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10. Empathy is the new love. You know how in fashion gray is the new black? Same idea. Empathy is the new love. What people really want is to be “gotten” for who they authentically are as a possibility. In hoping to be understood for who they really are as a possibility, people are not asking for love; they are asking for empathy. If empathy is the new love, what then was the old love?
According to philosophers and poets, the old love is akin to a kind of madness—sometimes divine madness, sometimes just plain earthly madness. The one who is in love is semi-hypnotically held in bondage by an idealization of the beloved. In one way, love shows up as animal magnetism, a powerful attraction; in another way, in a quasi-hypnotic trance, love idealizes the beloved, and, blindly and madly overlooks the would-be partner’s failings and limitations.
Folk wisdom, as noted, suggests that love is blind; Bob Dylan, that love is just a four letter word; Plato, that love is a kind of madness. So far, love sounds like tertiary syphilis.
The goal of love is to erase the boundary between the self and other. Merger of one’s mind and body with the beloved’s mind and body is the sought after result. In contrast to love, empathy navigates or transgresses the boundary between oneself and other such that the merger is temporary and the integrity of the self and other are maintained. One has a vicarious experience of the other—but the difference and integrity of the self and other are preserved.
So from the relational perspective of too much or too little merger and engagement with the other person—love shows up as a breakdown in empathy. It is now love versus empathy. In contrast with empathy, love is a boundary transgression, but one that is permissioned, invited, welcomed. Thus in empathy one creates a space of acceptance and toleration in which love lives.
- Empathy and politics: this is an election year in the USA. Politics in this age of polarization is characterized by bullying. How does empathy speak truth to power?
How to deal with bullying without becoming a bully? Set firm limits – set firm boundaries – thus far and no further. Being empathic does NOT mean giving up the right to self defense.
Still, without naming any names, the problem with mud wrestling with a pig is that everyone gets dirty – and the pig likes it! No easy answers here. One modest proposal:
Empathy is the emotional equivalent of jujitsu – use the aggressor’s energy to send him flying the other way. Being empathic does not mean being nice, agreeable, or even being disagreeable. It means knowing what the other person is experiencing because one experiences it too as a sample or trace affect.
As discussed further below in the trending one-minute empathy training, drive out cynicism, aggression, polarization, bullying, and the result is that empathy spontaneously comes forth, expands, and develops.
Power and force are inversely proportional. As the bully’s power goes down, the risk of the use of force [violence] increases. Empathy is powerful, and if necessary it meets force with force. But then it is no longer an empathy; it is empathy in the form of a breakdown of empathy. Empathy consists in restoring the boundaries and integrity to the situation.
- Empathy, capitalist tool: Empathy is the ultimate capitalist tool: No business or enterprise can operate for long, much less flourish, without empathy to facilitate teamwork, coordination between customers and sales persons, employees and employers, leaders and staff, and stake-holders at all levels. Even the cynical sales person understands the value of taking a walk in the customer’s shoes, if only to sell him another pair.
Unfortunately, business leaders lose contact with the human dimension of business in solving legal problems, meeting information technology breakdowns, reacting to the competition, or dealing with the latest accounting crisis.
Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it.
Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, leaders need expanded empathy. I hasten to add that, ultimately, both empathy and data are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. If the product or service is wrappered in empathy, has an empathic component as part of the service level agreement, gets traction in the market, and beats the competition’s less empathic competing offering, then we have the ultimate validation of empathy. “CEO” now means “chief empathy officer.” We do not just have empathy. We have empathy, capitalist tool.
7. Your brain on empathy: “It’s all in your head” is a necessary truth, but not in the sense that you are imagining your experience of joy, fear, anger, pain, or suffering. It’s in your head because it—your experience—is in your brain, that is, your nervous system. We are neurons “all the way down.”
A word of caution. This scientific discovery of mirror neurons and mirroring phenomena should be distinguished from the neurohype occasioned by the application of the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) to issues that extend from the pseudo-disciplines of neuro-law to neuro-aesthetics to neuro-marketing and even neuro-history.
Show a jury in court a picture of a person’s brain and it gives the argument credibility (whether for or against conviction). But it is just a picture. Monitoring the neurological activation of individual brains in response to such conditions as videos of painfully impacted limbs, legal arguments, classic paintings, advertisements, and so on, has reached the point where an alternative point of view is being offered on statistically questionable, “voodoo correlations” in fMRI research.
The debate is whether or not mirror neurons exist in human beings. Even if they do not, mirror neurons in monkeys have completed the work that needs to be completed. Some kind of mirroring system exists. It is highly probable that there is an analogous system, even if more complex and diffuse, in humans that functions in mirroring emotions and behavior and that underlies our relationships in empathic community.
However, what the debate has suggested, entirely independently of the status of mirror neurons, is that human beings are connected biologically in a way, not completely understood, such that we resonate with one another affectively. The debate over whether human beings have mirror neurons in the narrower sense continues. The neuro-hype is dialed down in the year ahead.
- Empathy is good for you health and well-being. Empathy is on a short list of stress reductionpractices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathyin the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul.
The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Expanding empathy reduces stress; and reducing stress expands empathy. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being. Here empathy is both the end and the means.
A substantial body of evidence-based science indicates that empathy is good for a person’s health. This is not “breaking news” and was not just published yesterday.
We don’t need more data, we need to start applying it: we need expanded empathy. Note: the list of evidence-based articles and peer-reviewed publications is long, not repeated in this short blog post, and can be found in Chapter Four of my Empathy Lessons .
- Online empathy in cyberspace: While nothing can substitute for an in-person conversation, after two people get to know one another, an online conversation is a good option in case of relocation, bad weather, or unpredictable scheduling dynamics. You know that resistant client who just can’t seem to get to his session due to traffic, rain, or other tenuous excuse? The possibility of an online session, which requires a computer and the privacy of a closed door, shows up the resistance for what it is.
Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications. This is less the case with certain forms of narrowly focused behavioral therapies, which are nevertheless still more ambiguous than is commonly recognized.
Think about it: Those who complain about the lack of reality in a conversation over Zoom may usefully consider the amount of fiction and fantasy in any psychodynamic conversation, full stop. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.
(Note: This trend is in part an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To order the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc])
- Empathy and law enforcement: My friends, associates, and colleagues on the police assure me that posters branded with the logo of the local police and a pitch for expanded empathy are showing up in police station locker rooms, break rooms, and behind the scenes facilities. At this point in time, these are for the police, not the public.
Street smart police “get it” that empathy is distinct from compassion or “being nice.” Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experience of the other person. The police officer’s emotional radar has to be out about what the would-be suspect or citizen or fellow officer is experiencing if the officer is to avoid making a potentially bad situation worse.
If the would-be suspect is enraged and about to escalate such a scenario requires a distinct response than if the suspect is afraid and literally shaking in his shoes. Empathy provides valuable and indispensable emotional intelligence about the mental status of the other person. The police are already guided by their common sense, intuition, and gut feeling in approaching other people. Why not provide explicit training in what to do with one’s empathic receptivity, for that is what this “gut feeling” and intuition amount to? Police departments are realizing that practice in empathy lessons can refine and fine tune the intuition and gut feeling so these actually become powerful tools literally in keeping the peace or when necessary minimizing the appropriate use of force.
All this is important and communities will benefit from expanded empathy on the part of the law enforcement. However, there is another reason that indicates this trend has traction. The public does not always hear about the multi-million dollar financial settlements that municipalities are required to pay for wrongful death or excessive use of force, because these agreements come with rigorous confidentiality clauses. Police who lack training turn out to be extraordinarily expensive to the tax payers. In this context, “lack of training” does not mean insufficient time taking target practice. It means the need for practice in putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and considering possibilities for conflict resolution, de-escalation, and community building. In short, empathy is an important part of the gear deployed by law enforcement as the warrior cop, which will still be needed in extreme situations, gives way to community policing. Really, is there any other kind?
- Natural empaths get expanded empathy. This continues the trend from last year. Paradoxically, natural empaths suffer from a lack of empathy. Natural empaths are so sensitive to the pain and suffering of the world that they must isolate themselves, cutting themselves off from the emotional life sustaining recognition and support that people require to flourish and be fully human.
The Natural Empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is swamped by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or overcome by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics.
But the suffering is not inevitable. Such statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy.
The empathy lesson for the Natural Empath is to “tune down” her empathic receptivity and “tune up” her empathic understanding and interpretation, while being more flexible about her ethical standards. Here “flexible” does not mean be unethical, but rather allow for the possibility that one needs to work on the balance between one’s own well-being and that of others in helping others.
Now please do not jump to conclusions. That does not mean the Natural Empath should become hard-hearted or unkind. That would definitely not expand empathy. In order to overcome the breakdown of empathic receptivity, what does one actually do in order to expand or contract one’s empathic receptivity?
The empathy lesson for such individuals? Practice methods of “down regulating” one’s empathy. For example, focus on mentalizing, top down empathy, placing oneself in the other person’s shoes, rather than imaginatively evoking the vicarious emotions of the other person’s experiences. Perspective-taking exercises—imaginatively putting oneself in the other’s point of view—expand the participant’s empathy during training sessions. Perspective taking incidentally promotes helping, “pro social” behaviors when it indirectly activates pro-social emotions such as compassion.
Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive, Natural Empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathic receptivity in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Do the work of “up regulating” empathic interpretation whereby one imaginatively puts oneself in the other person’s position and considers the experiences thereby inspired vicariously, reducing the “load” on the emotions. This is different than intellectualizing, compartmentalizing, or distinguishing in thought, but perhaps not different by much. The differences are nuanced, but of the essence.
The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—Natural Empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case.
- Empathy and psychiatry: The mind engage fixing their own professional house: The psychiatrists with whom I talk advocate a deep and authentic appreciation of the practice of empathy—in order to get the patient to take the medicine. I express agreement—if you are thinking of stepping in front of a bus, don’t! Take the medicine and live to fight another day.
However, this points to the blind spot in psychiatry: A conversation for possibility with another empathic human being also changes one’s neurons and does so in a different but as deep and powerful a way as a psychopharmacological intervention. The mechanism is complex is not fully understood, but neither is the mechanism for lithium salts or antipsychotic medications.
Psychiatrists and many general practitioner MDs are perpetuating a fiction that the drugs they are prescribing are correcting biochemical deficiencies caused by disease, much as (say) a prescription of insulin corrects a biochemical deficiency caused by diabetes (for example see Anne Harrington’s The Mind Fixers, p. 273, which I have found essential in identifying this trend and whose language I paraphrase here). Such rhetoric is badly oversold. No one is saying that the medicines do not help the person tolerate distress, regulate emotions, or self-sooth. Often they do. However, the rhetoric is indefensible and the science is at best a work in progress.
Given the complexity of the scientific challenges, psychiatry need not feel embarrassed. However, neither should it be enthusiastically promoting imminent breakthroughs and revolutions as if it were an adjunct to the popular press or a corporate press release.
The underlying science is not anywhere near the level the neurohype would have us believe. “You have a chemical imbalance” is a marketing position, not a scientifically established truth. “Schizophrenia is like diabetes and you have to take this antipsychotic drug for the rest of your life” is a rhetorical position, not a scientific fact. This is scientism, not science. This is psychiatry’s troubled search for the biological basis of mental illness. The trend being highlighted here is that, as a profession, psychiatry will focus on medical interventions in the context of culture and community.
- The one-minute empathy training is trending: Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic.
Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously comes froth.
Now do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does notexpand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.
The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!
Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple.
Okay – I have read enough and I want to order the book Empathy Lessons to learn more about expanding my empathy: I want to order the book HERE.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
How is Christmas like a day at the job? Give up? You get to do all the work; and the big guy in the suit gets all the credit. Pause for laugh. [Note: if I have to explain the joke, it is not funny.] ‘Tis the season – to be materialistic and buy and spend. I am exhausted just thinking about it. Therefore, the recommendation?
Give empathy for the holidays. You never need an excuse to be empathic; but during the holidays it just might make sense to slow down and expand one’s listening even more diligently. My approach to this top ten list count down? I am taking off the list material things; but allowing spending [some] money on activities that are empathic or are direct enablers of empathy.
The idea? Give an experience – one worth receiving – whatever that would look like. This is a count-down. For example:
(10) Do not give a food processor; rather make the other person a gourmet meal. Do not give a vacuum cleaner [that would be a disaster]; take over doing a set of chores that need doing for week (or other defined time frame). It makes sense to document this by means of a certificate or diploma, as they say, suitable for framing.
(9) I saw a Restaurant with a sign: “No Wi-Fi – Talk to One another”. That is the right idea. If you like the menu, make the reservation and go there. They do not have a sign? Make your own sign and bring it along, even if the restaurant does have wi-fi.
(8) Sign up the receiver as a member at the local Art Institute and go as a guest with the recipient of the gift. Art is a significant enabler of empathy. But do not take my word for it – according to the celebrated enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, one of the main moments of the experience of beauty is the communicability of feeling – stage one of empathy.
(7) Sessions in yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, or other spiritual exercises – where you get to do something
(6) Same idea as above, but with a conventional focus – two tickets to the theatre, opera, or dance with time scheduled for conversation both before and after to discuss the experience
(5) A massage or time in a sensory deprivation tank where one is able to relax or expand one’s introspection (a significant enabler of empathy). Caution: This is “product placement” – actually a service – see ChicagoFlotation.com. It’s a trip.
(4) Every MacBook Pro has the technology to make a movie. Make a movie in which you acknowledge and recognize the other person – your partner, boss, employee, colleague, peer, friend, enemy, cousin, grandmother, etc. If you have talent as an aspiring stand up comedian, now is the time. Comedy is closely related to empathy – in both cases a boundary is traversed. In one case, comedy with aggressive or sexual overtones; in the other case, empathy, the focus is on recognition of one’s shared humanity. Remember, you have to create a context in which empathy is made present.
(4a) Same idea as above only … Write a poem or short story in which you are self-expressed about the relationship, what is means to you, how it works, and what it means as a possibility.
(3) If the relationship is an intimate one, then it makes sense to provide an intimate experience. Depending on trends and tastes (and I acknowledge that I need to get out more), this may be easier for her than him. Still, he may usefully concentrate on things she values, already mentioned throughout this post, for example, fixing dinner, time for conversation, demonstrated affection and affinity, and if such has been in short supply for any reason, family time including the children.
(2) There are a set of attitudes and behaviors for which empathy is an enabler, though they are distinct from empathy (this is the opposite of things that enable empathy such as art and relaxation). The consequences of our actions escape us and while stupidity is not a crime, sometimes maybe it ought to be. Therefore, forgiveness was invented. Empathy create a learning for many things – including prosocial behavior. Make a donation in your friend’s name to Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, or donate blood to the American Red Cross.
Other things in the same ballpark as forgiveness include compassion and make-a-wish. In surveys on prosocial behaviors, compassion is the phenomena most often mistaken for empathy. Heavens knows, the world needs expanded compassion – and expanded empathy. If you can make someone’s wish come true – and that looks like a puppy – then it is an option, too. Include a pet care service, obedience lessons (for the owner!), or complimentary dog walking.
And the number one gift of empathy for the holidays is
(1) Turn off your smart phone [no texting!], and talk – have a conversation – with the other person.
And a happy holiday to one and all!
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
People treat empathy as if it were an “on-off” switch.
Turn it “on” for friends and family; turn it “off” for the “bad guys”. Turn empathy “on” for coworkers, customers, and insiders; turn empathy “off” for competitors, for compliance, and for efficiency and speed. Turn empathy on for the hometown baseball team, the Cubs or Sox, if you are from Chicago like I am or turn it off for
the competition, especially New York teams such as the Mets or Yankees! If you have encountered die-hard fans, then you know that I am only partially joking. However, in business today—as in sports and as in dating with prospective romantic partners—you are competing in the morning and cooperating in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the switch tends to get stuck in the off position.
The guidance? Empathy is a tuner or dial, not an “on-off” switch. Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable and exposed to burnout and “compassion fatigue.” As noted, the risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one’s would-be practice of empathy is off the rails, in breakdown.
Instead of practicing empathy, maybe you are being too compassionate. If you are flooded, maybe—just maybe—you are doing it wrong. In empathy, the listener gets a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or experience, including their suffering. The listener suffers vicariously, but without being flooded and overwhelmed by the other’s experience.
This is not to say that some accounts of trauma would not overwhelm and flood anyone. They would. They do. However, we are here engaging with the example of a committed listener who spends his or her day listening to a series of depressed, anxious, or otherwise upset people.
Empathy is like a dial, lever, or tuner—turn it up or turn it down. If one is overwhelmed by suffering as one listens to the other person’s struggles, one is doing it—practicing empathy—incorrectly, clumsily, and one needs expanded skill training in empathy.
The whole point of a vicarious experience—as distinct from merger or over-identification—is to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being inundated by it. Key term: sample the other’s experience. One needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity to reduce the emotional or experiential “load.”
Another way of saying the same thing? Empathy is a filter—decrease the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or increase the granularity (i.e., close the pores) and get less.
The empathic professional can expect to have a vicarious experience of the other person’s experience. If the other person is suffering, then he will have a vicarious experience of suffering. He will have a sample of the other person’s suffering. He will have a trace affect of the sadness or grief or anger or fear (and so on) of whatever is a burden to the other person. It will be a toe or an ankle in the water instead of being up to the neck in it. The experience will just be a taste of brine rather than drowning.
The power in distinguishing between empathic receptivity and empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness, is precisely so you can divide and conquer the practice and performance of empathy.
If your “empathic distress” indicates too much openness, do not be “closed off,” but tactically reduce the openness. Increasing the granularity of your empathic receptivity reduces the empathic receptivity and reduces your empathy as a whole. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, then you need to tune down your compassion and expand your empathy. If you are experiencing burnout, then it is likely that emotional contagion is leading to empathic distress. In this case, you need to tune down one’s empathy.
Interested in more best practices in empathy? Order your copy of Empathy Lessons, the book. Click here.
(c) Lou Agosta PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
One of the criticisms of empathy is that is leaves you vulnerable to compassion fatigue. The helping professions are notoriously exposed to burn out and empathic distress. Well-intentioned helpers end up as emotional basket cases. There is truth to it, but there is also an effective antidote: expanded empathy.
For example, evidence-based research shows that empathy peaks in the third year of medical school and, thereafter, goes into steady decline (Hojat, Vergate et al. 2009; Del Canale, Maio, Hojat et al. 2012). While correlation is not causation, the suspicion is that dedicated, committed, hard-working people, who are called to a
life of contribution, experience empathic distress. Absent specific interventions such as empathy training to promote emotional regulation, self-soothing, and distress tolerance, the well-intentioned professional ends up as an emotionally burned out, cynical hulk. Not pretty.
Therefore, we offer a radical proposal. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, stop being so compassionate! I hasten to add that does not mean become hard-hearted, mean, apathetic, indifferent. That does not mean become aggressive or a bully. That means take a step back, dial it down, give it a break.
The good news is that empathy serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy results in “compassion fatigue.” However, empathy lessons repeatedly distinguish empathy from compassion.
Could it be that when one tries to be empathic and experiences compassion fatigue, then one is actually being compassionate instead of empathic? Consider the possibility. The language is a clue. Strictly speaking, one’s empathy is in breakdown. Instead of being empathic, you are being compassionate, and, in this case, the result is compassion fatigue without the quotation marks. It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue,” which is a nuance rarely noted by the advocates of “rational compassion.”
Once again, no one is saying, be hard hearted or mean. No one is saying, do not be compassionate. The world needs both more compassion and expanded empathy. Compassion has its time and place—as does empathy. We may usefully work to expand both; but we are saying do not confuse the two.
Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experiences of the other person; compassion tells one what to do about it, based on one’s ethics and values.
Most providers of empathy find that with a modest amount of training, they can adjust their empathic receptivity up or down to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. In the face of a series of sequential samples of suffering, the empathic person is able to maintain his emotional equilibrium thanks to a properly adjusted empathic receptivity. No one is saying that the other’s suffering or pain should be minimized in any way or invalidated. One is saying that, with practice, regulating empathy becomes a best practice.
Interested in more best practices in empathy? Order your copy of Empathy Lessons, the book. Click here.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Short review: two thumbs up. Zaki and his work are the real deal. Zaki “gets it” as regards empathy. The most important take-away: empathy is trainable, teachable, malleable, acquirable, and an expandable competence and skill rather than an unchangeable personality trait that one either has or not.
The next most important take-away: the world needs expanded empathy and more kindness. As I read Zaki, empathy and kindness feed into one another in a fundamental way. Empathy provides a clearing within which compassion – which Zaki calls “kindness” – shows up.
The battle for kindness, the title, is a real battle in which people have to decide whether aggression and greed get the upper hand or possibilities of human
flourishing are shared among members of the community. The “battle” – but here is scare quotes – is also about the optimum methods, given limited resources, for expanding empathy itself in the community through education, individual action, and community activism.
The long review: Zaki throws down the gauntlet: “If you wanted to design a system to break empathy, you could scarcely do better than the society we’ve created” (p. 8).
Zaki’s Jeremiad creates a sense of urgency and a call to action by citing tribalism, intolerance, the unintended consequences of social networking such as bullying, fake news, pervasive human aggression, genocide, and the drowned, would-be Syrian migrant child, Alan Kurdi. Heart-breaking. I am already nearly vicariously traumatized.
By the end of Chapter One, the reader is starting to get a sense of the risk of compassion fatigue. Evidence-based research indicates that empathy peaks in the third year of medical school (Hojat et al 2011; Halpern 2001), and absent decisive intervention, the future holds, not expanded empathy but, compassion fatigue, burnout, and empathic distress. The remainder of the book provides the antidote in the context of the issues and ongoing debate about the relevance of empathy.
Zaki’s own evidence-based, peer-reviewed research as a professor of psychology – and his fundamental contribution – focuses on the notion of flexibility, malleability, and plasticity versus fixity of empathy. At the risk of over-simplification, when people believe that working at something makes a difference and when they actually work at it, then they get better at it. The something in question is empathy. In several ingenious experiments, those who have the mindset [key term: mindset] that practicing empathy expands empathy make progress with the empathic skill in question.
No one is saying that one can merely change one’s mind, the way one would rather order fish instead of steak at a restaurant. Not so simple. Work means work; and much of the subsequent debate about empathy – the “battle” in quotes – is about what actually does work: Contact with diverse individuals seems to expand empathy (unless it doesn’t); story telling (and what kind of stories!); reading fictional literature; skill exercises similar to cognitive behavioral therapy; mindfulness meditation; psychodynamic therapy [not one of Zaki’s examples]. Many conditions and qualifications apply. The list is long and not mutually exclusive.
One of the things that most impressed me about Zaki’s evidence-based research into empathy (on which his book is based) is the recognition of the ways in which empathy can misfire, breakdown, or otherwise go off the rails (e.g., Zaki and Ciskara, 2015, Addressing empathic failures, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 24, no. 6: 471–476).
Thus runs the standard critique of empathy that it is too parochial and ends up applying only to the in-group. The solution? To overcome the limitations of empathy, expand one’s empathy. There is nothing inherently limited in empathy such that it cannot be extended to strangers. That it does not automatically occur to many people, including high school students, to do so does not mean they would not be able to do so or even befit from doing so. Hearing the story of the Good Samaritan might incent some. Some communities acknowledge the issue by making a moral imperative to welcome strangers without exception and provide for their well-being when asked. This results in real drama when the stranger who shows up is also otherwise regarded as an enemy.
That empathy can breakdown and misfire is not a problem for empathy as such; that you make arithmetical errors does not invalidate number theory. More likely such a breakdown in empathy means the practitioner of empathy needs more training, experience, and skill applying the relevant distinctions.
That empathy does not automatically extend to the tribe in the valley on the other side of the hill does not mean there is anything wrong with empathy. It just means without training some people suck at being empathic [my term, not Zaki’s]. The solution is simply stated: expanded empathy. This apparent limitation just means the local tribe may usefully expand its empathy. That takes work – which is Zaki’s point.
If these seem like a bold statement of the obvious to you, dear reader, then that is good news, for Zaki’s research is getting traction. However, I can still cite many examples of average citizens, natural empaths, people on the autistic spectrum, or just ordinary citizens, who regard empathy as a fixed personality trait with which they are born or that is fixed in adolescence.
Such a perspective is a subset, though not a logically necessary one, of the view that human nature is static and fixed. For Marxists, people are essentially workers, producing a community; for Freudians people are essentially conflicted containers of sex and aggression striving to love and work; for Max Weber, people are driven by grand ideologies such as the world religions; for authentic Christians, people are sinners, yet God’s children, redeemed by the sacrifice of their Lord; for neo-Darwinians, people are survivalist, gene-producing mechanisms. This is list is long and not complete.
Zaki’s point – that empathy can be expanded, improved – is one that has been around for but not received the attention it has deserved. Empathy is not an “on off” switch, but rather a dial or tuner. Tune it up and tune it down based on circumstances. From that perspective empathy can even provide a filter that provides protection against being overwhelmed by the suffering of others while still remaining engaged with their humanity.
Thus, one has to be careful to believe the hype in the marketing material as regards “a bold new understanding of empathy.” As early as 1971, a man named Heinz Kohut, MD, published extensively that the results of a treatment using self-psychological methods he pioneered produced improved humor, wisdom – and expanded empathy. Thus, a footnote from the history of empathy.
Using what was the prevailing paradigm at the time, psychoanalytic talk therapy, Kohut treated his patients empathically. He gave them a good listening. Just as important as a good listening, when the listening broke down and was restored in a committed empathic relatedness, then the gains in empathy were consolidated and driven into the personality as reliable, repeatable competencies.
Along with Carl Rogers, PhD, of “unconditional positive regard” client-centered fame, and who Kohut apparently never read, separately and together, Kohut and Rogers put empathy on the map. The person’s empathy is expanded by restoring and working through the breakdowns in empathy that seemingly inevitably occurred as two human beings tried to relate to one another. The devil is in the details, but you have got to get empathy, struggle with it, and practice it, in order subsequently to be able to be empathic and use it to relate to other people.
Since this is not a softball review, the controversial issue is engaged: is empathy inherently prosocial or, in the wrong hands, can empathy be used antisocially, harmfully, even diabolically, and under what conditions and qualifications. In short, does empathy have a dark-side and what is it?
Empathy clears away judgments, evaluations, biases, and prejudices and allows one person to respond to another as a whole human being. I assert that is what happened to Tony – one of Zaki’s examples – when, already a broken and isolated individual, Tony discovered the camaraderie of the white supremacists community. They “got him” as a whole person – at least initially – before further filling his head with dehumanizing memes about nonwhites and other marginalized groups. Hmmm.
You see the issue? Humanity is supposed to show up in the clearing created by empathic relatedness. But what if it doesn’t. Human beings are empathic and kind. They are also aggressive and greedy. Human beings are tolerant and accepting. They are also intolerant and biased. Human beings are a clearing for possibilities – some good, others, less so.
The wisdom of Zaki’s guidance: hey, guys, you are gonna have to work at it – i.e., expanding empathy. More problematic is what will happened if you don’t. If you do not do so, then the empathy will contract and the bad guys will misuse what little empathy they do in fact have and probably kill (or enslave) all the good guys before unwittingly blowing themselves up with nuclear bombs, biological weapons, or climate catastrophe(s).
The cure through empathy is exemplified by Zaki’s example of Tony, the racist, fascist, white supremacist, skinhead-type, who (it turns out) created a surface of hatred to cover his shame and loneliness (p. 60). Zaki gives survivors of abuse a bad name, though it is indisputable that Tony was one of those too. Not fitting in for sooo many reasons, Tony finds acceptance and toleration in a community built on hate, the white Aryan resistance.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Tony is now a parent – a life-transforming event in itself. Things are not going well and Tony is about to lose custody of his children, for whom he seems to have the standard parental love, even amidst all the emotional disregulation. Tony gets some empathy from Dov Baron, a trainer that Tony did not realize was Jewish, and Tony gets better. Wouldn’t it be nice? Get some empathy, one gets better. What this misses is that the transformation effects are a function of restoring empathy that has broken down in the relationship. And that is a lot of work (as indeed Zaki has assured us). It is probable that something like that breakdown-restore process is what happened between Dov and Tony.
Empathy reliably de-escalates anger and rage. I hasten to add that I am in favor of creating a space of acceptance and toleration by setting firm empathic boundaries; but the challenge is that, unless one is careful, the bad guys are just going to pump hatred and negativity into the space.
The bottom line for Zaki? Given a cleared space of acceptance and toleration, Zaki aligns with Batson’s and de Waal’s and (perhaps) the folk definition that empathy is inherently prosocial. Basically, empathy includes caring. Empathy includes compassion (see the definition p. 178). People want to reduce the pain and suffering of others. Why? Because people experience a trace of the pain and suffering of others as vicarious experience, shared experience, or emotional contagion (these are not the same thing!).
Even if one allows that the psychopath uses his alleged empathy the better to manipulate his victim, one can argue back that it is a misuse of empathy that is not inherently empathic.
However, an even tougher case, because it hits closer to home regarding the dark-side of empathy, what about the professional hazard of compassion fatigue?
I came away from Zaki’s account of the neonatal intensive care unit experiencing more than a little bit of vicarious suffering. Nothing wrong with that as such, but that is challenge to all the helping professions – and to empathy as such. This is also a credit to Zaki’s ability as a narrator. The story was compelling. The pain and suffering significant.
Reading Zaki reminded me of a radical proposal. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, regardless of your profession, maybe you are being too compassionate. It is no accident that the term is “compassion fatigue,” not empathy fatigue. I hasten to add that at no point does Zaki say “you are being too compassionate,” but it seems to me to be implied.
No one is saying be unkind or hard-hearted. But if empathy is a dial or stereo tuner (as Zaki notes), not an “on off” switch, then dial it down. The nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit finds herself confronted by innocent suffering and decides to think about her feet rather than the suffering around her. She thinks “this tragedy is not mine” (p. 116) rather than taking on all the emotions of the family of the dying preemie. She dials down the emotion suffering, and lives emotionally to fight the good fight for another day. I repeat: dials empathy down rather than gets overloaded and has to turn it off. People are not necessarily born knowing how to do this, which is why practice is required. This is the world of tips and techniques for those on the front lines.
This is the age of evidence-based everything. In Appendix B, Evaluating the evidence, Zaki lists the claims made in each chapter and evaluates the evidence to support the claim on a 1 to 5 scale. Thus, for those claims for which the evidence is limited (rated 1 to 3), Zaki (and Kari Leibowitz) discuss the limitations. Perhaps this comment is one for the “no good deed goes unpunished fie,” and yet I would have appreciated reading why the positive evidence is so positive (nor do I disagree with the overall assessment).
The thing that is overlooked in an approach that regards evidence as based on people’s report’s of their mindsets is that people are self-deceived, limited in their ability to change perspectives, and just flat out at the effect of significant blind spots, prejudices, biases – i.e., mindsets. The bad guys will try to use empathy to create a space for white supremacy or other distorted, diabolical mischief in the space. Zaki makes a strong case that empathy is at risk of declining precipitously and specific steps such as training and education in empathy, conflict resolution, mindfulness, and other spiritual disciplines can make a profound difference in reversing this worrisome trend.
But this work overlooks resistance to empathy. Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood and apple pie. So why is there so much resistance to it? To use Zaki’s term, so why is there such an intense war for kindness? I am starting to sense that it is just too much work. The mindset is that it is just too hard and what is really needed is a lazy person’s guide to empathy. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
The issue with Zaki’s approach (and this should be read in the context of the otherwise highest assessment of his contribution), is the single-minded focus on kindness. Empathy creates a clearing [my phrase, not Zaki’s]; and on a good day, we can create the possibility of kindness (and related positive human phenomena) in the space that opens up. All good. No one is saying, be unkind or uncaring. But is caring really a part of the definition of empathy?
Empathic concern is a modification of empathy; but it is just one of many possible empathic responses. Acknowledgement of the other person, recognition of the other’s humanity, giving the other person back his experience in a form that he recognizes it as his own, are arguably the basic empathic responses born of empathic data gathering. We are related. Period. For an evidence-based approach, there is nothing wrong, but what is missing is that empathy is a form of data gathering about the experience of the other person. Empathy falls out of the equation if, regardless of the other’s experience, one should always be kind.
From an empirical perspective, no necessary connection exists between empathy and kindness. It might well be more practical and the line of least resistance to link empathy with human dignity, toleration of diversity, or respect for boundaries. There are some people who just do not feel very charitable or altruistic, but if they behaved so as not to hurt others, respected boundaries, paid their taxes, then the world would still be much better off than it is now. Now one may argue back that such a non-kind [not unkind!] person would be logically inconsistent since he relies on the kindness of strangers (at least indirectly) while not providing such kindness to others in return. Strange to imagine paying taxes as an empathic gesture – and yet perhaps it is one. The debate is joined.
Zaki’s book is fully buzzword-compliant. He gives a shout out to mirror neurons as the neurological infrastructure of empathy; the history of empathy in the work of Adam Smith, Theodor Lipps, and Edith Stein; and Gregory Batson’s experiments that provide evidence that empathy is inherently prosocial, creating (as I like to say) a clearing for altruism to show up.
Less charitable (but not necessarily less empathic) thinkers argue that Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis is actually the “no good deed goes unpunished” hypothesis in a world in which ethical conflicts are common. Why? After priming seminary students to commit to giving a lecture on The Parable of the Good Samaritan, they are sent off across campus. They encounter a man flat on his back (actually an actor and confederate in the experiment) at the entrance to the lecture. They have to decide whether to help him or keep their commitment to give the lecture. Never was it truer that the urgent drives out the important. The debate continues.
Zaki’s mindset is basically a product of the enlightenment – however crooked the timber of which mankind is made, we are susceptible of improvement. Agree. Expect people to succeed, they just might do so. Expect them to fail, they start living into one’s low expectations of them. Yet Zaki’s approach also aligns well with the rather negative, post-modern idea that no governing metanarrative exists. (See the stuff on Marx, Freud, and so on for “grand meta narratives.”) Given the examples of human behavior so far, especially in the 20th century, the slide towards the abyss seems to be accelerating. His is a call to action that demands a response – an empathic one.
Zaki shares powerful personal anecdotes, about which I would have liked to have heard more. That’s where the empathy LIVEs. As a kid, between the ages of 8 years old and 12, young Jamil is caught in the cross fire of the years long divorce between his hard charging Pakistani father, working 18 hour a day to escape the poverty and deprivation he survived, and a kinder, gentler, Hispanic mother, who, nevertheless, struggled with her own emotional disregulation.
Zaki credibly asserts that he had to take his own initially limited empathy up a couple of levels to navigate the emotional mine field [and mind field?] of two parents blaming one another and trying to enroll him – the kid – in their perpetrations.
Fast-forward to Zaki’s building a family of his own, and his first-born is born with a condition that has the baby (and the family) in the neonatal intensive care unit. Not for the faint of heart. Zaki subsequently returns to the NICU to do qualitative research on empathy and the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. I know nothing (really!), but my sense of it all? In a world in which neither empathy nor kindness is particularly abundant, this book is Zaki’s way of creating expanded empathy for himself. Once again, my take? Zaki struggles; the reader – and the community – benefit. Our thanks to Jamil Zaki for his penetrating analysis – and his empathy!
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
People want to know: Can empathy be taught? People complain and authentically struggle: I just don’t get it—or have it. In spite of the substantial affirmative evidence already cited, the debate continues.
The short answer is: Yes, empathy can be taught.
The one minute empathy training is: most people are naturally empathic. Remove the obstacles to empathy and empathy comes forth.
Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy expands.
Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously comes froth.
What happens is that people unwittingly have been taught to suppress their empathy. People have been taught to conform, follow instructions, and do as they are told. We are taught in first grade to sit in our seats and raise our hands to be called on and speak. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is good and useful at the time. No one is saying, “Leap up and run around yelling” (unless it is summer vacation!). But compliance and conformity are trending; and arguably the pendulum has swung too far from the empathy required for communities to work effectively for everyone, not just the elite and privileged at the top of the food chain.
Now do not misunderstand this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not expand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.
Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple.
The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require more than a minute!
Studying the Humanities and literature, art and music, rhetoric and languages, opens up areas of the brain that map directly to empathy and powerfully activate empathy. Read a novel. Publish a blog post. Go to the art museum. Participate in theatre. These too are empathy lessons, fieldwork, and training in empathic receptivity.
Reduce or eliminate the need for having the right answer all the time. Dialing down narcissism, egocentrism, entitlement (in the narrow sense), and dialing up questioning, motivating relatedness, encouraging self-expression, inspiring inquiry and contribution, developing character, and, well, expanding empathy.
Yes, empathy can be taught, but it does not look like informational education. It looks like shifting the person’s relatedness to self and others, developing the capacity for empathy, accessing the grain of empathy that has survived the education to conformity. Anything that gets a person in touch with her or his humanness counts as training in empathy.
(Note: Putting the “one minute” into the “one minute training” so that readers would not have to work too hard was hard work. I did the work of reviewing over a hundred publications on empathy training, the two dozen most significant of which are listed here: For evidence-based research on empathy training see the Bibliography and start with this list.
 Angera et al. 2006; Antoni et al. 2011; Brunero et al. 2010; Chiu et al. 2011; Coke et al. 1978; Davis et al. 1996; Decety et al. 2012; Del Canale et al. 2012; Golan et al. 2006; Gordon 2005; Hadwin et al. 1997; Halpern 2001; Hojat et al. 2009; Hojat et al. 2011; Levine 2012; Ozcan et al. 2012; PBS 2013; Pace et al. 2009; Pecukonis 1990; Riess 2013; Riess, Kelley et al. 2014; Riess, Kelley et al. 2012; Therrien 1975; Zaki and Cikara 2015 (Note – this required more than one minute!)
For those interested in more than one-minute of training: You do not have to buy the book, Empathy Lessons, to get the research, but if you would like more detail see especially Chapters Four and Six in Empathy Lessons (click here to get EMPATHY Lessons from Amazon). Also of interest: A Rumor of Empathy.
Remove the resistance to empathy and empathy grows, develops, and blossoms. In every instance of resistance to empathy, the empathy training consists in identifying, reducing, or eliminating, the resistance to empathy. When the resistance is reduced, empathy has space to develop, and it does so spontaneously as well as through providing explicit practices, tactics, strategies, and training .
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Empathy is good for your health and well-being: Empathy is on a short list of stress reduction practices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathy in the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul. But do not settle for metaphors.
For evidence-based research on empathy, empathy and stress reduction, and empathy training you may start by googling: Antoni et al. 2011; Ciaramicoli 2016; Del Canale et al 2012; Farrow et al. 2007; Irwin et al. 2012; Maes 1995, 1999; Pollack et al. 2002; Rakel et al. 2009; Segerstrom and Miller 2004; Slavich et al. 2013 [this list is not complete].
You do not have to buy the book, Empathy Lessons, to get the research, but if you would like more detail see especially Chapters Four and Six in Empathy Lessons (click here to get book from Amazon).
[Also included are chapters on the Top 30 Tips and Techniques for Expanding Empathy, Overcoming Resistance to Empathy, Empathy Breakdowns, Empathy as the New Love, Empathy versus Bullying, and more.]
The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Expanding empathy reduces stress; and reducing stress expands empathy. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being. Here empathy is both the end and the means.
A substantial body of evidence-based science indicates that empathy is good for a person’s health. This is not “breaking news” and was not just published yesterday. We don’t need more data, we need to start applying it: we need expanded empathy.
Evidence-based research demonstrates the correlation between health care providers who deliver empathy to their patients and favorable healthcare
outcomes. What is especially interesting is that some of these evidence-based studies specifically excludepsychiatric disorders and includemainline medical outcomes such as reduced cholesterol, improved type 2 diabetes, and improvement in related “life style” disorders.
Generalizing on this research, a small set of practices such as receiving empathy, meditation (mindfulness), yogic meditation, and Tai Chi, promote well-being by reducing inflammation. These practices are not reducible to empathy (or vice versa), but they all share a common factor: reduced inflammation. These anti-inflammatory interventions have been shown to make a difference in controlled experiments, evidence-based research, and peer-reviewed publications.
Using empathy in relating to people is a lot like using a parachute if you jump out of an airplane or getting a shot of penicillin if one has a bacterial infection. The evidence is overwhelming that such a practice is appropriate and useful in the vast majority of cases. The accumulated mass of decades of experience also counts as evidence in a strict sense. Any so-called hidden or confounding variables will be “washed out” by the massive amount of evidence that parachutes and penicillin produce the desired main effect.
Indeed it would be unethical to perform a double blind test of penicillin at this time, since if a person needed the drug and it were available it would be unethical not to give it to him. Yes, there are a few exceptions – some people are allergic to penicillin. But by far and in large, if you do not begin with empathy in relating to other people, you are headed for trouble.
Empathy is at the top of my list of stress reduction methods, but is not the only item on it. Empathy alongwith mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, spending time in a sensory deprivation tank (not otherwise discussed here), and certain naturally occurring steroids, need to be better known as interventions that reduce inflammation and restore homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research.
The biology has got us humans in a bind, since it did not evolve at the same rate as our human social structures. When bacteria attack the human body, the body’s immune system mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sickness 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 conserves its energy and fights off the infection using its natural immune response.
Now fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not envision the stresses of modern life back when we were short stature, proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti Plain and defending ourselves against large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stressors 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, just inflammation.
The inflammation becomes 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 empathy reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor. When an angry—“inflamed”—person is listened to empathically—is given a “good listening” as I like to say—the person frequently calms down and regains his equilibrium.
Empathy migrates onto the short list of inflammation reducing interventions. The compelling conclusion is that empathy is good for your well-being.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
The genie is out of the bottle. The day that the first therapist invited his one-on-one client (who had an urgent need for a conversation but an inability to get to the office) to
put down the phone and dial into Skype, the genie escaped from the bottle.
The reader will recall that in the 1001 Arabian Nightsthe Genie was very powerful but a trickster and nearly impossible to control. Making wishes is tricky, and if one is not careful, the sausages end up stuck to one’s nose and one must waste the last wish to get them off. In this case, the Genie is Internet technology such as Skype and Google Groups and the emerging conveniences, affordances, complexities, entanglements, and even resistances that it offers.
In the Arabian Nights, the hero, Aladdin, had to trick the Genie to getting back in the bottle by appealing to his narcissism. “You are not all powerful,” Aladdin said. “A large creature like you could not possibly fit in that small bottle!” The Genie’s wounded narcissism caused him to prove that he can indeed fit back in the bottle. Aladdin puts the stopper back on – trapped! However, in the case of the Internet and online communication tools, do not look to be able to turn back the clock.
But there is good news. The human face is an emotional hot spot. It is rich in micro-expressions many of which are available and visible even though the “real estate” on the screen in less rich in detail than an in-person experience. Indeed it is not even clear that the face as presented online is “less rich.” It is the only thing being displayed, and the viewer is led to concentrate on it in detail. But here the trade-off of bodily presence versus the imaginary comes into the foreground.
The criticism fails that the online conversation between persons lacks the reality of the in-person encounter. But this criticism fails, in a surprising way. The criticism fails notbecause the online media is so real. Rather the criticism fails because the in-person psychotherapy encounter is shot through-and-through with the imaginary, with symbolism, the imaginary and irreality. The “irreal” includes the symbolic, the imagined, the fictional, the part of reality which is distinct from the real but includes the past and the future and the imaginary, which are not really present yet influence reality.
In psychotherapy, the in-person encounter is precisely about the symbolic and the imagined – the transference. The basic definition of “transference” is that the person relives emotionally the relationship to objects (persons) from the past, persons who are not physically present in the room (or in the virtual space online).
What we are calling the “virtuality” of the technology media adds an additional dimension of irreality to the symbolic and imagined transference relationship. Yes, the media is the message (as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote), but with the arrival of online therapy the media is first and foremost the transference. The message now occurs with a strike-through, message.The online technology itself becomes a source and target of transference.
The one thing that immediately occurred to me: Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications. This is less the case with certain forms of narrowly focused behavioral therapies, which are nevertheless still more ambiguous than is commonly recognized. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.
While virtual reality (VR) goggles as such are not a part of any online therapy group process, VR goggles are currently being used in individual psychotherapy with clients who are dealing with phobias and related individual issues. [See www.psious.com– an engaging start up which is promoting the VR goggles for psychotherapists. The author (Lou Agosta) reports: I have no financial relationship with this company, and I wrote a blog post in 2016: “A Rumor of Empathy at Psious”: https://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq]
For example, it is much easier for someone with a fear of flying to put on a set of VR goggles in the therapist’s office and take a virtual trip to the airport, board an airplane (in VR), and be taxing down the run away (in VR), than it is to do this in the real world. The next step in a group process is to create an avatar that resembles one’s individual physical self, warts and all, and to join the other avatars in an online virtual reality group session. New possibilities are opened up by this form of therapy for dealing with all kinds of emotional and mental issues that are beyond the scope of this article.
Here the point is just to look at how virtual reality (“virtuality”) already lives in the in-person psychotherapy session even as it might have been conducted in 1905. There is a strong sense in which the conversation between a client and a psychodynamic therapist already engages a virtual reality, even when the only “technology” being used is a conversation is English or other natural language.
For example, when Sigmund Freud’s celebrated client, Little Hans, developed a phobia of horses, Freud’s interpretation to Hans’ father was that this symbolized Hans’ fear of the father’s dangerous masculinity in the face of Hans’ unacknowledged competitive hostility towards his much loved father. The open expression of hostility was unacceptable for so many reasons – Hans was dependent on his father to take care of him; Hans loved his father (though he “hated” him, too, in a way as a competitive for his mother’s affection); and Hans was afraid of being punished by his father for being naughty.
So Hans’ hostility was displaced onto a symbolic object, the horse. Hans’ symptoms (themselves a kind of indirect, “virtual reality” expression of suffering) actually gave Hans power, since the whole family was then literally running around trying to help him and consulting “The Professor” (Freud) about what was going on. In short, the virtual reality – now remove the quotes – made present in the case is that the horse is not only the horse but is a virtual stand-in for the father and aspects of the latter’s powerful masculinity.
So add one virtual reality of an imagined symbolic relatedness onto another virtual reality of a simulated visual reality (VR) scenario, the latter contained in a headset and a smart phone. Long before VR technology, therapists of all kinds, including behaviorists, used VR by activating the client’s imagination by asking him or her to imagine the getting on the feared airplane. One may try to escape virtual reality by not going online, but the virtuality follows as long as human beings continue to be symbolizing, imagining creatures.
This blog post is an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To order the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc]
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
The Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations, eds., Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick, published by Routledge:
Table of Contents
Introduction to the book Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick
Section 1 General considerations for online therapy edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 1 Intoduction to the general consideration section: principles of internet-based treatment Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 2 Interview with Lewis Aron and Galit Atlas
Chapter 3 Empathy in Cyberspace: the genie is out of the bottle Lou Agosta
Chapter 4 Sensorimotor psychotherapy from a distance: engaging the body, creating presence, and building relationship in videoconferencing Pat Ogden and Bonnie Goldstein
Chapter 5 The clinic offers no advantage over the screen, for relationship is everything: video psychotherapy and its dynamic Gily Agar
Chapter 6 Cybersupervision in psychotherapy Michael Pennington, Rikki Patton and Heather Katafiasz
Chapter 7 Practical considerations for online individual therapy Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick
Secion 2 Online couple and family therapy edited by Shoshana Hellman and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 8 Introduction to the online couple and family therapy section Shoshana Hellman and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 9 Interview with Julie and John Gottman
Chapter 10 Internet-delivered therapy in couple and family work Katherine M. Hertlein and Ryan M. Earl
Chapter 11 Digital dialectics: navigating technology’s paradoxes in online treatment Leora Trub and Danielle Magaldi
Chapter 12 Practical considerations for online couple and family therapy Arnon Rolnick and Shoshana Hellman
Section 3 Online group therapy edited by Haim Weinberg
Chapter 13 Introduction to the online group therapy section Haim Weinberg
Chapter 14 Interview with Molyn Leszcz
Chapter 15 Oline group therapy: in search of a new theory? Haim Weinberg
Chapter 16 Transformations through the technological mirror Raúl Vaimberg and Lara Vaimberg
Chapter 17 Practical considerations for online group therapy Haim Weinberg
Section 4 Online organizational consultancy edited by Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 18 Introduction to the online organizational consultancy section Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 19 Interview with Ichak Kalderon Adizes
Chapter 20 All together, now: videoconferencing in organizational work Ivan Jensen and Donna Dennis
Chapter 21 A relexive account: group consultation via video conference Nuala Dent
Chapter 22 Practical considerations for online organizational consultancy Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick
Epilogue Arnon Rolnick and Haim Weinberg
This blog and blog post (c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Over the summer I have been catching up on my reading. Matthew Ratcliffe’s Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology (Oxford University
Press, 2015, 318 pp, (44.09 $US)) is an important and eye-opening book for anyone who engages with depression or who wants a deep dive into phenomenological method.
The strength of this book is that Ratcliffe begins by listening to what the first person accounts have to say. Though Ratcliffe does not even use the word “empathy” until late in the work, and then in a debate that leaves much to be clarified, Ratcliffe’s method is a highly empathic one. What does he get out of listening to what the diversity of first person accounts have to say?
What is going on when the depressed person complains that getting out of bed requires enormous effort, and brushing one’s teeth seem impossible because the tooth brush seems to weigh twenty pounds? What is possible for the ordinary person is not possible for the depressed person.
This is a simple-minded, though accurate, example. Now extend it to loss of energy (lethargy) for daily and professional projects, the breakdowns in relations to other people and to oneself, including rampant self-reproaches, physical symptoms such as disturbances of appetite, sleep, consciousness (inability to concentrate). What goes missing from the experience of the depressed person?
Where you and I see possibility – tomorrow is another (and better!) day – the depressed person does not see possibility. The depressed person’s tomorrow is going to be the same miserable day as today. This is not just a belief (though it may be that too); this is the depressed person’s way of being – his experience of the world. This is not just the loss of one possible project or even a series of projects. This is the loss of possibility itself. This is Ratcliffe’s fundamental idea: depression is the loss of the very possibility of possibility.
This idea – the loss of the possibility of possibility – open up the flood gates for the description and appropriation of the diversity (“heterogeneity”) of depressive symptoms. The depressed person does not experience the possible – does not experience the possible as possible. That is the disorder itself.
The disorder is that it is not possible to conceive that things will get better. One is left without hope. Hope is itself openness to a possible future that is better. One is left demoralized. One is left without a future. Guilt is the impossibility of undoing faults or mistakes in the past. One’s crime is irrevocable, impossible to fix or make reparations (or reinterpret). No possibility of forgiveness.
Meanwhile, the depressed person often gets influenza like symptoms – no energy, inability to concentrate, headaches, stomach distress – one takes to one’s bed. However, unlike the case of the flu, in which one feels miserable but knows if one just hangs in there one will get better in a few days, the depressed person cannot imagine things being otherwise. No possibility period.
The phenomenology? Backing up for a high level view based on the phenomenological methods of Husserl and Heidegger, the world is not a thing in the world. The world is the context for things in the world. The world is the space of possibilities. The world of the depressed person is different than the world of the ordinary person. The los of possibility has a domino effect, “taking down” practical significance, hope, and interpersonal connection. Nothing matters anymore. Lethargy, detachment, self-reproach, and flu like symptoms are pervasive.
Given that the audiences for this book, including psychiatrists and many analytic philosophers, have not read Husserl and Heidegger, Ratcliffe devotes significant time and effort providing background, marshaling evidence, and arguing “depression is the loss of possibility – not just one or a series of possibilities – the very possibility of possibility – the depress person cannot even conceive of [the] possibility [of taking action].”
This is as it should be, and the book contains many technical distinctions – e.g., noetic and noematic – and, in that respect, is not for the faint of heart. Still, I was persuaded, and I believe, you will be too. This is a powerful and important contribution, which should be, required study for anyone proposing to engage with persons who one customarily describes as depressed. It changes one’s listening and in a powerful and positive way.
Since this is not a softball review, this leads to the two-ton elephant in the room. So what? What is the guidance in overcoming depression? As I am a person who performs empathy consulting and psychotherapy, this reviewer asks: what are the action items or recommendations? How does one access the possibility of possibility, given that possibilities always present themselves as specific projects in the world? How does one jump-start the possibility of possibility when nothing seems possible?
In all fairness, addressing this may not be Ratcliffe’s job since he is doing phenomenological research, not clinical practice; but the question is almost unavoidable. Therefore, I am so bold as to engage in some “reading between the lines.”
Ratcliffe’s short answer to jump starting possibility is “radical empathy.” Radical empathy – unlike ordinary empathy (according to Ratcliffe) – does not presume that the two people trying to relate share the same space of possibilities (p. 242). Radical empathy is a kind of lever to open a space of possibilities of difference.
My take on radical empathy? Radical empathy consists in the would-be empathizer being committed enough to relating that he continues to try to do so even though logical reasons exist that empathy should fail. In this case, the depressed person is overwhelmed, experiencing being cut off from human relatedness, isolated, and disconnected. That is the disorder itself – along with the other symptoms.
Yet the would-be empathizer persists in his attempts to relate, vicariously experiencing the isolation and disconnectedness (or not) as a privative form of relatedness. The depressed person, even in his isolation, “gets it” that the empathizer is committed to the possibility of relating, even though the depressed person is frustrating the efforts. That’s it. That’s the moment something starts shifting.
Voila! The possibility of possibility is back in play. The depressed person’s “getting it” that the other is committed to the possibility of relating provides an Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth. That’s the empathic breakthrough.
This does not guarantee that radical empathy will succeed. Nor is there any guarantee that after trying ten times, the 11th try will be enough to do the trick. The depressed person may still be so cut off from possibility that suicide starts to look like a solution; but if one can acknowledge the possibility of a bad – very bad – solution (e.g., suicide), then one may be able to find a better solution – whether pharmacological, cognitive behavioral or empathy-based.
To cut to the chase, I am so bold as to suggest that all empathy is radical empathy (in Ratcliffe’s sense). Contrary to Ratcliffe’s assertion, ordinary empathy does notrequire a space of shared possibilities. Shared possibilities are a “nice to have,” but often a high bar. Possibilities might be shared, but often they are not. Given the state of the world, such a space of shared possibilities is rarer than any of us might wish. I assert: All empathy is a risk undertaken to create a space of shared possibilities when there was no shared context.
All the other would-be empathic mechanisms such as simulation, mindedness, sympathy, altruism, are examples of incomplete empathy or breakdowns of empathy into projection, emotional contagion, or conformity. If the breakdowns were clarified, then empathic connection would emerge out of the misunderstanding, restoring the integrity of the relationship.
Meanwhile, Ratcliffe acknowledges the usefulness of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for aligning the conversation and assuring us that the researchers are talking about the same phenomena. He is respectful of the professional sensibilities of the medical and psychiatric establishment – perhaps too respectful in my opinion. Yet, then again, if one is going to speak truth to power, it is best to start with an agreeable word. The barber lathers a man before he shaves him.
Though not a contribution to the growing body of anti-DSM literature, Ratcliffe’s work is an antidote to the pervasive tendency to under-describe depression (and other psychiatric disorders). The DSM is a starting point. However, Ratcliffe’s work makes clear that the DSM, especially as regards depression, is a pragmatic conglomeration of overlapping traits, not a natural kind.
Arguably melancholy is a natural kind; mania is a natural kind; paranoia is a natural kind; inflammation is a natural kind (and here the cytokine theory of depression is called out); but major depressive order as defined by the DSM? Nope. Ratcliffe does not spend much time or effort on the matter of the social construction of the categories of mental illness, and if one had to summarize Ratcliffe’s approach it aligns with the genealogical approach of Ian Hacking (e.g., see Ian Hacking, (2002), Historical Ontology, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), who was himself inspired by Foucault (in turn, inspired by Nietzsche).
In spite of his commitment to sustained phenomenological description of the things themselves, Ratcliffe quickly discovers that the phenomena bring forth a deep structure and background separable from any specific first person report. As usual, the way the researcher gets access to the phenomena significantly influences one’s description of the phenomena.
The data? The phenomena? Ratcliffe collects some 150 free form depression questionnaires in which sufferers and survivors of depression try to express and describe their experiences. Many of these contain lengthy feedback from the survivors on their experiences of depression. Ratcliffe also reviews many memoires of suicide and depression survivors, who try to express the ineffable nature of their experiences, such as Styron’s Darkness Visible. Many conditions and qualifications regarding the data are argued, limitations defined, and the richness of the experience plumbed for an expansive encounter with the enemy – depression.
Several things come out in the first person accounts that are not emphasized or are outright overlooked in the DSM. These include: the intimate relationship between depression and anxiety (“anxious distress” is called out in DSM-5, but unrelated to the whole); loss of hope and changes in bodily experience are briefly acknowledged in the DSM-5, but are critical path in the treatment; the altered experience of time is not mentioned at all (but the future seems to disappear as a positive, possible horizon); impaired social function is mentioned as a consequence whereas such loss of function is integral to the phenomena itself. This list goes on.
One of the first things that occurred to me as I sat down to read this book was: Am I going to get depressed – not necessarily in the full clinical sense; but is it going to cause an upset? My experience was that such a negative outcome was not the case. I suspect that was because, as an author who “gets” and uses empathy, Ratcliffe knows how to regulate the empathy in the space of possibilities to prevent empathic distress.
However, before turning to Ratcliffe’s breakthrough notion of radical empathy, the text engages with the issue of how empathy maps to the theory of mind debate in which empathy as simulation is arrayed against a theory of mindedness that enable persons to perceive others as sources of intentionality. The details of this debate are technical and at times Ratcliffe seems to forget the insight with which he began the book: “I argue that human experience incorporates an ordinarily pre-reflective sense of belonging to a shared world’, which is altered in depression” (p. 2).
Once one disconnects the subject from its environment – the subject’s belonging to a shared world of people, neither simulation theory nor theory of mindedness can ever quite connect them again. It is a myth that we human beings are unrelated. We are all related. Human beings are already related to one another – biologically, psychologically, and in our very way of being (ontologically). Ratcliffe gets this. There is nothing wrong. Yet there is something missing.
Ratcliffe conceptualizes empathy as an attitude that does not include the communication of affect. Therefore, he overlooks several breakdowns in empathy – such as emotional contagion, projection, conformity – that if clarified provide the breakthrough to “radical empathy” (Ratcliffe’s key term) that is need to give traction to treatment options. There is indeed such a thing as an empathic attitude; but I disagree with Ratcliffe that a congruence of feeling (whether partial or complete) is to be ruled-out.
Ratcliffe (and his argument) are troubled by the notion that if one empathizes with a depressed person, then one may end up feeling quite depressed. This seems to be an invalidation of empathy and an obstacle to using it in treatment. Neither needs to be the case. First, in an admittedly extreme case, if one talks to eight depressed people in a row in the course of a treatment day, then one is very likely going to feel down – at least sub-clinically depressed – by the end of the day, regardless of the quality of one’s empathy. Is this empathy or a breakdown of empathy?
Look at the phenomena. Phenomenologically, there is no other plausible way to describe this than to say that the feelings and emotions have been communicated from one person to another. Once again, is this empathy? No – according to Ratcliffe, empathy is an attitude, not a congruence of feelings.
I suggest this answer is incomplete. It is not an “either or” choice. One must integrate empathic receptivity (openness), empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness.
The answer is still “No,” but because the communication of feeling, the congruence of feeling – one paradigm case of which is vicarious experience – is not complete empathy. It is merely phase one of empathy.
If one stops with the mere communication of feeling, then one gets emotional contagion (as Ratcliffe properly notes). This is a breakdown of empathy, but Ratcliffe does not describe it in such a way. However, do not be so hasty to dismiss empathy. That empathy breaks down does notmean empathy is invalid or must be abandoned.
The would-be empathizer may [must?] take this vicarious experience of the other’s distress and process it further through empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness in order to make it useable in relating to the other person as a possibility or a breakdown of possibility.
Likewise with compassion fatigue, which is likely in the background of Ratcliffe’s insistence that empathy is an attitude, not a congruence of feeling. Though compassion fatigue is not an issue Ratcliffe engages, it is common to acknowledge that the helping professions are at risk of burn out, empathic distress, and compassion fatigue. (Note that burn out itself is a kind of loss of the possibility of possibility. “Depression”?)
Those who engage with depressed people are particularly at risk of such an outcome. Empathy reportedly peaks in the third year of medical school, and, unless specific interventions such as further training are undertaken, it is downhill from thereon (see Hojat, Mohammadreza, et al. (2009). The devil is in the third year: A longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school, Academic Medicine84 (9): 1182–1191). What to do about it?
Once again, Ratcliffe may not see this as his job – and the book is already over 300 pages of dense descriptions of depression – but one may offer a couple of thoughts. We usually think of empathy as an “on off” switch. Turn it on for the “in group” – patients, clients, friends, family – turn it off for the competition, the opposing team, people who talk foreign languages or have unfamiliar customs or the “out group.” Rather, the training is to regard empathy as more like a dial or tuner – dial empathy up or down by regulating one’s receptivity – one’s openness (Ratcliffe’s term) – to the experiences of other persons.
If one is over-whelmed by the other person’s depression one is doing it wrong. Properly deployed by experienced practitioners, empathy is a method of providing a sample or trace of the other person’s experience. Max Scheler (who Ratcliffe approvingly cites) calls this a “vicarious experience” (Nacherlebnis) – rather like an after image of another person’s feeling. As noted, this trace or sample of the other’s experience has to be further processed by the understanding of possibilities to be useful in shifting out of stuckness. (See Max Scheler, (1913/1922). The Nature of Sympathy, tr. Peter Heath. Hamden: CN: Archon Books, 1970)).
Of course, expanding one’s empathy does not come naturally to most people, which is why training and practice are needed. But experience shows that if one works at it, one can expand one’s empathic capabilities and the results one gets in trying to be empathic. (See Zaki, Jamil and Mina Ciskara. (2015). Addressing empathic failures, Current Directions in Psychological Science,December 2015, Vol. 24, No. 6: 471–476. DOI: 10.1177/0963721415599978).
The antidote? A radical proposal – in addition to radical empathy. If one is experiencing compassion fatigue, maybe one is being too compassionate. Now compassion is different from empathy. In compassion, one’s strong feeling – passion – motivates one to get involved, take action, and intervene to help the other. (Nor is anyone saying be hard-hearted or indifferent, but know when to dial it down a bit.) In contract, empathy in the full sense of the term, of which Ratcliffe’s radical empathy is a subset, is a method of data gathering about the experience of the other person. It consists in being open to the experiences of the other person, having a vicarious experience of the other’s experience, and further processing it in empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness.
It is ironic that the phenomenology of depression misses the key phenomenological distinction – vicarious experience – in the account of trying to empathize with depression. In relating to a depressed person, I can be open to a vicarious experience of melancholy or stress or anger or irritability or discordant mood or whatever the other person is experiencing – without succumbing to a merger with them. This vicarious experience gets processed further in understanding who the person is, where he is at, what he “gets” as possible for himself in the moment. Through interpretation and responsiveness, this may open up other possibilities. Now we are back in the realm of jump-starting the possibility of possibility.
Ratcliffe finds inspiration in, but puts his own definitive spin on, Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope, a narrative of the struggles of the Native American Crow people. After the buffalo went away (were killed off), the indigenous Crow people, experienced world collapse. Hunting ceased. Demonstrating courage in tribal warfare became impossible. Culture and customs lost significance and ceased to make a difference. Nothing changed – i.e., in effect, time stopped. All hope was lost and – at the risk of a caricature – the only possibilities were the self-destructive non-possibilities of alcoholism and inadequate, dignity-destroying government handouts.
However, even amid this world collapse – analogous to the depressive person’s loss of the possibility of possibility – a wise Crow elder put forth a prophecy that an event, something = x, would happen that would enable a the rebirth of possibility of the true people. This was radical hope – “to hope against hope until hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates” as the poet Shelley put it.
The prophesized event turned out to be World War II, a conflict in which the Crow were able to draw on their warrior tradition and make a contribution to the defeat of the enemy.
Ratcliffe’s radical empathy is analogous to radical hope here. The therapist keeps alive the possibility of possibility and gives expression to it while the depressed person is unable to do so for himself. The therapist keeps blowing on the embers – and may indeed get short of breath doing so – until the spark rekindles the fire of neuronal activity in the depressed person’s consciousness.
In conclusion, Ratcliffe “gets it” – while simulation and theory of mindedness go round-and-round about whether feelings are congruent or perspective interchangeable, psychiatric disorders across the spectrum, from mood disorders to thought disorder, are especially challenging to anyone’s empathy. Most psychiatric disorders – not just autism or psychopathy – involve a breakdown of empathy (as Ratcliffe points out elsewhere), leaving the person feeling disconnected, isolated, not “gotten.” Ordinary empathy is already radical in so far as one person is able to understand another in his or her humanity. Such a commitment – call it an “attitude” or a “method” – is not easy or trivial. Yet the commitment to relating to the other’s humanity is what calls forth the humanity back into possibility.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
When I say, reading Arthur Kleinman’s books changes one’s listening, I do not mean changes one’s listening the way reading Lacan or being hit on the head with a rolled up newspaper changes one’s listening. What I mean is, reading Kleinman expands one’s humanity, empathy, and capacity for engaged caring.
This is likewise the case with The Soul of Care: The Moral Education of a Husband and a Doctor (due out September 17, 2019 from Viking), the most important memoire by a psychiatrist since Carl Gustav Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections (1962) [though with a different source and trajectory], an unsolicited prepublication copy of which showed up in my snail mail. It is a real page-turner.
Arthur Kleinman, MD, trained as a psychiatrist, is an innovator in medical anthropology, a discipline of which he is the virtual founder. He and his late wife Joan, also an academic, spent considerable time and effort doing cross cultural (anthropological) research in China on traditional medicine, modern medicine, and the connecting points (and divergences) thereof. Of particular interest were survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, who suffered from the symptoms of “neurasthenia,” a disorder whose explicit diagnosis has declined in the west – including fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, demoralization, and hard to diagnose pain(s).
In the course of their time in China, Kleinman (Arthur) gets a combination of exhaustion and dysentery, which reaches life disabling and even life threatening, stages. Joan is the very soul of caring – nursing him back to health.
This provides one of the paradigms for Arthur when Joan eventually gets early onset Alzheimer’s and he decides to take care of her at home.
The Soul of Care is the memoir of Kleinman’s life’s work (to date) and what happens when he decides to practice what he preaches and takes on the task of carrying for his increasingly ill wife, Joan.
Kleinman does not use the word “empathy” much, but it lives in his work, and in this case, the man is living in an empathy desert and that includes the health care system that is relating to him as pain instead of a whole person. Kleinman’s listening, which creates a context for human relatedness, succeeds in moving the dial back a few notches, though no way exists of undoing the now fused spine.
I have frequently had my mind blown by the power and precision of Kleinman’s writings. For example (and now we are in The Soul of Care), another patient has intractable pain relating to her diabetes, yet the diabetes is under control. The numbers from the blood work and related tests show that the diabetes should not be producing such results. Something is not adding up. Is the patient faking? Is there some disorder that has been overlooked?
This fellow, Kleinman, sits down and has a conversation with someone with intractable pain. He is genuinely curious about the patient. He is interested. He nails it. He brings along a medical student on a home healthcare visit. The above-cited patient is a diabetic, and is eligible for Meals on Wheels, transportation to the hospital, alternative housing (p. 206). The medical team (notice: there is a team!) had no idea, because no one asked.
Time-after-time, Kleinman shows up and asks a few questions – it all comes tumbling out – in many cases out-and-out trauma; in other cases, subclinical post traumatic stress disorder; in most cases, life circumstances, stress, inaccurate or incomplete diagnoses being transformed into bodily symptoms.
Continuing the above example, the patient is a single working mother; poor; working the grave yard shift while simultaneously cooking, cleaning, getting her kid (who is doing quite well, thanks) to school, and managing everything else well enough – everything except her pain. The patient is not faking – the pain is authentic, but diabetic neuropathy is not the cause. The cause is a work life imbalance of virtually unimaginable proportions (once again, “work-life balance” is my summary description, not Kleinman’s). The patient is running flat out, and is eligible for food stamps and other support available within the system. But no one on the team even bothered to have the conversation, even bothered to ask.
What is happening is that a medical issue does indeed exist. But the human being is more than an insulin pump. If medicine wants to be a caring profession not a bureaucratic profit center, then the doctor may useful make inquiry as to what the patient thinks is going wrong (and right) in her life. What is happening is that the emotions, affects, cognition, personal spirit, are elaborating what is in effect the anatomical or organic lesion and defect.
One can appreciate that individual practitioners may well feel they are like the “Lone Ranger,” single-handedly arrayed against human suffering. One will do what one can, writing the prescription at the end of the session for something, anything, to at least get the placebo affect as a positive expectation itself sets off a cascade of neurotransmitters. Kleinman appreciates how devilishly tricky it is both to address the biological system and the suffering human being present in the space
Yet Kleinman is uncompromising – and with good reason. Time-after-time, simple inquiries as to what are the facts of the person’s life circumstances point powerfully in the direction of human interventions that shift the person out of suffering and stuckness and into action. Putting the pain in context enables the person(s) to improve their own health through life style adjustments.
After all, is this not the age of the informed, engaged, proactive health care consumer? Many medical doctors pay lip service to such engagement, yet are not prepared to answer questions or, just as importantly, help the patient formulate the half-formed questions they are struggling to express. Do the job, do it completely, and do it the way it was meant to be done on behalf of the patient and suffering humanity.
Pain is one of those things that sometimes one can’t live with, but one certainly can’t live without. The reflex that causes one’s hand to jerk off of a hot casserole dish is not yet pain. The reflex precedes the experience of pain by a couple of seconds.
The reflex does not go through the brain; the experience of pain does. To become pain, the sensory information in the nerves has to go through the brain. In short, pain is important to tell the person about damage to his or her body that requires attention. Pain powerfully focuses one’s attention on getting actionable results in addressing the problem. But pain can cause a member or organ to become hyper-cathected – a tight loop that creates pain in anticipating pain to avoid pain. By focusing on the pain, attention can expand pain, grow pain, and become a habitual pattern of pain stimulation to the organism. Focus one’s attention elsewhere? Easier said than done, though alternative interventions such as meditation, hypnosis, and self-soothing stress reduction activities (which Kleinman does not much discuss) aim to do just that.
Kleinman is himself something of a survivor: a son who never met his biological father, a grade school student who bore two utterly separate family names once his mother remarried, from two opposed sub-ethnic factions, one in public school, the other in religious school; a scion of a mysterious past about which his Victorian family was silent or whispered inarticulately, so that he had the extra developmental task of figuring out by himself, yet not announcing to others, lest they be hurt what identified me, which therefore could not be authorized (or denied). (See Writing at the Margin (p. 2).
I learned a lot about empathy from Kleinman, though he rarely uses the word. Nor would I consider Kleinman an advocate of empathy understood in the narrow sense of a psychological mechanism. Rather in a medical world (Kleinman is a psychiatric), in which diagnostic categories are mapped to psychopharm interventions, Kleinman is an articulate advocate for sitting down and talking to the individual about what is going on in the person’s life. What is working and what is not working? While it takes extra time upfront, such a conversation for possibility makes a profound difference in actually getting an accurate diagnosis as opposed to a good enough, makeshift band-aide.
Kleinman several times quotes the celebrated founder of sociology Max Weber in his studies on bureaucracy. As institutions become larger and more complex, rules and roles independent of individual charisma and personal genius are needed to scale up to deliver services to more people. Nothing wrong with that as such – serving more people with high quality medical care is everyone’s aspiration. Yet when I have a disorder whose cause or course are unclear, like most people, I want the brilliant diagnostician, the TV doctor from central casting whether Ben Casey or House or whoever is trending, not a functionary.
For those interested in additional diagnostic pyrotechnics or just plain background, The Illness Narratives, the essentials of which are recapitulated in The Soul of Care, is the place to look for expanded and amazing narratives. It too is a real page turner.
Kleinman’s The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition (Basic Books 1989) distinguishes incisively between the person’s experience of illness and the doctor’s concept of the disease as part of a biological system. To be sure, substantial overlap often exists between these two, but not always. What then opens up and becomes possible is an entire method and approach to healing that puts biological reduction in its proper place.
For example: When chest pain can be reduced to a treatable acute lobar pneumonia, the biological reduction[ism] is a success. When chest pain is reduced to chronic coronary artery disease for which calcium blockers and nitroglycerine are prescribed, while the patient’s fear, the family’s frustration, the job conflict, the sexual impotence, and the financial crisis go undiagnosed and unaddressed, it is much less of a success (The Illness Narratives, p. 6).
The Illness Narratives expanded my appreciation of how a physical injury can take on a life of its own. The injury is real enough and it becomes a grain of sand around which a misshaped black pearl is elaborated (my metaphor, not Kleinman’s). The physical issue is elaborated by the emotions, as unresolved personal issues in a person’s life seem to be magnetically drawn towards making meaning out of pain and suffering.
Another example, in The Illness Narrativesa self made assistant police captain, performing good work, helping a neighbor, throws out his back. The pain gets habituated. He just can’t shake it off – month after month. It is affecting his job performance. He needs even more down time, sick time. He starts to feel that people do not believe him – he is really suffering.
To demonstrate to others and to himself how serious the matter is – and in the hope of finding relief for his pain – he agrees to surgery. However, if one is in pain, surgery can be a deal with the devil (so be sure to read the fine print), because, at least in the short term, surgery is a cause of acute pain.
Several years – and surgeries – later, the person – now a picture of pain – walks into Dr Kleinman’s office. The patient is the walking embodiment of pain. His every more seems painful. A conversation reveals a life narrative not for the faint of heart. He was not quite abandoned as a child, but basically he had to raise himself. He would have starved as a kid of tender age if he had not learned how to scramble some eggs; his head barely reaching high enough to assess the progress of the food in the frying pain.
Culminating in his latest contribution, The Soul of Care, Kleinman’s career has spanned the Corporation Transformation of American Medicineas identified by Paul Starr (1984) during which the medical doctor has gone from being a sovereign authority, whose word was virtually the law, to being a functionary in a corporation optimized for capitation and revenue generation, all the while paying marketing firms to communicate how caring everyone really is.
In order to preserve the integrity of his commitment amidst the corporate transformation of American medicine, Kleinman innovates, inventing his own field of study, medical anthropology. It has legs. It works. A journal is founder. High quality articles are published. Institutions, funders, and financial support are forthcoming. He teaches it at Mass General – we pause to honor the storied name – and at Harvard – another pause. With all this pausing, we are never going to get through this review. Yet the broader lessons for healthcare as a whole of medical anthropology do not break out of its own resonant, transformational niche.
Kleinman is definitely not living in a cave. He spends seven continuous years doing cross cultural research in China with his wife Joan, who becomes fluent in Chinese and provides important auxiliary functions in team building, networking, and having a life. (I shall follow the convention of calling “Arthur” by “Kleinman” and “Joan Kleinman” by “Joan” for simplicity.)
Therefore when Kleinman’s own world is brought low as the love of his life and his professional partner, his wife of thirty years, Joan, is stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s, he find himself wrestling not only with the disease but with the medical bureaucracy and the fact that his innovations in medical education have definitely notbeen widely adopted.
First he learns how to perform household chores. He learns how to pay the bills. He takes over bathing Joan and preparing meals. He marshals support from his gown up children, who have kids of tender age of their own and are running flat out – all the while continuing teaching and research (albeit with a certain amount of flex time provided by his long-term employers – pause again to honor them – for whom Kleinman is a celebrity academic).
He gets a home helper, who is indeed an essential part of the support system. With 20-20 hindsight, he second guesses his own agreement, requested by Joan, that she be allowed to decline (and die) at home. He has an important late insight, realizing that Joan is no longer the person who entered into that agreement, the dementia having robbed her of [essential aspects of] her identity. Nor is he the same person, who he was after the ongoing ten year long struggle. Between Joan’s agitation, loss of identity, intermittent fear or psychosis, and incontinence (wandering was less of an issue, because the patient became blind), all bets – and prior agreements – are problematic.
The couple consult many specialists. The neurological resident Kleinman and his wife visit is interested in talking with them again – in six months – and in following the irreversible course of the disease, not in engaging with the human impact and cost for the wife and husband.
Confidentiality is important; but it becomes yet another obstacle as the well-intentioned neurology resident insists on addressing Joan, even though her expressed wishes are that Arthur be included in all the decisions. Queue up the living will and health care power of attorney. All well and good. But the problem is that the patient does not want to have a legal conversation, she wants to have one about caring. Noticeably absent is guidance as to caring. Key term: caring.
Kleinman matriculates in the college of hard knocks. As caring – and empathic – has he already is, it is all used up by the progressive dementia. He gets a home helper since, though relatively well off, he must keep working to pay the mounting bills – and for his own sanity. Towards the end of the middle stage of the disease, he actually takes her with him to Shanghai, China, in order to fulfill academic obligations and complete a stalled project in cross cultural health care.
The reader cannot help but wonder, “What is this guy thinking?” as he takes Joan, by then an easily agitated person developing Capgras (“imposter”) syndrome, through airport security to Shanghai. Somehow he pulls it off. The quality of care in China and the support for the family is truly inspiring, especially given how eager his Chinese colleagues are to be supportive with both traditional and modern medicine (and given that no one really has the answer regarding Alzheimer’s).
Without using the word “empathy,” Kleinman was already operating at an advanced level in relating to others in a caring way. He is the Other whose listening brought relatedness to suffering individual in one case after another. Now he faces new, life-defining challenge.
A recurring theme becomes how his ten years of care giving becomes a descent to the hell of irreversible dementia without the prospect of rebirth. As near as I can figure, his is a journey of the hero, with ample commitment and tragic struggle, but without heroism.
Even given his training as a psychiatrist and anthropologist, a well-connected professorial network with high quality, [relatively] responsive support, he is brought low, isolated, at the brink of emotional despair. But how could it be otherwise? He is losing his wife to a disease that robs a person of her identity (i.e., dignity), but she is still physically present and intermittently coherent. Even so he struggles to get straight answers from the medical professionals about the course of the disease, about the trade-offs between home care and assisted living.
The back story is that at some point early on in their relationship Joan decided that her life project was to take care of him (Arthur), the family, the kids, even supporting his research – they published academic papers together – while also mastering the Chinese language and immersing herself in that culture. She got good at it – very good indeed.
Kleinman decides that he wants to return the favor. Of course, it is not as simple as that. Kleinman talks about his own guilt and what he had to survive coming up. The point is that this man Arthur Kleinman is already the soul of caring; but he takes his caring to a new level through the refiner’s fire of caring for Joan.
It is a heart-warming and inspiring narrative – the ultimate illness narrative (also the title of Kleinman’s most impactful work prior to this one) – but also a harrowing one. Not for the faint of heart. Apparently at some point, [many] advanced Alzheimer’s patients stop eating. A morphine drip and lip moistening are the palliative measures recommended.
If you need a good cry, you will get one by the time Kleinman realizes there is no way to take care of Joan at home even with a full time assistant. The end is not
quick, but given the morphine drip, neither is it painful. What it is is impossible to put into word. The image of suffering of Shakespeare’s Lear, blind and wandering in a storm of agitated emotions towards the edge of the cliff, looms large. It’s her; it’s him; it’s both, though he ends up being a survivor. What is painful is the loss – the loss of humanity of the Alzheimer’s patient.
When Kleinman uses the word “moral” – it occurs in the subtitle of The Soul of Care as well as in the subtitle of his What Really Matters(Oxford 2007) – of course, he is referring to value judgments, candidate categorical imperatives, and assessment of ethically right and wrong behavior and character. At times, I doubt that the word “moral” adds to the discussion, since it is mainly about preserving one’s sanity in the face of the disintegration of the skills needed for the activities of daily living.
“Humanity” and “morality” overlap extensively and I doubt it makes sense to ask which came first. Yet they are not identical. There is a conflictual aspect to our humanity that morality attempts in vain to capture and make right by judging. Lear, blind and stumbling towards the edge of the precipice, is also wandering at the edge of morality, though arguably he never stops being a struggling human being. Neither does Kleinman.
Nor at any time does Kleinman become a moral relativist, though he is keenly in touch with the fuzzy, grey areas. The problem is that the space of human action and engagement becomes so thick with judgments and evaluations that one can hardly think, much less take action in the face of urgent emergencies.
Most of the tough (and narratively engaging) cases involve fraught decisions where fundamentally good people actually perform bad actions. In some cases the consequences of the action escape from the agent – as when the soldier follows the sergeant’s orders and blows up the car supposedly containing the suicide bomber, but it is actually a family of five on the way to deliver a baby. That is moral trauma. But in other cases individuals actually, intentionally commit war crimes (e.g., Winthrop Cohen in Kleinman’s What Really Matters) and spend the remainder of their lives twisted in knots over what happened, what does it mean, and how to go on.
Taking matters up a level, one such looming moral trauma is the ongoing corporate transformation of American medicine.
Kleinman channels some of his well-founded anger into targeting the systematic breakdowns of the American Healthcare system in the face of revenue incentives, corporate metrics, and devaluing caring. His jeremiad – I mean, argument – may usefully be made required reading – not only for doctors but especially for administrations and managers – in medical schools and systems. It is often the administrators who are taking advantage of the medical professional’s empathy in demanding more patients per period with no compromise of quality or attention to the demands of addressing human suffering in its physical as well as emotional and spiritual aspects.
Kleinman throws down the gauntlet, demonstrating just how far main stream, neoliberal, bio-political health care has diverged from his humanistic vision: “The problem, as some suggest, is not that we fail to quantify these experiences [of caring], but that they cannot be quantified, because they are essential human interaction, the soul of what health care is” (p. 238).
Many long term advantages exist in reducing spending upfront by life style changes in nutrition, exercise, stress management – and avoiding expensive medical technologies and interventions once the damage is done. A compelling quantitative case can be made that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Nevertheless the fact remains: quality health care is expensive. Though I am just a citizen, the Siemens Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) device that took a picture of the torn cartilage in my knee looks to be almost as large and as complex, though in totally different ways, as the lunar excursion module (LEM) that landed two men on the moon in 1969. It turns out to be Rocket Science, so why should it be less expensive? Imaging, genomics, proteomics, personal medicine, personalized treatment using the most advanced technologies are quite simply expensive.
What is a lot less expensive – though by no means totally without cost – is sitting down and having a conversation for possibility with another human being – about her pain, disorder, and her life. And this conversation is one of the sources of quality healthcare and human flourishing, or at least pain management. This provides a powerful picture, too.
Read an excerpt from the book, quoted in Time Magazine: https://time.com/5680723/doctor-wifes-alzheimers/
A rumor of empathy is no rumor in The Soul of Care and Kleinman’s works. Empathy LIVES in Kleinman’s contribution. Kleinman does not emphasize this point about the power of ordinary language, though it is near enough to the surface of his text, but rather calls out the moral imperative: we must think deeply and with integrity about the kind of society and community we want to be. The extreme wealth being generated by innovations in technology make possible maximizing acts of humanity that advance community well-being. Whether that happens to the USA, as a healthcare nation is an existential choice of the highest order on the part of the individual and the community.
Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project