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I am catching up on my reading. Christine Ann Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother is a classic in its field, with a whopping 396 Amazon reviews (Q1 2019), enjoying a rating of 4.7 out of 5.0. Impressive. (See the bottom of this review for bibliographic information on the book .)
Numerous readers have remarked that this book opened their eyes to what they had to survive growing up. These survivors were not bad,
crazy, or broken in the way they were led to believe by what was fundamentally an invalidating child-rearing environment. The vignettes and analyses in Lawson’s book provided them with a transformational “Ah ha!” moment. For many survivors this was a tad like Saul becoming Saint Paul on the road to Damascus – a bolt of lightening out of the blue. They then could begin the hard work of incremental change needed to restore the self-soothing, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance capabilities needed to feel like whole persons again – or for the first time ever.
So up front and considering this is not a “soft ball” review, I acknowledge the importance of Lawson’s contribution and recognize that her work made a profound difference for many survivors. It is especially important to keep that in mind, given that I express significant reservations and criticisms.
The technical details? The borderline personality disorder (BPD) gets precisely defined as a psychiatric entity in 1980, entering the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III). However, long before that signal event “borderline” was understood to be a person whose personality structure (or lack thereof) is characterized by a compensatory but problematic defensive structure that guards against a psychotic breakdown.
Here “psychotic” means “out of touch with everyday reality.” The implication was that such borderline individuals were at risk of completing losing contact with the world of everyday life, decompensating into a full-blown psychotic breakdown. In particular, if the borderline person were treated with psychoanalytic methods, itself encouraging a mild form of regression back to the childhood fixations, whether real or imagined, the risk was of causing the borderline treatment to “go off the rails” into explicit mental illness. In a different, allegedly humorous context, the description “borderline” has come to mean that the patient is hard to work with, difficult, or simply “the therapist doesn’t like the patient.”
A bit more background will be useful. Innovations in treating personality disorders by Heinz Kohut, MD, including new forms of transference such as self-object transference, made narcissistic personality disorders (NPD), arguably on a continuum with borderline personality in a pre-1980 sense, accessible to psychoanalytic methods. (See footnote  below.) However, NPD remains distinct from BPD. The treatment of NPD is relevant here since the children of BPD parents do not necessarily acquire BPD themselves, but sometimes suffer from a pervasive narcissistic vulnerability.
In contrast with Kohut’s deficit model of the narcissistic self, Otto Kernberg, MD, developed a formulation that posited actual defects in the structure of the borderline personality – aspects that were not merely missing but broken. The resulting borderline behaviors need to be confronted and rooted out by a kind of “tough love” on the part of the therapist.
Meanwhile, Marsha Linehan, PhD, a self-styled radical behaviorist, is the innovator who created a treatment approach called “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy” (DBT) that often is effective in treating BPD while other approaches have been [are] less successful. No short description of Linehan’s program is available, but a suitable over-simplification may be useful: DBT combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) within a framework that emphasizes mindfulness, empathic listening, and validation of the grain of truth in even the BPD person’s most perplexing distortions to restore the BPD individual’s capabilities for emotional regulation, distress tolerance, self-soothing, interpersonal skills, and self-esteem. DBT is not for the faint of heart and requires an entire team, including both one-on-one counseling and extensive work in groups. It is different than boot camp, but sometimes not by much. Substantial evidence-based, peer-reviewed publications support the effectiveness and validity of the approach.
Lawson, gets matters right with her use of Marsha Linehan, Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, and Ernest Wolf, even when these innovators are not specifically addressing borderline personality disorder (DPB). As noted, Kohut and Wolf have done a deep dive on narcissistic personality disorders. In comparison to BPD, though related, neither the symptoms nor the treatments options are the same. This points to the hazards of broad-brush stroke labeling segments of suffering humanity, albeit with the worthy end of expanding our empathy and understanding for the survivors.
Lawson gets the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual(DSM) criteria right in terms of the BPD person’s fear of abandonment [“I hate you – don’t leave me!”], volatility of relationships, volatility of emotions, volatility of self-image, self-injurious (para suicidal) behavior, impulsivity and acting out, and physiological symptoms. People have different ways of expressing their suffering and the suffering of the BPD person can be intense, so engaging with them is not for the faint of heart.
One strong point. Lawson’s is perceptive in the use of Christina Crawford’s searing memoire, Mommy Dearest, about Christina’s Academy Award winning movie star mother, Joan Crawford (1905 – 1977). This paints a convincing picture of growing up with and surviving the BPD mother (in this case, Joan Crawford). Once again, such material is not for the faint of heart. It turns out that many Hollywood movie starts are good actors both in front of the camera on stage and off of it. “Acting” is different than “faking,” but to a child of tender age the distinction is not always clear. “All the world is a stage,” but when one is a child of tender age, one cannot simply walk out of the show if one does not like it or is being traumatized by it. The lives of the rich and famous are as susceptible to mental and emotional disorders as anyone.
The criticism? To generalize from the example of the tortured genius of Joan Crawford to the run-of-the-mill perpetrations, self-deceptions and manipulations of the standard, working class BPD mother is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous or at least to tear a passion to tatters. It makes for bad theatre, but then again so does real life. I would have liked to hear more about how Christina and her brother dealt with the worst of the perpetrations and escaped the disorder themselves, even if it did leave them with a pervasive narcissistic vulnerability.
Christina describes an invalidating environment, one of the principle causes of BPD. Yet she retained powers of self-expression and freedom that allowed her to overcome [some of] the worst consequences of her environment. This is not to say she did not suffer. She did. What made a difference? What enabled her to compensate – acquiring the distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and self-soothing skills in which mother was so dramatically lacking? Strange to say, maybe Christina got these life saving skills from the nuns at the religious boarding school where she was sent. No doubt the matter is more complex.
Thus, the help promised in the subtitle “Helping her children transcend the intense, unpredictable, and volatile relationship” is mostly targeted at the grown ups who have survived childhood with a BPD mother. It is not clear what such help would look like for a child of tender age other than to turn to the other parent, relative, or mentor-like friend of the family for the mirroring and recognition needed to acquire skills in emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and self-soothing. In some cases cited by Lawson, the abuses rises to a level at which intervention by the state (Children and Family Services) would be appropriate, though such is sometimes like going from the frying pan into the fire.
For example, Lawson’s examples of the mother who drowned her two children, strapped into their car seats in her SUV (Susan Smith (1994)), and the mother who shot her three children at close range (Diane Downs (1983)). These examples result in the reader feeling vicariously traumatized. I am not saying these are not horrific examples of criminality, insanity, or both. They are. I am saying these examples in the book are symptomatic of Lawson’s rhetorically “over the top” approach.
DBP is properly distinguished from manic depression (Bipolar I), post partum depression that reaches psychotic proportions, psychopathy, or paranoid schizophrenia. My concern is that Lawson gathers wide-ranging and provocative examples of trauma, deceptions, perpetrations, manipulations, lies, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense – and attributes them to BPD. BPD is characterized by boundary issues – and violations – and so are the distinctions in this book.
In short, BPD mother is straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales – now the waif, now the hermit, now the queen, now the wicked witch. Well and good. This is not a treatise on fairy tales; yet Lawson misses the point about the uses of enchantment. To the child who is being weaned, the loving (not BPD!) mother who is temporarily withholding the breast in favor of a Sippy-cup, this standard mother suddenly seems like the devouring witch. She is now and will be the loving caretaker again once the crisis of weaning has passed, but with an enriched personality that includes both positive and negative aspects instead of the splitting and extremes of early childhood. In short, there is nothing wrong – but something is missing – empathy.
For example, Lawson does a nice job marshaling a nightmare and candidate BPD mother from the ancient Greeks, Euripides’ Medea. When Medea’s faithless husband, Jason, proposes to leave Medea for another woman, the gates of chaos are opened. In revenge, Media kills her children and the other woman. This is perhaps the literary origin of the expression “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” From another perspective, a common place exists that when people do not get the empathy or dignity that they feel they deserved, they become enraged. But this takes rage to new, heretofore unprecedented levels. Medea “acts out” her revenge with chilling effectiveness. Medea’s pending loss gets transformed into psychopathic, psychotic, criminally insane rage. Does anyone besides me think that to attribute such perpetrations to BPD would be overstating the case?
One of Lawson’s commitments is to expand the reader’s empathy for the child of a BPD mother. Of course, to the child it is not BPD. It is just behavior that leaves the child bewildered, confused, in semi-shock, or even traumatized. By definition, the diagnosis of BPD cannot be applied to anyone younger than adolescence. Personality disorders usually show up in puberty or adolescence.
The BPD person’s behavior is a study in invalidation, misuse, abuse, emotional disregulation, boundary issues, boundary violations, lack of empathy, lack of recognition, lack of mirroring, lack of response to the child as a whole person, and inconsistent, intermittent, low quality parenting. When the environment is sufficiently invalidating and the child lacks resilience or another sane adult model to help compensate, then the result can indeed be a perpetration of generational BPD.
Ultimately Lawson shocks, shifts, and shakes our complacency about BPD. She may even leave some vicariously traumatized by her narratives of child abuse and boundary issues. However, she fails to enhance our empathy with the BPD person by sensationalizing and “demonizing” the worst excesses of BPD.
I hasten to add that BPD can be described as lying a spectrum with demonic behavior. This is especially so if one is describing BPD from the perspective of the child of tender age. But, once again, that is the issue. The devouring witch of Hansel and Gretel is a representation of the standard mother who is withholding the breast from the child as the latter is being weaned. But the standard mother is usually not suffering from BPD.
The fairy tale narrative informs our empathy with the child. Within the story, the story teller inspires empathy with the children (Hansel and Gretel) such that it seems to them alternatively like a death sentence by starvation, leaving a hunger big enough to eat a house (which is how the children first encounter the gingerbread house). It is of course neither of these, but the narrative enables the grown up empathically to get inside the child’s experience.
The issue with Lawson’s book is that it does not distinguish between BPD, child abuse, and criminality. Yes, BPD mothers’ relationships with their children sometimes cross the boundary between “mere” BPD and even more severe forms of loss of reality testing, psychosis, and sheer insanity. However, BPD is distinct from narcissistic exploitation, manipulation, and criminality. It takes more than BPD to produce the kinds of horrific results that occur when a parent murders her child, but we only hear about BPD as if it were the only “cause.”
No one is endorsing using a child as a narcissistic extension of the parent’s defective grandiosity. The mental health consequences of the latter are severe, especially when occurring habitually. No one is endorsing everyday, run-of-the-mill bad parenting. There is not a lot of good news here. However, all these failings are different than child abuse and criminality.
Lawson rides the slippery slope from perpetrations and emotionally traumatizing behavior all the way down to dehumanization and homicide. Granted it may seem to the survivor of a BPD mother as if she or he were a Holocaust survivor – nor should anyone devalue the suffering of what anyone else had to survive, including the Holocaust – but a significant difference between the two still exists.
Lawson’s best guidance for surviving the BPD mother, whether as a child of tender age or a grown up survivor, may be summarized: set limits, deploy different ways of setting limits to inbound aggression, insist on respect for boundaries, drain the emotion out of emotionally fraught situations, deconstruct upsets, do not personalize accusations, call out “crazy making” behavior. These are all ways of managing manipulation, bullying, emotional perpetration, and so on. All are easier said than done.
The most critical remark I can think of? Lawson deploys the main psychological mechanism underlying BPD, splitting, resulting in a black and white representation of the BPD mother – only there is no white. In short, the BPD mother is literally described as a “witch” (as well as a queen, waif, and hermit). This satisfies the definition of “demonization,” both literally and metaphorically.
I am just getting warmed up here. Granted Lawson does not aspire to evidence-based peer-reviewed research. Her argument is narratively and rhetorically strong. However, how is Lawson’s argument that the BPD mother is the cause of the child’s suffering any different than that the “ice box” mother (usually attributed to Bruno Bettelheim (but the matter is debatable)) is the cause of childhood autism?
In both cases, as the mother enters the narrative – or the room – the audience expresses its negative opinion of the mother by breaking out in hisses and boos. Well and good. You have got to blame someone. Blame the mother?! Still, as usual, correlation is not causation; and the correlation is indeed compelling in the case of BPD in the ways that escape the “ice box” mother description.
Lawson documents that the BPD mother enacts a long list of behaviors that are manipulative, perpetrating, and out-and-out boundary violations. This is not disputed. Unacceptable. From the perspective of the child of tender age, the behaviors are particularly appalling.
What Lawson may usefully have acknowledged is people have different way of expressing their suffering. The BPD person’s dramatic, para suicidal behavior – cutting, substance abuse, acting out – inevitably gets our attention. That is the effect of the behavior – it gets our attention. But that is not the reason why the person misbehaves in this way.
The BPD person is trying to regulate her emotions, deal with the distress she is experiencing, or sooth herself. The person is trying to survive her life – survive the distress of the moment. That one can attain emotional equilibrium in an emotional emergency by carving up one’s upper arm with an Exacto knife is hard for the non mental health professional to get one’s head around. Indeed it is hard for anyone to get their head around it; but that is what needs to happen to understand the BPD person.
Lawson properly directs such empathy as is available in the conversation at what the children have to survive. I am not proposing at this late point that Lawson needs to have expanded her empathy for the BPD mother. Rhetorically and narratively that is not in the cards. However, this may be a moment to hate the sin and “love” – or at least provide treatment for – the sinner. That someone ends up in jail for child abuse does not mean that the perpetrator does not need treatment. She does – as does the child.
By the time the survivor of the BPD mother shows up at the door of Lawson’s clinic, it is too late for early intervention. It is too late for empathy lessons in child development. It is too late to teach parenting skills. It is too late. Period.
Still, I came away persuaded, identifying and devaluing the BPD mother as the cause of the survivor’s suffering, too – fully enrolled in Lawson’s project and interpretation. However, what did not happen was creating a space of validation, toleration and acceptance in order to engage the tough issues of recovery, transformation, change, and mourning one’s losses.
Borderline personality disorder remains stigmatized even today. Lawson’s account does nothing to remove the stigma, and, in several ways, reinforces it with devaluing labels such as “witch.” Once again, I hasten to add there is no excuse for bad behavior on the part of anyone, including BPD persons or those committed to treating them.
Truth and reconciliation commissions are in short supply in the political world; and, likewise, such is the case in the milieu of psychotherapeutic treatment. Rare is the instance in which a BPD mother says, “I did it – I was the perpetrator – no excuses – I was a shit. This is what happened [….]” And the survivor then gets to say whether or not she accepts that as the truth and can go forward on that basis. However, I would have appreciated Lawson’s at least calling out the value of such interventions in the context of community mental health – prior to referring the subjects and survivors to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.
 Christine Ann Lawson, (2004), Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship. New York: Rowan and Littlefield. 330 pp. $46.92 [“free” Audiobook with (Amazon) Audible Subscription].
© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
This work aims to be educational in a brain-storming way about the role of empathy in the community and the market for empathy services. Hanna Holborn Gray has said that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” I hereby also add: The intention of education is to expand one’s empathy. Amazingly enough that is not as comfortable as many people might imagine, which brings up to the first trend – resistance to empathy.
10. Resistance to empathy grows and is acknowledged. I may be a tad late with this one, since it is actually front section news in the New York Times, but just in case you have been living in a cave: Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? Yet people can be difficult – very difficult – why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy – emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip and devaluing language – are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding and building community.
9. Empathy is not an on-off switch; it is rather a dimmer or rheostat (and the public debate acknowledges this). Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable to burnout and compassion fatigue. The risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one is doing it wrong. The listener may get a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or problem, including their suffering, so the listener suffers vicariously, but, strange as it may sound, not too much. As noted, if one is over-whelmed by suffering, one is doing it wrong, and one needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. Empathy is like a dimmer – tune it up or tune it down. Empathy is like a filter – increase the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or decrease the granularity (i.e., open the pores) and get less. That is the whole point of a vicarious experience – and training one’s vicarious experiences as distinct from merger or over-identification – to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being overwhelmed by it. Empathy is not so much an on-off switch as it is a dimmer or rheostat to gradually turn the lights up or down – gradually expand or contract the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. This point is completely missed in the otherwise engaging and spirited public debate feature in the New York Times where Hamid Zaki identifies empathy with compassion – and – how shall I put it delicately? – it is a conversation of deaf persons about the importance of listening from that point onwards[see http://tinyurl.com/gwmfpxp%5D. The recommendation? Listen, interpret the resistance and apply conflict resolution principles – identify and express grievances, invite self-expression, apply the soothing salve of empathy to the narcissistic injuries, elicit requests/demands, propose compromises / action items, iterate – until resolution.
8. Empathy is too important to be left to the psychologists. For psychologists empathy is by definition a psychological mechanism. For example, identification or transient identification or projection plus introjection (or visa versa) or mirroring or mirroring plus recognition of the other or inner imitation or motor mimicry. (This list goes on and this is not complete.) And while there is nothing wrong with psychological mechanisms or neuropsychological narratives built around their operation in the cerebral neural cortex and basal ganglia, there is something missing – empathy. So what then is empathy? Very short definition: It is being in the presence of another human as a human being with nothing else added. This [big word trigger alert] is the ontology of empathy – being in the presence of the other individual without anything else added. (This is called “ontology” – the study of being and ways of being, and it is definitely not psychology.) For example, Heinz Kohut, a psychiatrist from a time when psychologists were either psychoanalysts (or behaviorists), had a definition of empathy as vicarious introspection. This has an key ontological dimension as Kohut says “the idea of an inner life of man and thus of a psychology of complex mental states, is unthinkable without our ability to know via vicarious introspection – my definition of empathy […] what the inner life of man is, what we ourselves and what others think and feel life of the other individual would be inconceivable without empathy” (Kohut 1977: 304). The point is that empathy is both deeper and broader than a psychological mechanism – it is the basis for relatedness between individuals. Without empathy, no relatedness. Empathy grants being to relatedness. This matter of being with the other individual, in turn, becomes the foundation for community in an expanding circle of inclusion. As soon as one adds diagnostic categories, labels, arguments – which, admittedly, can be required in some contexts – empathy mis-fires, relatedness goes missing, and resistance to empathy expands. Thus, an empathic conversation is frequently challenged to find the equilibrium between using categories and distinctions to access the experience of the other individual while being with the other and being receptive to the vicarious experience of their suffering (or joy) as another human being.
7. Life coaching gets traction as empathy consulting. Empathy and life coaching intersect (again). The reason an Olympic athlete has a coach is not because she is not good at what she does. Positively expressed, people get a coach when they want to take their game – their performance – to the next level. Many people are already good at what they do and are committed to expanding their results in one area or another such as career, relationships, physical well-being, contribution to community, or peace of mind, in which their experience indicates something is missing. People get a therapist when they want a diagnosis or when they are pushed into survival and need to find a way out. Nothing wrong with that – indeed it can be critical path to transforming suffering into productive results. However, there is good news here – many people are not suffering but have an area in their lives that needs work to provide the results to which they are committed. This is where empathy is oxygen for the soul and can facilitate breathing easier in climbing the stairs to self-satisfaction in accomplishment. Yes, performance may usefully be measured “by the numbers” with meaningful data, but you don’t just need data, expanded empathy is required too.
6. “Hug a stranger” becomes an empathy trend. I am not making this up – well, okay, in a way, I am. The human body is the best picture of the human soul. So hugging another person is not just an emotional and physical but also a spiritual gesture. In this case, hugging and the “space of hugging” starts a journey of discovery that gives us access and reveals that there are far fewer strangers in the world – possibly none – then we at first imagined. I learned about this trend from Stone Kraushaar who distinguishes the physical embrace – the hug [with permission] – between two people from the “space of hugging,” which (on a good day) opens up a whole universe of empathy, sharing, transforming, building community, and being with mutual humanity. While acknowledging that hugging is not empathy, in the context of Stone’s work (and pending book), it is – in the deep sense of being in the presence of another human being without anything extraneous being added or subtracted. So if you see people walking down the street stopping for conversation, asking permission, breaking out in spontaneously hugging one another, you will know they have been engaging with Stone’s provocative proposal. You just might see yourself and encounter your own humanity in another in a new way you had not previously imagined. The empathic point is that you start by thinking these other people “out there” are strangers but when you get to know them well enough to be comfortable with a hug, you and they belong to the same community – you are not strangers after all.
5. Health insurers promise empathy, do not deliver, and continue to collect monopoly rents. The empathy gap widens. Health insurers maintain a firm grip on the market for empathy-related “behavioral health” services without actually providing any. This is the only candidate trend from last year that I am repeating, since it is still accurate but a work in progress – and, unfortunately, picking up speed, going in the wrong direction. The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) – reportedly to be terminated with extreme prejudice as this piece is about to be posted – promised to equalize benefits for medical benefits such as annual physical health checkup (including $800 worth of blood work) with mental health services such as psychotherapy. At the risk of being cynical, I don’t know if the reader has tried to collect lately or services rendered. The war stories, pretexts for nonpayment, and simple violations of their own rules – e.g., timely response – by insurers continue to mount. One feels a certain dissatisfaction with the lack of solutions. What to do about it? In spite of claims to the contrary, the recommendation from insurers seems to be: “But your majesty, the people have no mental health benefits. Then let them pay cash! And then let them eat cake.”
4. Medical doctors “get it” – empathy is good for your health. Empathy gets traction as an evidence-based intervention. “Evidence-based everything” is the gold standard in medical and so-called “behavioral health” interventions; and that is as it should be (Jeremy Howick, (2011)). The “gold standard” of the “gold standard” is double-blind testing, which works especially well in the cases of drugs in which one can indeed “double-blind” the test so that neither the researcher nor the recipient knows who is getting what pill. While judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a role, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. But here is the issue: There are some interventions such as penicillin and using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane that seem to limit or even defy the gold standard. It would be unethical not to give someone penicillin if they were infected with an infection serious enough to require such treatment, since it is a matter of historical accident that penicillin was invented prior to the “evidence based” paradigm shift. And, as regards using a parachute, that case is the reduction to absurdity of not using common sense as a criteria in deciding what counts as evidence. What is going on here? The answer: The effect size is so large that it outweights and overwhelms any hidden confounding factors and so rises to the level of evidence (without quotation marks) [Howick: 5, 11]. The :effect size” is a function of the the fact – the evidence – that there are so many examples and so much experience that penicillin works – that parachutes – work that the risk of one’s over-looking some other confounding variable is vanishingly small. It really was the penicillin, not (say) the effects of the alignmnet of the planets hidden behind the penicillin. Likewise, with empathy. The trend here is that research will emerge that puts the use of empathy in human relations as demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health contexts in question that not to apply empathy would be like not prescribing antibiotics against a bacterial infection. Empathy has been effective in shifting the suffering and transforming the psychic pain throughout history. The criticism of empathy has usually been that it results in burnout, compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed or the results will be unpredictable. Regarding empathy, see the discussion above about empathy not being an on-off switch but a rheostat that requires training to get just right. Examples of peer-reviewed publications exist in which empathy was shown to be effective (in comparison with less empathy) in correlating with favorable outcomes in diabetes, cholesterol, and the common cold (?!) and are cited in the bibliography (see M. Hojat et al, (2011), John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), David P. Rakel et al, (2009)). Expect this work to expand and gain traction in other areas such as psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, not to begin with empathy would be like jumping out of the airplane without a parachute or not providing penicillin when the infection was bacterial. Curiously enough, among medical doctors, psychiatrics are alleged to be “lagging adopters”; among psychologists, those specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy are – note that Arthur Ciaramicoli claims to have it both ways (in a book (2016) that I wish I had written).
3. The culture of empathy taps into the power of empathy. Empathy gets in touch with its own power and becomes self-aware as being powerful. This is (and would be) completely unpredictable. At least initially that looks like the culture of empathy partnering with assertiveness training, fair fighting, and being self-expressed. The culture of empathy gets traction in conflict resolution, building community, setting limits to the anti-empathic methods of bullies; and this trend gets the attention that it so richly deserves. The CultureOfEmpathy [one word] is the web site and brain child of Edwin Rutsch, whose has literally interviewed dozens of empathy scholars and researchers (including myself) and is one of the most inclusive people I have ever met. Here is the issue: in fighting off bullies how does one do so in such a way that one does not become a bully oneself? The recommendation is direct: empathy is about setting boundaries between self and other and crossing boundaries between self and other in a way that enhances mutual understanding and community. No one was ever required by empathy to be a door matt. Since empathy works best and seems to require that people relate as equals in the matter of their humanity, the relation between empathy and power has always been fraught. It requires work. When the power relations as too asymmetrical or when force (violence) is being used to coerce an outcome, then a level playing field has to be reestablished for empathy to get traction. Then the empathic thing to do is fight back – self-defense is its own justification. Simple as that (though, as usual, the devil is in the details). Bullying – and related forms of aggression are the contrary of empathy – crossing boundaries in ways that generate misunderstanding and the dehumanizing aspects of shame and humiliation. Set firm boundaries.
2. Empathy becomes known as reducing inflammation and restoring homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research along with mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, sensory deprivation and certain naturally occurring steroids (Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012)). Although an over-simplification, when the human body is attacked by bacteria, it mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sick behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years and is basically healthy as the body fights off the infection using its natural immune response. However, fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not imagine the stresses of modern life back when we were short proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti plain and fending off large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stress of modern life – the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis – and the result is “sickness behavior” – many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression – but there is no infection. The inflammation become chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to down regulate the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as those indicated above reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor for when an angry [“inflamed”] person is listened to empathically, they [often] calm down and regain their equilibrium. The trend here is that empathy migrates onto the short list. Now for something completely different …
1. A definable market for empathy software and business services emerges. Virtual reality (VR) software meets and expands empathic understanding. A company named Psious [psious.com] has developed a diverse set of applications for virtual reality goggles to simulate situations that psychotherapy clients may find anxiety inspiring such as flying on a commercial jet, public speaking, shots (e.g., with needles) at doctor visits and many more (see my Blog post on Psious (http://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq)). Two other companies that are a software initiative relating to empathy include Affectiva [affective.com], which automates Paul Ekman’s facial action coding scheme (see my blog post (http://tinyurl.com/hymj3mj)), and Empathetics [empathetics.com], not yet reviewed. From admittedly incomplete reports, the engaging thing about Empathetics is that its value proposition is to train medical doctors in empathy using biofeedback under a program licensing intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In addition, this medical initiative is distinct from but related to two companies (Business Solver and Maru/VCR) which call out “empathy” explicitly as a key differentiator in what they offer their business clients. Business Solver is branding an empathy monitor for business success in a human resources platform and related services. This includes the disturbing data point that some 61% if business leaders see their firms as being empathic whereas only 24% of employees do. What to do about it constitutes the bulk of the engagement. Maru/VCR has a database based on the Vision Critical Research platform that enables its clients to build customer communities and get access to breakthrough innovations and insights in market research.
0. Businesses “get it” – empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of commodities hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, some of the things that make people good at business make them relatively poor empathizers. Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is on the critical path for serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition [not exactly empathy but close enough?], building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. When the ontology of empathy exposes it as the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes nearly synonymous with expanding business. For example, building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, team building, are the basis for brand loyalty, employee commitment, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. Specific firms that have emerged – albeit in the context of an early market – to address these aspects of empathy in business and are called out in trend #2 above.
[These ten top trends in empathy for 2017 should be read in connection with the score for those from last year (2016) [see http://tinyurl.com/gub7pew]. And, yes, I know that there are actually eleven this year – bonus!?]
Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management Reverses Anxiety-Related Leukocyte Transcriptional Dynamics. Biological Psychiatry, 2011; 15: 366-372.
David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Yogic meditation reverses NF-kB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trail. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2013 March 38(3): 348 – 355.
Arthur Ciaramicoli, (2016), The Stress Solution. New York: New World Library.
Jodi Halpern, (2013), “What is Clinical Empathy?” J Gen Intern Med 2003 Aug: 18(8): 670 – 674.
Hojat et al, (2011), Physicians empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients, ACAD MED MAR; 86(3): 359 – 64: doi: 10.1097ACM.0b013e3182086fe1
Jeremy Howick, (2011). The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012). Mitigating Cellular Inflammation in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi Chih. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2012 September; 20(9): 764 – 722.
John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), The Influence of the Patient-Clinician Relationship on Healthcare Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, PLOS ONE [Public Library of Science], April 2014, Vol. 9, Issue 4.
Heinz Kohut, (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.
David P. Rakel et al, (2009),”Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the common Cold, Fam Med 41(7): 494 – 501.
Lou Agosta, (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery. London: Routledge.
_________ (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot.
__________ (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project
Here is my short, half day course on Empathy, Stress (Reduction) and Neural Science delivered at the Joe Palombo Center for Neuroscience at the Institute for Clinical Social Work on December 03, 2016. The image depicted below is the punchline to a Richard Feynman joke about the cosmos – “It’s turtles all the way down” – in the case of neuroscience “It is neurons all the way down!” Granted that the joke is not funny if one has to explain it, the video provides all the background you need to laugh (one way or the other!) –
A famous person once said: “Empathy is oxygen for the soul.” So if one is feeling shortness of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy! This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience (“brain science”). For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. [This is an over-simplification, but a compelling one.] Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.
The session engages each of the following modules in the discussion segment, including suggested readings. Except for the first two topics, we can take them in any order and the participants will get to select:
- This is your mind on neuroscience – mirror neurons: do they exist, and if not, so what?
- Sperry on the split brain: the information is in the system: how to get at it
- The neuroscience of trauma – and how empathy gives us access to it
- MRI research: as when Galileo looked through the telescope, a whole new world opens
Presenter: Lou Agosta, PhD, is the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy, including A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015). He has taught empathy in history and systems of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and offered a course in the Secret Underground Story of Empathy at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Education. He is an empathy consultant in private practice in “on the forward edge in the Edgewater Community” in Chicago.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
The image depicts a mirror neuron – the neurological basis for empathy – admiring itself in the mirror. But do mirror neurons even exist? If not, what is the underlying neural implementation mechanism for empathy? At another level of analysis, how is empathy like oxygen for the soul, reducing stress and enabling possibility? Find out more here …
To register or for more info call Elizabeth Oller: 1-312-935-4245 or email: JosephPalomboCenter@icws.edu
Empathy, Stress Reduction, and Brain Science
A famous person once said: “Empathy is oxygen for the soul.” So if one is feeling shortness of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy! This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience (“brain science”). For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.
We will engage each of the following modules in the discussion segment, including suggested readings. Except for the first two topics, we can take them in any order and the participants will get to select:
- This is your mind on neuroscience – mirror neurons: do they exist, and if not, so what?
- Sperry on the split brain: the information is in the system: how to get at it
- The neuroscience of trauma – and how empathy gives us access to it
- MRI research: as when Galileo looked through the telescope, a whole new world opens
Presenter: Lou Agosta, PhD, is the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy, including A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015). He has taught empathy in history and systems of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and offered a course in the Secret Underground Story of Empathy at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Education. He is a psychotherapist (and empathy consultant) in private practice in “on the forward edge in the Edgewater Community” in Chicago.
Date: Saturday December 03, 2016
Time: 9 AM – noon
Registration Fee: $35
Location: to be provided upon registration: at or near ICSW at 401 S. State St Chicago, IL
Registration: Call Elizabeth Oller: 312 935 4245 or email: JosephPalomboCenter@icsw.edu
Three criteria are front and center in selecting a psychotherapist: cost, schedule, and empathy. These are not the only variables. For example, academic degrees and diplomas, professional certifications or equivalent publications and experience, insurance benefits, location, and Internet reputation (say, on Facebook or LinkedIn) are also criteria. Okay, I am just kidding about Facebook; but don’t laugh too hard, we are heading in that direction. In addition, it is increasingly common for psychotherapists to call out the therapeutic agreement explicitly, sometimes in writing, managing the expectations and defining the boundaries of the situation. In general, not a bad thing if it is handled with care – and empathy. The challenge faced by most prospective patients or clients, who are searching for a therapist, is that once they are in an emotional emergency, there is no time to interview several prospective psychotherapists to find a good fit. This is a case for having a periodic emotional check up just as one would have a physical check up in order to establish a relationship against a possible future crisis. However, this level of planning rarely occurs. From a negotiating perspective, the individual seeking help is “one down” in terms of leverage. Of course, reputable professionals will bend over backwards to be accommodating. In any case, the patient/client is still responsible for making his or her own best case and being a powerful self-advocate. Once again, no easy answer here if your issue is low self esteem and loss of power. Still, while acknowledging that the variables of negotiating flexibility, schedule, and cost are on the critical path, they are not the focus of this article. That leaves the criteria of empathy. Without empathy, nothing else works.
The short definition of empathy is that it is the capacity to know what an other individual is experiencing because (speaking in the first person for emphasis) I experience it too, not as a merger but as a trace affect or experience that samples the other’s experience. Thus, if one is overwhelmed by the other’s trauma and re-traumatized, one is not using one’s empathy properly. Simply stated, you are doing it wrong. Optimally, I experience a trace, a sample, a virtual vicarious representation of the other’s experience of suffering or joy or indifference so that I “get it” experientially and emotionally as well as cognitively. The boundary between self and other is firmly maintained, but the boundary is permeable in one limited sector, the communicability of affect, sensation, experience. In a larger context, empathy is the capacity that enables the other person to humanize the one by recognizing and acknowledging the possibilities for growth, transformation, and recovery in the one.
Empathy is different than interpersonal chemistry – that certain something = X that just clicks between two people such that they know they can work together. Yet empathy is the basis for this chemistry and fans out into multiple forms of relatedness and possibilities of understanding. As the author of three professional books on empathy, I work with behavioral (mental) health professionals on burnout, compassion fatigue, and related dis-orders of empathy in their lives and practices, and my own client interactions benefit from this depth of expertise and experience.
To cut to the chase, look for a psychotherapist that is genuine and authentic in relating, providing a gracious and generous – that is, empathic – listening. If the individual you are talking with does not provide the empathy you require, keep looking. Absent a warm, empathic listening, the process of psychotherapy is indistinguishable from dental work. It can be painful, granted that many individuals seeking a therapist are already suffering from significant emotional pain. Even in the best of situations, it is not that there are zero challenges even with empathy. The process does not work unless one goes up to the edge of one’s comfort zone and goes through the boundary, pressing beyond it. That takes courage – going forward in spite of being afraid (“anxious”).The more the therapist can be authentic in the relationship, the more powerful he (or she) can be in facilitating transformation in the direction of health and well-being on the part of the patient. This is true even when the attitudes that the therapist experiences are not ones that he would endorse if he lived up to all his ideals. A simple example: if I am approached for services by a person with self-esteem issue [low] who is also obese, my attitude towards the perceived extra weight is going to be front and center. Since the person struggling with low self-esteem and an (un)related weigh issue may not endorse such a view himself, it is important to recognize that there is nothing wrong with people coming in all shapes and sizes. Even if I would not endorse such an admittedly edgy slogan as “fat is beautiful”, it is still essential to be in touch with my own ambivalence (given that such exists). It is essential for the therapist to be intimately in touch with his own feelings and attitudes, generally as a result of his own work in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis as a patient. He must be willing to make the call – “the chemistry is just [not] right here and it is me” – otherwise, it just will not work out. The point is that none of this will work without a deep empathy for the experience of the world of the other individual.
What to look for is a therapist who can provide the kind of empathic relatedness that recognizes the humanity of the other, even amidst the effort and struggle of dealing with unattractive, challenging symptoms, not all of which the patient is even willing to share at first due to doubt, shame, or previous unhappy experiences and outcomes. Sometimes it is necessary for a prospective patient to “burn through” several therapists until he finds someone that he can trust. This doesn’t means that the other therapists were “wrong and bad,” though it might mean the mismatch between patient expectations and therapists’ services took awhile to converge on market availability. In short, look for a therapist who can provide the kind of relationship that the patient/client is able to use to overcome obstacles, jump start growth, and facilitate transformation in the direction of positive possibilities.
The key term here is actually “usability,” not in the sense of mis-use but in the proper and powerful sense of a means to guide the person back to naturally occurring development. The differentiator between use and mis-use is – you guessed it – empathy. The more the patient recognizes the therapist’s empathy, the more the patient will naturally restart the process of growth away from rigid, fixed, apathetic, shut down emotional functioning toward a way of being that is alive, vital, dynamic, full of feeling, engaged for better or worse with the issues that promise to provide satisfaction and fulfillment. Full disclosure: as I write this, I do so as someone who has been on both sides of the therapist/patient interface as well as the therapist/client one. It is going to sound a tad like bragging here at the backend but … additional qualifications for commenting on what to look for is that my works on empathy are footnotes in Goldberg, Wolf, and Basch (see bibliography below). This list of what to look for is not complete nor is my knowledge and experience; all the usual disclaimers apply; so your feedback, criticism, experiences, impertinent remarks, and comments are hereby requested. Please let me hear from you.
Agosta, Lou. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy.London: Palgrave/ Macmillan.
__________. (1984). “Empathy and intersubjectivity,” Empathy I, ed. J. Lichtenberg et al.Hillsdale,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.
__________. (1980). “The recovery of feelings in a folktale,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287-97.
__________. (1976). “Intersecting language in psychoanalysis and philosophy,” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Vol. 5, 1976: 507-34.
Basch, Michael F. (1983). “Empathic understanding: a review of the concept and some theoretical considerations,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 31, No. 1: 101-126. (See p. 114.) .
Gehrie, Mark (2011). “From archaic narcissism to empathy for the self: the evolution of new capacities in psychoanalysis,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 313-333.
Goldberg, Arnold. (2011). “The enduring presence of Heinz Kohut: empathy and its vicissitudes,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 289-311. (See pp. 296, 309.) .
Kohut, Heinz. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wolf, Ernest S. (1988). Treating the Self.New York: TheGuilford Press. (See pp. 17, 171.)
This post and all contents of this site (c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. and the Chicago Empathy Project