dimension as Kohut says “the idea of an inner life of man and thus of a psychology of complex mental states, is unthinkable without our ability to know via vicarious introspection – my definition of empathy […] what the inner life of man is, what we ourselves and what others think and feel life of the other individual would be inconceivable without empathy” (Kohut 1977: 304). The point is that empathy is both deeper and broader than a psychological mechanism – it is the basis for relatedness between individuals. Without empathy, no relatedness. Empathy grants being to relatedness. This matter of being with the other individual, in turn, becomes the foundation for community in an expanding circle of inclusion. As soon as one adds diagnostic categories, labels, arguments – which, admittedly, can be required in some contexts – empathy mis-fires, relatedness goes missing, and resistance to empathy expands. Thus, an empathic conversation is frequently challenged to find the equilibrium between using categories and distinctions to access the experience of the other individual while being with the other and being receptive to the vicarious experience of their suffering (or joy) as another human being.
7. Life coaching gets traction as empathy consulting. Empathy and life coaching intersect (again). The reason an Olympic athlete has a coach is not because she is not good at what she does. Positively expressed, people get a coach when they want to take their game – their performance – to the next level. Many people are already good at what they do and are committed to expanding their results in one area or another such as career, relationships, physical well-being, contribution to community, or peace of mind, in which their experience indicates something is missing. People get a therapist when they want a diagnosis or when they are pushed into survival and need to find a way out. Nothing wrong with that – indeed it can be critical path to transforming suffering into productive results. However, there is good news here – many people are not suffering but have an area in their lives that needs work to provide the results to which they are committed. This is where empathy is oxygen for the soul and can facilitate breathing easier in climbing the stairs to self-satisfaction in accomplishment. Yes, performance may usefully be measured “by the numbers” with meaningful data, but you don’t just need data, expanded empathy is required too.
6. “Hug a stranger” becomes an empathy trend. I am not making this up – well, okay, in a way, I am. The human body is the best picture of the human soul. So hugging another person is not just an emotional and physical but also a spiritual gesture. In this case, hugging and the “space of hugging” starts a journey of discovery that gives us access and reveals that there are far fewer strangers in the world – possibly none – then we at first imagined. I learned about this trend from Stone Kraushaar who distinguishes the physical embrace – the hug [with permission] – between two people from the “space of hugging,” which (on a good day) opens up a whole universe of empathy, sharing, transforming, building community, and being with mutual humanity. While acknowledging that hugging is not empathy, in the context of Stone’s work (and pending book), it is – in the deep sense of being in the presence of another human being without anything extraneous being added or subtracted. So if you see people walking down the street stopping for conversation, asking permission, breaking out in spontaneously hugging one another, you will know they have been engaging with Stone’s provocative proposal. You just might see yourself and encounter your own humanity in another in a new way you had not previously imagined. The empathic point is that you start by thinking these other people “out there” are strangers but when you get to know them well enough to be comfortable with a hug, you and they belong to the same community – you are not strangers after all.
5. Health insurers promise empathy, do not deliver, and continue to collect monopoly rents. The empathy gap widens. Health insurers maintain a firm grip on the market for empathy-related “behavioral health” services without actually providing any. This is the only candidate trend from last year that I am repeating, since it is still accurate but a work in progress – and, unfortunately, picking up speed, going in the wrong direction. The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) – reportedly to be terminated with extreme prejudice as this piece is about to be posted – promised to equalize benefits for medical benefits such as annual physical health checkup (including $800 worth of blood work) with mental health services such as psychotherapy. At the risk of being cynical, I don’t know if the reader has tried to collect lately or services rendered. The war stories, pretexts for nonpayment, and simple violations of their own rules – e.g., timely response – by insurers continue to mount. One feels a certain dissatisfaction with the lack of solutions. What to do about it? In spite of claims to the contrary, the recommendation from insurers seems to be: “But your majesty, the people have no mental health benefits. Then let them pay cash! And then let them eat cake.”
4. Medical doctors “get it” – empathy is good for your health. Empathy gets traction as an evidence-based intervention. “Evidence-based everything” is the gold standard in medical and so-called “behavioral health” interventions; and that is as it should be (Jeremy Howick, (2011)). The “gold standard” of the “gold standard” is double-blind testing, which works especially well in the cases of drugs in which one can indeed “double-blind” the test so that neither the researcher nor the recipient knows who is getting what pill. While judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a role, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. But here is the issue: There are some interventions such as penicillin and using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane that seem to limit or even defy the gold standard. It would be unethical not to give someone penicillin if they were infected with an infection serious enough to require such treatment, since it is a matter of historical accident that penicillin was invented prior to the “evidence based” paradigm shift. And, as regards using a parachute, that case is the reduction to absurdity of not using common sense as a criteria in deciding what counts as evidence. What is going on here? The answer: The effect size is so large that it outweights and overwhelms any hidden confounding factors and so rises to the level of evidence (without quotation marks) [Howick: 5, 11]. The :effect size” is a function of the the fact – the evidence – that there are so many examples and so much experience that penicillin works – that parachutes – work that the risk of one’s over-looking some other confounding variable is vanishingly small. It really was the penicillin, not (say) the effects of the alignmnet of the planets hidden behind the penicillin. Likewise, with empathy. The trend here is that research will emerge that puts the use of empathy in human relations as demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health contexts in question that not to apply empathy would be like not prescribing antibiotics against a bacterial infection. Empathy has been effective in shifting the suffering and transforming the psychic pain throughout history. The criticism of empathy has usually been that it results in burnout, compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed or the results will be unpredictable. Regarding empathy, see the discussion above about empathy not being an on-off switch but a rheostat that requires training to get just right. Examples of peer-reviewed publications exist in which empathy was shown to be effective (in comparison with less empathy) in correlating with favorable outcomes in diabetes, cholesterol, and the common cold (?!) and are cited in the bibliography (see M. Hojat et al, (2011), John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), David P. Rakel et al, (2009)). Expect this work to expand and gain traction in other areas such as psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, not to begin with empathy would be like jumping out of the airplane without a parachute or not providing penicillin when the infection was bacterial. Curiously enough, among medical doctors, psychiatrics are alleged to be “lagging adopters”; among psychologists, those specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy are – note that Arthur Ciaramicoli claims to have it both ways (in a book (2016) that I wish I had written).
3. The culture of empathy taps into the power of empathy. Empathy gets in touch with its own power and becomes self-aware as being powerful. This is (and would be) completely unpredictable. At least initially that looks like the culture of empathy partnering with assertiveness training, fair fighting, and being self-expressed. The culture of empathy gets traction in conflict resolution, building community, setting limits to the anti-empathic methods of bullies; and this trend gets the attention that it so richly deserves. The CultureOfEmpathy [one word] is the web site and brain child of Edwin Rutsch, whose has literally interviewed dozens of empathy scholars and researchers (including myself) and is one of the most inclusive people I have ever met. Here is the issue: in fighting off bullies how does one do so in such a way that one does not become a bully oneself? The recommendation is direct: empathy is about setting boundaries between self and other and crossing boundaries between self and other in a way that enhances mutual understanding and community. No one was ever required by empathy to be a door matt. Since empathy works best and seems to require that people relate as equals in the matter of their humanity, the relation between empathy and power has always been fraught. It requires work. When the power relations as too asymmetrical or when force (violence) is being used to coerce an outcome, then a level playing field has to be reestablished for empathy to get traction. Then the empathic thing to do is fight back – self-defense is its own justification. Simple as that (though, as usual, the devil is in the details). Bullying – and related forms of aggression are the contrary of empathy – crossing boundaries in ways that generate misunderstanding and the dehumanizing aspects of shame and humiliation. Set firm boundaries.
2. Empathy becomes known as reducing inflammation and restoring homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research along with mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, sensory deprivation and certain naturally occurring steroids (Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012)). Although an over-simplification, when the human body is attacked by bacteria, it mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sick behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years and is basically healthy as the body fights off the infection using its natural immune response. However, fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not imagine the stresses of modern life back when we were short proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti plain and fending off large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stress of modern life – the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis – and the result is “sickness behavior” – many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression – but there is no infection. The inflammation become chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to down regulate the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as those indicated above reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor for when an angry [“inflamed”] person is listened to empathically, they [often] calm down and regain their equilibrium. The trend here is that empathy migrates onto the short list. Now for something completely different …
1. A definable market for empathy software and business services emerges. Virtual reality (VR) software meets and expands empathic understanding. A company named Psious [psious.com] has developed a diverse set of applications for virtual reality goggles to simulate situations that psychotherapy clients may find anxiety inspiring such as flying on a commercial jet, public speaking, shots (e.g., with needles) at doctor visits and many more (see my Blog post on Psious (http://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq)). Two other companies that are a software initiative relating to empathy include Affectiva [affective.com], which automates Paul Ekman’s facial action coding scheme (see my blog post (http://tinyurl.com/hymj3mj)), and Empathetics [empathetics.com], not yet reviewed. From admittedly incomplete reports, the engaging thing about Empathetics is that its value proposition is to train medical doctors in empathy using biofeedback under a program licensing intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In addition, this medical initiative is distinct from but related to two companies (Business Solver and Maru/VCR) which call out “empathy” explicitly as a key differentiator in what they offer their business clients. Business Solver is branding an empathy monitor for business success in a human resources platform and related services. This includes the disturbing data point that some 61% if business leaders see their firms as being empathic whereas only 24% of employees do. What to do about it constitutes the bulk of the engagement. Maru/VCR has a database based on the Vision Critical Research platform that enables its clients to build customer communities and get access to breakthrough innovations and insights in market research.
0. Businesses “get it” – empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of commodities hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, some of the things that make people good at business make them relatively poor empathizers. Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is on the critical path for serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition [not exactly empathy but close enough?], building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. When the ontology of empathy exposes it as the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes nearly synonymous with expanding business. For example, building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, team building, are the basis for brand loyalty, employee commitment, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. Specific firms that have emerged – albeit in the context of an early market – to address these aspects of empathy in business and are called out in trend #2 above.
[These ten top trends in empathy for 2017 should be read in connection with the score for those from last year (2016) [see http://tinyurl.com/gub7pew]. And, yes, I know that there are actually eleven this year – bonus!?]
Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management Reverses Anxiety-Related Leukocyte Transcriptional Dynamics. Biological Psychiatry, 2011; 15: 366-372.
David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Yogic meditation reverses NF-kB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trail. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2013 March 38(3): 348 – 355.
Arthur Ciaramicoli, (2016), The Stress Solution. New York: New World Library.
Jodi Halpern, (2013), “What is Clinical Empathy?” J Gen Intern Med 2003 Aug: 18(8): 670 – 674.
Hojat et al, (2011), Physicians empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients, ACAD MED MAR; 86(3): 359 – 64: doi: 10.1097ACM.0b013e3182086fe1
Jeremy Howick, (2011). The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012). Mitigating Cellular Inflammation in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi Chih. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2012 September; 20(9): 764 – 722.
John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), The Influence of the Patient-Clinician Relationship on Healthcare Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, PLOS ONE [Public Library of Science], April 2014, Vol. 9, Issue 4.
Heinz Kohut, (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.
David P. Rakel et al, (2009),”Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the common Cold, Fam Med 41(7): 494 – 501.
Lou Agosta, (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery. London: Routledge.
_________ (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot.
__________ (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project
The image depicts a mirror neuron – the neurological basis for empathy – admiring itself in the mirror. But do mirror neurons even exist? If not, what is the underlying neural implementation mechanism for empathy? At another level of analysis, how is empathy like oxygen for the soul, reducing stress and enabling possibility? Find out more here …
To register or for more info call Elizabeth Oller: 1-312-935-4245 or email: JosephPalomboCenter@icws.edu
Empathy, Stress Reduction, and Brain Science
A famous person once said: “Empathy is oxygen for the soul.” So if one is feeling shortness of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy! This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience (“brain science”). For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.
We will engage each of the following modules in the discussion segment, including suggested readings. Except for the first two topics, we can take them in any order and the participants will get to select:
- This is your mind on neuroscience – mirror neurons: do they exist, and if not, so what?
- Sperry on the split brain: the information is in the system: how to get at it
- The neuroscience of trauma – and how empathy gives us access to it
- MRI research: as when Galileo looked through the telescope, a whole new world opens
Presenter: Lou Agosta, PhD, is the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy, including A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015). He has taught empathy in history and systems of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and offered a course in the Secret Underground Story of Empathy at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Education. He is a psychotherapist (and empathy consultant) in private practice in “on the forward edge in the Edgewater Community” in Chicago.
Date: Saturday December 03, 2016
Time: 9 AM – noon
Registration Fee: $35
Location: to be provided upon registration: at or near ICSW at 401 S. State St Chicago, IL
Registration: Call Elizabeth Oller: 312 935 4245 or email: JosephPalomboCenter@icsw.edu
Empathy breaks down into emotional contagion. Empathy breaks down in conformity and the closing off of possibilities for flourishing. Empathy breaks down in projection. Empathy breaks down in devaluing and cynical language, in which our humanity literally gets lost in translation. These are not the only ways that empathy fails, but they are the Big Four. How to overcome them?
Break throughs in empathy arise from working through the breakdowns of empathy. Empathic receptivity breaks down into emotional contagion, suggestibility, and being over-stimulated by the inbound communication of the other person’s strong feelings. If one stops in the analysis of empathy with the mere communication of feelings, then empathy collapses into emotional contagion. This and the other breakdowns of empathy are summarized in Figure: How empathy fails, breaks down, misfires.
These breakdowns (and how to overcome them) are considered in detail in Chapter Two of the book Empathy Lessons. To order the book click here: Empathy Lessons.) Read on for more details –
If one takes emotional contagion—basically the communication of emotions, feelings, affects, and experiences—as input to further empathic processing, then emotional contagion (communicability of affect) makes a contribution to empathic understanding.
A vicarious experience of emotion differs from emotional contagion in that one knows that the other person is the source of the emotion. That makes all the difference. I feel anxious or sad or high spirits, because I am with another person who is having such an experience, and I “pick it up” from him. I can then process the vicarious experience, unpacking it for what is so and what is possible in the relationship. This returns empathy to the positive path of empathic understanding, enabling a break through in “getting” what the other person is experiencing. Then the one person can contribute to the other person regulating and mastering the experience.
Or instead of empathic understanding grasping possibility for flourishing and relatedness, empathic understanding can break down in conformity. Humans live and flourish in possibilities; and empathic understanding breaks down as “no possibility,” “stuckness,” and the suffering of “no exit” (one definition of hell in a famous play of the same name by Sartre). One follows the crowd; one does what “one does”; one validates feelings and attitudes according to what “they say”; and, with apologies to Thoreau, lives the life of “quiet desperation” of the “modern mass of men.”
Almost inevitably, when someone is stuck, experiencing shame, guilt, upset, emotional disequilibrium, and so on, the person is fooling himself—has a blind spot—about what is possible. This does not mean that it is easy to be in the person’s situation or for the person to see what is missing. Far from it. But we live in possibilities that we allow to define our constraints and limitations—for example, see the above-cited friend who was married and divorced three times. At the risk of being simple-minded, dear friend, have you considered the alternative—cohabitation? Though this might not be a “silver bullet,” it points to a break through in empathic understanding. If one acknowledges that the things that get in the way of our relatedness are the very rules we make up about our relationships and what is possible within them, then we get freedom to relate to the rules and possibilities precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” We stop “shoulding” on ourselves.
For example, if cohabitation is unacceptable due to personal or community standards, then let’s have a conversation for possibility about that (and so on). This brings us to the next break down—the break down in empathic interpretation.
This is the aspect of empathy that corresponds most exactly to the folk definition of empathy—taking a walk in the other person’s shoes. But in the break down of empathic interpretation, one takes that walk with one’s own foot size. This is also called “projection.” Now that can sometimes tell you something useful, because human beings have many things in common; but most times—and especially with most of the tough cases—empathy is going to run off the path. Imaginatively elaborating the metaphor, the other person is literally flat footed, whereas I have a high arch on my foot; the other person is an amputee, a “blade runner” with a high tech prosthesis—a different kind of “feet.” I am a “duck” and have webbed, duck feet; the other person is a “rabbit” and has furry, rabbit feet.
The recommendation? Own your projections. Take back the attributions of your own inner conflicts onto other people. One gets one’s power back along with one’s projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since one probably cannot stop, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited. Absent a sustained conversation with the other person, be humble that you have any idea what is going on with the other person.
Having worked through vicarious experiences, possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back one’s projections, one is ready to attempt to communicate to the other person one’s sense of their experience. One is going to try to say to the other what one gets from what they told you, giving back to the other one’s sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; but other times something gets “lost in translation.”
The breakdown of empathic response occurs within language as one fails to express oneself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle and effort, but (in this example) I failed completely to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her. My empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try (assuming that I really have tried); but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes. Try again.
The fact that one failed does not mean that the commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that one did not succeed this time; and one needs to keep trying. It takes practice. Empathy lessons are useful. The exchange in questions was one of them. Learn from one’s mistakes.
Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. What I say is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding (in a given context). But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. In a world that is lacking in empathy, the empathic person is a non-conformist. Be a non-conformist. Break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged; rather be glad, for a break through is near.
Bibliography / Further Readings on Empathy by Lou Agosta
Those interested in the history of empathy – the distinction, not just the word – will want to check out:
Those into a Heideggerian account of empathy with further work in Searle’s speech act approach, Husserl, and Kohut will want to check out:
In empathy one person is quite simply in the presence of another human being. Empathy is supposedly like apple pie and motherhood. What’s not to like? Yet being empathic can be confronting and anxiety inspiring because one has to dispense with evaluations, filters, diagnostic labels, and egocentrism and be with the other person as a way of being. Empathy arouses subtle and pervasive resistances. A Rumor of Empathy engages such resistances to overcome them. People are naturally empathic and given half a chance empathy will come forth, but it is inhibited by limited natural endowment, individual deprivations, and organizational conformity. Classic interventions can themselves represent resistances to empathy, such as the unexamined life; over-medication, and the application of devaluing diagnostic labels to expressions of suffering. Agosta explores how empathy is distinguished as a unified multidimensional clinical engagement, encompassing receptivity, understanding, interpretation and narrative. When all the resistances have been engaged, defenses analyzed, diagnostic categories applied, prescriptions written, and interpretive circles spun out, in empathy one is quite simply in the presence of another human being.
Lou Agosta, Ph.D., is one of the premier empathy consultants, psychotherapists, and educators in the community. He is the author of three books on empathy including the book that is the subject of this announcement and A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy (Palgrave 2014), a short history of empathy in Hume, Kant, Lipps, Freud, Scheler, and Husserl; Empathy in the Context of Philosophy (Palgrave 2010), a Heideggerian interpretation of empathy with follow on results in Searle, Husserl, and Kohut. For further details on empathy therapy, consulting, and education see www.aRumorOfEmpathy.com
(c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. and the Chicago Empathy Project