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Review: Gillian Isaacs Russell, (2015), Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books: 206 pp.
Granted in-person physical meetings are impossible when the health risks become prohibitive, that is no longer the case (Q3 2021), at least temporarily. Therefore, the debate resumes and continues about the trade-offs, advantages and disadvantages, of online telecommunication (“Zoom”) mediated therapy sessions versus physical in-person work.
Gillian Isaacs Russell’s book in a powerful and important counterforce to trending technological optimism that online therapy is the wave of the present and of the future. This optimism compels those of us who are digital immigrants to align with digital natives in privileging screen relations over physical presence in the same space in engaging in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. By definition, “digital immigrants” were educated prior to the explosion of the Internet (and world wide web on) or about the year 1999 and “digital natives” came up with “online everything” such as pouches for their smart phones in their parents’ baby strollers.
The cyber rush to judgment is slowed if not stopped in this hard-hitting critique of online screen relations. Isaacs Russell wisely asserts skepticism that meeting online (even in a pandemic) and meeting physically in person are “the same.” One may eventually go ahead with online therapy in many situations (especially in a pandemic), but if you are hearing “they are both the same” that is reason for a good healthy skepticism that the purveyor of the online approach is being straight with you. One also needs to be skeptical as online therapy starts out being “better than nothing” only quickly to slide in the direction of “better than anything.” As usual, the devil – and the transference – is in the details, and Isaacs Russell provides insight in abundance to the complex issues.
Speaking personally, in my own work on empathy, published in 2015, the same year as Isaacs Russell’s book, my Preface concludes with the ontological definition of empathy as “being in the presence of another human being without anything else added” – anything else such as judgment, evaluation, memory, desire, hostility, and the many factors that make us unavailable to be in relationship (Agosta 2015; see also 2010). Though Isaacs Russell uses the word “empathy” in a specific psychological sense, I would argue that her work on “presence” is consistent with and contributes to an enlarged sense of empathic relatedness that builds community.
Isaacs Russell has interview psychoanalysts, clients (clients), over several years and reports in a semi-ethnographical style on the trade-offs between online mediated relations and those which occur in the same physical space, such as a therapist’s consulting room. Her arguments and narratives are nuanced, charitable, and multi-dimensional. The reader learns much about the process of dynamic therapy regardless of the framework.
What she does not say, but might usefully have called out, is that the imperative is to keep the treatment conversation going, whether online or physically present in person. When someone I am meeting with in-person asks for an online session, after controlling for factors such as illness of a child at home or authentic emergencies, then my countertransference may usefully consider the client’s resistance to something (= x) is showing up. In contrast, when an online client asks to come into the office, one may usefully acknowledge that the individual is deepening his commitment to the work. In neither case is this the truth with a capital “T,” but a further tool and distinction for interpretation and possibility in the treatment process.
Isaacs Russell makes the point (and I hasten to add) that no necessary correlation exists between the (digital) generation divide and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for online screen relations of baby boomers versus millennial or gen-Xers. Some digital immigrants are enthusiastic about online therapy, whether for authentic professional reasons, including economic ones, or to prove how “with it” they are, and growing numbers of digital natives are becoming increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of online relations, craving physical presence without necessarily being able to articulate what is missing.
Isaacs Russell provides an informative and wide-ranging briefing on developments in baby watching (child development research). Child development is a “hands on” process of physically relating to another emerging human being. Her point (among many) is that we humans are so fundamentally embodied that in some deep sense we are out of our element in reducing the three dimensional, heat generating, smell-broadcasting mammalian body to a cold two-dimensional video image. Though she does not do so, Isaacs Russell might usefully have quoted Wittgenstein: The human body is the best picture of the soul (1950: 178e (PPF iv: 25)). As the celebrity neuroscientist A. Damasio notes: [We need] “the mind fully embodied not merely embrained.” What then becomes of the relatedness when the body becomes a “head shot” from the shoulders up on a screen?
The answer is to be found in the dynamics of presence. Key term: presence. Physical presence becomes tele-presence and the debate is about what is lost and (perhaps) what is gained in going online. The overall assessment of Isaacs Russell is that, not withstanding convenience and the abolition of distance, more is lost therapeutically than gained.
Although Isaacs Russell does not cite Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty loom large in her account of the elements of presence. Much of what Isaacs Russell says can be redescribed as a phenomenology of online presence, including the things that are missing such as smell, the ability to physically touch, aspects of depth perception, and the privileging of “on off” moments over against gradual analogical transitions. The above-cited philosophers were, of course, writing when the emerging, innovative, disruptive technology was the telephone, and Heidegger himself went “off the grid” physically (and morally!) with his semi-peasant hut in the Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany. But even though they never heard of a mirror neuron, the distinctions these thinkers lay down about relatedness are fundamental for work in communications and human understanding.
Isaacs Russell gives the reader a generous tutorial in breakthrough developments in neuroscience, including the discovery or mirror neurons in Macaque monkeys and a neurologically-based mirroring systems in humans, which account for key aspects of empathy, intersubjectivity, and human social-psychological relatedness.
Since this is not a softball review, I must inquire, following detailed descriptions of embodied cognition, the primacy of movement in empathic relatedness, faces as emotional hot spots (which nevertheless incorporate full-bodied clues as to the exact emotion), kinesthetic and proprioceptive feedback: do we need a psychoanalysis or rather do we need an aerobics class (okay, at least a class in Tai Chi, moving meditation)? The point is that both participants may indeed “forget” about the computer-mediated relation, but the unconscious does not. The (unconscious) transference is also to the technology and needs to be engaged, interpreted as such. Isaacs Russell provides the distinctions to do so, which is what makes her contribution so valuable, even if one disagrees with her ultimate skepticism that online is the wave of the future.
Amid many useful distinction and nuances, as noted above, the key-differentiating variable for Isaacs Russell is presence. She connects this closely to D. W. Winnicott’s seminal work on enabling the client to recover the ability to “go on being” in integrity and individuality, even in the presence of another person. The model for this therapeutic process is the young child’s breakthrough in individuality as the child is able to be alone (e.g., playing) in the presence of the mother (or care-taker).
This process of becoming an individual being gets operationalized and tested when the client tries to destroy the therapist and the therapist [demonstrates that s/he] survives. Here “destroy” is a technical term, though it does indeed invoke hatred and the possibility of aggression. The paradigm case is that the client expresses hostility – even hatred – towards the therapist and the therapist does not retaliate. The therapist “takes it,” metabolizes the aggression and responds appropriately setting an empathic boundary in the relationship. This advances the treatment, expanding the integrity, autonomy, and individuality [mostly] of the client.
According to Isaacs Russell, this is the key moment – the differentiator: “In ‘screen relations’, the client can never really test the analyst’s capacity to survive” (p. 37).
Why not? Isaacs Russell quotes an astute client (in so many words) that without being in the same shared space the potential for the client or therapist “to kiss or kick” the other is missing. The potential for physical desire or aggression has been short circuited. Since the treatment must engage with these variables, the treatment is stymied and deprived of essential enriching possibilities of transformation.
Isaacs Russell is adamant that the ability of the therapist to survive, in Winnicott’s sense, cannot be test in the online context. If it could be significantly tested, then much of what she writes about the inadequacies of online presence would be invalidated or at least significantly reduced in scope. As noted, Isaacs Russell makes much of the potential to “kiss or kick” the other person in the same physical space; and it is true that such acting out rarely occurs but what is needed is the potential for its occurring.
However, what has been overlooked is such acting out bodily is not the only way of testing the separation and survival of the therapist. Many examples exist in which the client tests the limits by means of a speech act – seductive or aggressive language. Speech is physical and would not occur with the sound waves impacting the biology of the ear. This is not merely a technical point. Tone of voice, rhythm, and timing are physically available.
The distinction “speech act” is one that is critical path in any discussion of the talking cure, even if the latter is understood in an enlarged sense to be the encounter of two embodied (not merely “embrained”) talkers and listeners. Speech act theory includes pragmatics that allow for the illocutionary and perlocutionary force of speech. Speech does not merely describe things – it performs things, building connections and relations. People get other people to do things – change the physical environment – by speaking to them: close the door! Pick up the kids at soccer! Persons invested with certain kinds of conventional authority, powerfully change relationships and other aspects of the human world. For example: “I now pronounce you man and wife” spoken by the officiating authority at the wedding. This is a new reality – in so many ways. The empathic response of the therapist, spoken to the struggling client, is another such example.
Language is powerful, and we humans both wound and heal through our words. Heidegger, who is usefully quoted by Isaacs Russell as inspiring the work of Merleau-Ponty regarding physical spatial dynamics also noted, “Language is the house of being.” That is, presence – physical, mental, poetical, historical – emerge in the conversation that we have individually and in community in language.
Recall that Winnicott’s point is that when the client acts out – in this case verbally – the therapist demonstrates his survival skill by not retaliating. Thus, s/he remains in integrity as a “good enough” partner in empathic relatedness and becomes independent. This likewise rebounds to the expanding integrity and independence of the client.
If the therapist does retaliate – say by moralizing or withdrawing or blaming or becoming aggressive or seductive – then the possibility of treatment in the relationship is short-circuited. Absent significant repair, the relationship ends, even if the conversation continues in an impasse for awhile longer.
Speaking personally, and omitting confidential details, I recall an instance online where, being clumsy with a relatively new online client, who was vulnerable in a way that I did not appreciate, I triggered a challenge to my survival. I triggered a combination of panic, retraumatizing flashback, and panic, in the client that resulted in an extended and seemingly automatic combination of verbal abuse. It threatened me professionally and the safety of the client such that I seriously thought of sending emergency services to the client’s address. The screen is always the screen, in this case, but the screen was no protection against the impact of the hate. It is a further question whether the same thing might have happened if my clumsiness had occurred in person. Perhaps the client would have kept quiet and never returned. We will never know.
So while the client might not effectively have been able to throw a pencil at me (to use Isaacs Russell’s example), the individual would have been able to inflict self-harm in a way that would do more damage to me than a kick in the shins (another Isaacs Russell example). Never underestimate the ability of clients to innovate in acting out around the constraints of an apparently firm therapeutic framework.
The good news is that, without making any commitments I couldn’t keep, by a combination of soothing statements, placating statements, self-depreciating humor, apologetic words, and deescalating inquires and suggestions, I kept my wits about me, and was able to restore the integrity of the therapeutic process. S/he agreed to continue the conversation. I survived and so did the relationship. It actually was a breakthrough, and, without everything being wonderful, the client demonstrated capabilities that had not previously had going forward.
Thus, the counter-example: Survival was tested online, not by physically throwing a pencil, but in reciprocal speech acts and the enactment of presence in speech, a physical media not to be underestimated. One learns that the environment is safe when safety breaks down. To Isaacs Russell’s point, the potential for non-survival also includes non-survival as an actual enactment and outcome – and neither online nor physical presence has a privilege in that regard.
In a real world emergency – a credible threat of self-harm – there is a difference between sending emergency services to the client location and summoning them to one’s own office. But perhaps not that much. The point about survival, safety, and containment (different but overlapping issues) and their respective breakdowns is the same. Many distinctions exist between an online and physical encounter, but the risk of survival or non-survival occurs in each context.
One may argue back that the risk of a meltdown is less extreme in the warm and cozy confines of one’s own office, but maybe you never met a borderline client like this particular one or a client as suspicious or deeply disturbed. If the client takes out a box knife on camera and starts to carve up her or his inner thigh (or threatens to do so), one may fervently wish that s/he kicked one in the shins instead.
Thus, in answer to the potential for “kicking or kissing,” the answer is direct: Oh, yes the client can – can indeed test the capacity to survive and do so online. The example “kiss or kick” is not a bad example, but many counter-examples exist that provide useful evidence to the contrary as cited above.
Positively expressed, plenty of evidence is available that the analyst’s survival can indeed be tested in an online session and s/he may survive or not. Ultimately even “kiss and kick” can be enacted as verbal abuse on line, perpetrating boundary violations with hostility or seduction that can be grave and survival threatening, either in imagination or reality, including the survival of the therapist as a professional and the therapy itself.
To give the devil his (or her) due, it is true that there are some cases that are decidedly unsuited for an online engagement. Marion Milner engaged in a celebrated analysis of a deeply disturbed and regressed client, in which the client was silent for long periods of time. The client finally was able to recover significant aspects of her humanity in producing hundreds of drawings and sketches that expressed a therapeutic process of pre-verbal recovery. It is true that, though these were visual artifacts, and presumably might have been communicated remotely, the client herself was already so “remote” from reality that another layer of virtuality was not going to work (nor was it possible mid-20th century).
Heinz Kohut has a celebrated example that he presented in an lecture made a few days before his death. Kohut was working with a deeply regressed and suicidal client (client) in years gone by. In a desperate moment, Kohut offered to let the client, lying on the couch behind which he was sitting in his customary straight-backed wooden chair, hold two of the fingers of his hand. The point of this potentially life saving (and boundary testing) gesture was Kohut’s association to the client’s desperate grasp with her hand being like that of a toothless infant sucking on a nipple. An empty nipple or a life giving one? Powerful stuff, which of course, would never be possible online. Far be it for me to be the voice of reality, nevertheless, these two cases of Milner and Kohut are outliers, albeit deeply moving one, that are completely consistent with the sensitive and dynamically informed application of online analysis and dynamic therapy.
Though the uses of extended moments of online silence should not be underestimated or dismissed, Milner’s and Kohut’s cases were ones that privileged physical presence. It in no way refutes the power or potential of online engagement. What are missing are criteria for telling the difference. No easy answers here but the rule of thumb is something like: do whatever is going to further the treatment in the proper professional sense of the words. What is going to sustain and advance the conversation for possibility in the face of the client’s stuckness? Do that. Winnicott has been mentioned frequently, and rightly so. He spoke of the “good enough” mother. Here we have the “good enough” therapeutic framework including the online one.
Another part of the narrative that was particularly engaging was Isaacs Russell’s discussion of ongoing online psychoanalytic training with the colleagues in China. There are few psychoanalysts in China, so in addition to significant culture and language challenges, such remote work would not be possible without online analytic therapy sessions and supervision. The nearly unanimous consensus is this is valuable work worth doing. The equally unanimous consensus, about which one may usefully be skeptical, is that this work is “functionally equivalent” or in other ways “just the same as” work done physically in person.
The author provides examples, whether from the Chinese colleagues or other contexts is not clear, where neutral observers are asked to evaluate transcripts of sessions where the online versus physical feature and descriptive details have been masked. The result? They can’t tell them apart. What more do we need to say?
Apparently much more. With dynamic psychotherapy and related forms of talk therapy if you can tell the difference between an online and an in person meeting (other than comments about traffic or Internet connections), then you are probably doing it wrong or there is some breakdown that interferes with the process (in either case). Abstinence is easier online – no hugs. But if we are talking boundary violations, maybe some people – exhibitionists? – are tempted to take off their clothes on camera. (This has not happened to me – yet.) Anonymity – just as one’s office has clues as to one’s personal life, so too does the background on camera. Neutrality – being on camera suddenly causes one to adopt a point of view on social media or politics or nutrition or economics or education? Perhaps but I am not seeing it.
However, what Isaacs Russell does not discuss is the “other” transcript – the unwritten one, which is only available as a thought-experiment. There is another transcript different than the verbatim account of what was said or even what a web cam could record. It is a transcript that is just as important as the recoding of the conversation, and why verbatim recordings of the conversation are less useful than one might wish. Both participants may “forget” that the session is being recorded, but the unconscious does not. There is the transcript of what the people are thinking and experiencing, but remains unexpressed or expressed indirectly. Such an aspect of the counter-transference or thought transcript is harder to access and includes the therapist’s counter-transference.
One thing is fundamental: When the context of the encounter between people is an empathic one, then both an in-person encounter in the same physical space and an online encounter via a video session are ways of implementing, applying, and bringing forth empathy.
The online environment and the imaginary thought transcript present new forms of client resistance and therapist counter-transference, and it is these that now are the main target of the discussion of this essay.
Moving therapy to online opens up a new world of symptomatic acts, parapraxes, “Freudian” slips, and acting out.
I had one online client who stands up in the middle of a session to check on what this individual had cooking in the oven, carrying her camera-enabled device with her. Was I amazed? Indeed.
I acknowledged to the client that clients sometimes have mixed feelings about their therapists, and nothing wrong about that as such. Yet I was wondering did she believe I was perhaps half-baked? Key term: half-baked. Further discussion occurred of whether this individual was expressing her unconscious hostility towards me – while, of course, also preparing a baked dish.
The breakdown in empathy may be a thoughtless remark by the therapist, a mix up in the schedule, or a failure of the computer network. The empathy – and transmuting internalization working through it – LIVEs in restoring the wholeness and integrity of the relatedness. Empathy lives as spontaneous relatedness, a form of transference and vice versa. This is not limited to psychoanalysis versus psychodynamically informed psychotherapy. This is not limited to online versus physical therapy.
Other than candidates for psychoanalytic training, few people are calling up practitioners are saying: “I want the most arduous, rigorous, time-consuming, expensive treatment known – I want a psychoanalysis!” I tend to agree with Isaacs Russell that the possibilities for doing full-blown remote psychoanalysis are – how shall I put it delicately? – remote, but not necessarily due to any features of the online environment.
After all the dynamics and debates are complete, Isaacs Russell ends her book with a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. She gives an account of a conversation in an online session with a client in London, UK. Isaacs Russell has relocated to Boulder, CO, USA. Having worked together in physical presence, the client misses her and Isaacs Russell misses the client – yet the therapeutic conversation continues. One cannot help but agree with the sentiment – there is something missing – and yet the conversation continues. Thus, we roundly critique cyber therapy – and go off to our online sessions.
 Acknowledgement: This reviewer first learned of Gillian Isaacs Russell’s penetrating and incisive engagement with all matters relating to online psychoanalysis and psychotherapy from my friend and colleague Arnon Rolnick in Q2 2021 as the 2020 covid pandemic was waning, at least temporarily. Thus, I am catching up on my reading.
 Marion Milner, (1969), The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psycho-analysis. London: Routledge, 2010.
 Charles Strozier, (2001), Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, “Gentle into that Good Night,” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 376–377.
Lou Agosta, (2010), Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lou Agosta, (2015), A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.
Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 2): Individual Provider and Receiver (of Empathy)
Empathy is trending. As we engage with provider empathy, the pendulum has swung far enough for a backlash against empathy to be emerging.
Empathy with negative emotions and suffering is difficult. From a purely selfish perspective, empathic data gathering about the negative experiences endured and survived by other persons can be, well, negative. Negative experiences such as loss, hostility, intense rage, sexual danger, sadness, sleep deprivation, fear, and so on, are not welcome by anyone even as a less intense vicarious experiences. One fears getting the full-blown experience, not merely vicariously experiencing a sample or trace. The would-be empathizer is at risk of being overwhelmed, inundated, or flooded by emotional upset. The person’s empathy is on the slippery slope of empathic distress; and the empathy is at risk of breakdown.
The language is telling. If one is hit by a tidal wave, then one is going to be “under water.” Kick your feet, make swimming motions with the arms, and rise to the surface to try to catch your breath. While an empathic response is easier said than done, expressing the suffering of the survivor in a simple and factually accurate statement can open the way to containing the suffering and getting unstuck. Dial down empathic receptivity and dial up empathic interpretation and understanding.
People committed to providing empathy to other people resist their own commitment to empathy for several reasons. As soon as a person makes a commitment—in this case, a commitment to practice empathy—then all the reasons why the commitment is a bad idea, unworkable, unreasonable, or just plain absurd, show up. There is no time. It is too expensive. No one is interested. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, now seems a lot more challenging and like a lot more work. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no possibility of it.
The would-be empathizer is vulnerable to a vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering. Indeed if one’s empathic data filter is not granular enough, one is at risk of being inundated by emotional contagion. This does not mean that the provider of empathy has to be a masochist, stuck on suffering. However, it does mean being vulnerable to a sample of the suffering. It does mean opening oneself up to a sample of the other person’s upsetting experience. It does mean being receptive to that which the other finds so upsetting, but doing so in a regulated and limited way. Hence, the need for training.
The training consists in interrupting and accepting one’s own feelings and letting them be. Practice is required in order to increase one’s tolerance and learn to be with uncomfortable feelings.
One key to forming a humane relationship with anyone who is upset: Vicariously getting a taste of the upset, experiencing vicariously the other’s fear or anger. Acknowledge the experience as valid. Accept the experience, not as good or fair, but as what one has indeed experienced.
One celebrity academic claims that in empathy the better part of emotion is reducible to emotional contagion. What the world needs to practice is not empathy, but rational compassion. As if one had to choose between the two! The world needs expanded empathy and more compassion of all kinds.[i]
A vicarious experience is essential data as to what the other person is experiencing; but if one is distressed to the point of upset by the other’s upset, then one is not going to be able to make a difference. Paradoxically one is not going to be able to experience one’s experience due to being distracted by one’s own upset. One’s empathy has misfired, gone off the rails, failed.
Empathy is in breakdown. One has to regroup. Take a time out. Acknowledge that one is human. One does not always get it right, but that does not mean that one is less committed to empathy or helping the other. It is worth repeating that the empathizer may expect to suffer, but not too much—just a little bit.
The good news is that empathy, when properly implemented, serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy supposedly results in “compassion fatigue.” However, this work has repeatedly distinguished 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, one is 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.”
No one is saying, do not be compassionate. 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.
However, the good news is sometimes also the less good news.
The other person’s suffering reminds one of one’s own suffering.
The other person’s anger reminds one of one’s own anger.
The other’s failures evoke one’s own setbacks.
The other’s self-defeating behavior is plainly evident to any third party, but one’s own self-defeating behavior seems to continue with regularity in tripping up oneself.
Rarely does a person say, “I want to be empathic in order to confront my own personal demons.” Rarely does one say it, but that is what is needed. That is the work of expanding one’s empathy. As in the fairy tale, one must spend three nights in the haunted castle, fighting the ghosts of one’s past and confronting the illusive specter of one’s blind spots.
Anxiety, depression, fragmentation, and the dehumanization dwelling in the dark side of human nature loom large before discovering the buried treasure of one’s own emotional resources in the face of upsets.
The thinking and practices that created empathy breakdowns are insufficient to overcome them. The thinking and practices that created resistances to empathy are insufficient to transform them. To get one’s power back in the face of resistance to empathy, something extra is required.
Expanding one’s empathy in the face of one’s own resistance to empathy requires something extra. Expanding empathy requires expanding authenticity, so the person who would practice empathy has to confront and clean up his own emotional contagion, conformity, projection, egocentrism, devaluing judgments and opinions, and the tendency of communications to get lost in translation. This clean up requires acting to repair disruptions in relatedness and repairing misunderstandings and miscommunications with other people by acknowledging one’s own contribution to the breakdown. It requires picking up the phone or requesting a meeting. It requires showing up, engaging, and acknowledging how one acted to cause the upset or breakdown.
Instead of emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and mistranslation, one enters the empathic cycle, engaging with openness towards the other person in receptivity, understanding of possibilities, taking ownership of one’s meaning making so that the other person is left free to be self-expressed, and responding in such a way that the other person is left whole and complete.
This means accepting the consequences of one’s deeds and mis-deeds. That is the first step—and every step—in recovering one’s power in relation to empathy. One might not get what one wants. However, what one is going to get is unstuck—and the freedom to be empathic in relationships going forward.
Everyone wants to get empathy, don’t they? Speaking of a recipient’s resistance to empathy sounds like resisting rainbows and colored balloons. What’s not to like? Empathy is what everyone really wants, isn’t it? Well, not always. Resistance to empathy—that it exists—is the basic empathy lesson of this chapter.
Emotional closeness leaves a person vulnerable to disappointment. The would-be recipient of empathy is ambivalent and vulnerable about being intimate with the other person, inhibiting the recipient’s empathic relatedness. The result is resistance to empathy.
People want approval from other people. People want approval for their opinions and behavior. People want agreement. Life is definitely easier, at least in the short run, if one is surrounded by people who agree with one rather than disagree.
People especially want agreement when they have something to be disagreeable about. They want agreement when they have a complaint. However, empathy does not lead off with approval and agreement.
Empathy leads off by being quiet and listening. In the face of chronic complaints and self-defeating behavior, being empathic often takes an open and inquiring stance that the other person may usefully take a look at any responsibility or potential blind spots he may be holding onto as the source of the complaint. It seems like “mission impossible,” since the blind spot is precisely that which, by definition, one does not know and that to which one can get access only through sustained self-inquiry. Doing the hard work of undertaking an inquiry into one’s own issues is, well, hard work. That results in resistance to empathy.
Resistant or not, people want to be understood. People want to be gotten for who they authentically are. People want other people to know how they have struggled to succeed and overcome adversity.
Yet, in hoping to be understood for who they really are, people are asking, not so much for agreement as for empathy.
People assert that they want to be understood; yet they do not want to be understood too well.
People do not want to take too close a look at how they have contributed to their own struggle and effort. People do not want to face directly how they have contributed in self-defeating ways to their own frustration and stuckness about which they so loudly complain.
People want the recognition of their humanity that comes with empathy; but not the unmasking of their own blind spots, which requires getting out of their comfort zone.
Let’s face it. People can be difficult. People are disagreeable. People are contrary. People are ornery. People are rude and discourteous. People push and shove. People often forget to honor their agreements. People lie. People are overly aggressive. People are overly sexed. People are under-sexed. People smell bad. Is it any wonder that people do not want to get close to other people? Is it any surprise that people develop resistance to being empathic towards other people?
This is a case of you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. People, that is. Yet there is no such thing as a person in isolation. A person by himself is not a survivable entity. That is true of newborn babies. That is true of children of tender age, who require years of guidance and education. Likewise, that is true of adults, though in more nuanced ways.
The “I” is a part of the “we,” and the “we” a part of the “I”
Early prehistoric humans needed a companion to tend the campfire and stand guard against predators (or hostile neighbors) while the other(s) rested. The basic male and female pair was an inseparable requirement for procreative success.
Propagating the species to build a community against the ravages of infant mortality was a priority requiring skills to cooperate with one another socially. For most of recorded history (and before) children were the equivalent of a pension plan for aging parents; and in many parts of the world today that continues to be the case.
Domination and control of individuals in community based on physical strength and violence coexisted alongside (and contended against) forms of cooperation, leadership, and community-building based on the skillful use of language and symbols to exercise power based on motivation, persuasion, inspiration, inclusion, and enlightened self-interest.
The point is not to tell a “just so” story about the origins of civilization, but rather to acknowledge that, not only is the individual a part of the community, the community is also a part of the individual. This bears repeating. The “I” does not only belong to the “we”; but the “we” is a part of the “I.” We carry within ourselves a readiness for community, a readiness for relatedness, a sense of inclusion in community; and if there is no one else to talk to, we talk to ourselves.
The empathy lesson? Empathy is the foundation of relatedness, and resistance to empathy is resistance to relatedness. People are born into “relatedness.” Empathy is about participation with others. Empathy is about relatedness with other people and who these others authentically are in their strengths and weaknesses, in their possibilities and limitations. Even when a person is a hermit, all alone, he is alone in such a way that his aloneness depends on the basic condition of his being a creature designed for relatedness. Being unrelated is a privative form of relatedness; and being alone is a deficient form of relatedness. Paradoxically, nonrelatedness becomes a way of relating for some.
Given that resistance to empathy on the part of the would-be recipient of empathy is pervasive, what is the recommendation? Ask yourself: What is coming between myself and the other person who is offering empathy? Perhaps fear of being misunderstood is a factor. Fear of being let down is another factor. Fear of being vulnerable gets in the way. Fear of disappointment is a consideration.
What do all these factors have in common? Fear. Fear is front and center. However, there is something else further back behind the fear. Less obvious but highly significant. What would a person have to give up in order to be receptive to the gracious and generous listening being offered? Behind the fear is attachment—attachment to suffering.
Suffering is sticky
For people who are survivors, whether of the college of hard knocks or significant trauma, allowing themselves to experience another’s empathy takes something extra. Many people who fall short of a clinical label of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) have an area in their lives in which they are engaged with their suffering in an intimate way. You know the saying: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer”? So it is also with suffering. In order to survive suffering, many people have decided to keep it close to them. They are attached to it. Overly attached? One thing is for sure. Suffering is sticky.[ii] Letting go of the suffering through the soothing experience of empathy seems like a risky proposition to people who feel fragile and vulnerable.
Consider PTSD. (We define our terms.) In an attempt to master the consequences of the life threatening experience of trauma, the organism (the human mind/body) keeps the fear, anxiety, and pain split off from being experienced as one’s own. Yes, one was present when the assault happened, the violence was perpetrated, or the train wreck occurred.
Yet in another sense, one was not present. One was not there, at least not as a conscious being. In being overwhelmed in the moment, one immediately took oneself out of the experience as an immediate reaction and survival mechanism. The traumatic experience remains unintegrated with one’s other life experiences, spinning in a tight circle of repetition.
The circle of repetition is split off from the person’s awareness and everyday life, remaining isolated—“sequestered” is the technical term for it.[iii] Suffering lives. The pain is real. Suffering itself becomes a kind of “comfort zone,” but only in the limited sense that it is isolated and separated from the awareness of the person trying to live his life.
This in no way diminishes the struggle or suffering of the survivor. Yet letting go of the suffering through the soothing balm of empathy shows up like a risky encounter with the unknown. For most people, the unknown itself is fear inspiring. The unknown is as fear inspiring as the suffering itself.
One keeps coming back to the suffering in the hope that it might be magically shifted. One keeps coming back to it like an exposed nerve in a toothache. Yes, it still hurts—ouch! The suffering starts to dominate one’s whole life, and one builds one’s life around the suffering, trying to manage and contain the uncontainable. One says, “I know my own dear little suffering up close, and it is a comfort to me in its own way—it gives me all these secondary gains—even though the impact and cost is staggering in the long term—yet I cannot let it go.”
We cycle back to empathy and its many dimensions in the context of suffering as an uncomfortable comfort zone.
How to be empathically responsive to the struggling individual and his “dear little suffering” requires an empathic listening of remarkable finesse and timeliness.
Empathy can help people get out of their comfort zone, in this case a place of suffering, in a safe and liberating way. When empathy gets an opening, empathy shrinks the trauma the way interferon is supposed to shrink tumors. Empathy sooths the accompanying suffering and reduces the stress.
The survivor is able to let go of the attachment to suffering, and engage with new possibilities. No guarantee exists that the outcome of the new possibilities will be favorable; many risks await; but the individual is no longer stuck.
In summary, we have engaged with resistance to empathy from three perspectives. We have explored overcoming resistance to empathy in the organization, in the individual providing empathy, and in the individual receiving empathy. In each case the empathy training consists in driving out obstacles to empathy, reducing or eliminating the resistance, so empathy can spontaneously grow and develop.
The organization drives out empathy by enforcing conformity to an extensive and contradictory set of rules, whose complexity is such that at any give time, the individual is technically (though unwittingly) in violation of one of them.
Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s career; and humor is closely related to empathy; so humor becomes a powerful way of regulating empathy, expanding and contracting empathy in such challenging organizational contexts. Humor is a powerful tool against the arrogance of authoritarian domination. Both empathy and humor require crossing the boundary between self and other with integrity and respect, but humor offers additional opportunities for questioning the status quo, speaking truth to power, and creating the stress, suddenly relaxed by laughter, caused by expressing what’s so.
Empathy has a key role to play in organizations in reducing conflict, overcoming “stuckness,” eliminating self-defeating behavior, building teams, fostering innovation, developing leadership, and enhancing productivity. The empathy lesson is to use humor (and empathy) to undercut resistance to empathy in the organization. The lesson is that empathy is a source of creating possibilities, overcoming conformity through innovation, and leading from a future of possibilities.
Resistance to empathy on the part of those who provide empathy shows up as “compassion fatigue” and burnout. The word is a clue: compassion, not empathy, causes “compassion fatigue.” So much compassion, so little empathy. I hasten to repeat that the world needs both more compassion and more empathy. Peer group dynamics, collegial support, and self-care are required to recharge the emotional resources of those routinely providing empathy to others.
Regular self-care, including exercise, nutrition, quality time with family/friends, is on the critical path to survival and flourishing, managing the risk of experiencing empathic distress.
This makes the case for self-care and self-monitoring on the part of professionals of all kinds and first responders in health care, education, sales, leadership, public safety, customer service, and so on, whose empathy is a significant part of their role. Professionals take breaks and are on top of their empathy game; amateurs try to be empathic all the time (whatever that would mean), experience empathic distress, make it mean they lack empathy, and quit. Those who do not take care of themselves, then blaming empathy when they get burned out, are committing a kind of malpractice of empathic engagement (in the literal, not pejorative sense of the word). Like a helicopter, empathy is powerful and complex, so it requires regularly scheduled maintenance lest something go wrong at an inconvenient time.
For those individuals who want empathy or think that they want empathy, but then change their minds, resistance to empathy confronts readiness for empathy. Some people simply would rather not be understood. For them, being understood has resulted in bad outcomes. They have been manipulated, used, even abused.
In such cases, the would-be empathizer has to “dial down” empathic receptivity, in which the communication of affect looms large, and “tune up” empathic interpretation, in which one cognitively processes what it might be like to take the other’s point of view. Once a person feels safe, the person will be willing to risk exposing and exploring the vulnerabilities that got the person stuck in the first place and need working through to get the person moving again into a flourishing future of possibilities.
In conclusion, empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? A lot. 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, messages lost in translation 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, possibilities of flourishing, enhanced humanity, relatedness, and building community.
[i] Empathy is now a major publishing event. There is a wave of books on empathy—popular, scientific, political, and scholarly. For example, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy explores empathy between humans and higher animals; J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap considers empathy and social justice from the perspective of Ignatian Humanism; Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, 800 pages long in hardcover (don’t drop it on your foot!) channels Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of a global consciousness, now including the politics of empathy; Jean Decety’s Social Neuroscience establishes correlations between sensations, affects, and emotions using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) as a kind of x-ray for the soul, exploring the relation between empathy and psychopathy (with his colleague Kent Kiehl); Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy considers the role of empathy in cruelty and disorders of empathy such as psychopathy and autism. Thomas Farrow’s (ed.) Empathy in Mental Illness drills down scientifically on the disorders of empathy in all their profound differences. See also: Susan Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (Yale 2018); any collectioin on social neuroscience by Jean Decety; William R.Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding (WIPF and Stock, 2018); Cris Beam, I feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 2018); Jodi Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, (Oxford, 2001); David Howe, Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Leslie Jamisom, The Empathy Exams (Essays) (Graywolf, 2014); Thomas Kohut, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (Routledge 2021).
[ii] I discuss this proposition in detail in Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 53, 55, 117, 190.
[iii] Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
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.
References / Bibliography
M. Hojat, M. J. Vergate, K. Maxwell, G. Brainard, S. K. Herrine, G.A. Isenberg. (2009). The devil is in the third year: A Longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school, Academic Medicine, Vol. 84 (9): 1182–1191.
Mohammadreza Hojat, Daniel Z. Louis, Fred W. Markham, Richard Wender, Carol Rabinowitz, and Joseph S. Gonnella. (2011). Physicians empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients, Acad Med. MAR; 86(3): 359–64. DOI: 10.1097ACM.0b013e3182086fe1.
Louis Del Canale, V. Maio, X Wang, G Rossi, M. Hojat, and J.S. Gonnella. (2012). The relationship between physician empathy and disease complications: an empirical study of primary care physicians and their diabetic patients in Parma, Italy, Academic Medicine, 2012; 87(9):1243–1249.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Here are Empathy Lessons for the New Year ahead. You know what would really interest me? To hear from you (dear reader) what is your empathy lesson? Whether inspired by this list or your own experience over the winter holiday or living into the future: what is your empathy lesson? (My contact data is at the bottom of this post. Let me hear form you.) Meanwhile, my top ten (10) trends in empathy lessons for the New Year 2018—this is a count down list (think: Letterman)—are as follows:
- Empathy deserts grow; empathy lessons struggle to get traction: Under late modern digital global capitalism, empathy is a means, not an end. Capitalism organizes empathy along with workers and production processes. Yet many workplaces are empathy deserts in spite of the appearance of mangers with published “open door” policies.[i] Key term: empathy desert.
One’s humanity withers in the desert. So if you find yourself feeling dehumanized by your job, maybe you work in one of those, regardless of the prevailing rhetoric.
Instead of the industrial supervisor shouting orders to his workers, who curse under their breath and conform, managers employ therapeutic strategies to create a convivial environment of trust, relatedness, sociality, loyalty, and care. Happy people sell. Happy people write more software code with fewer bugs. Happy people who happen to be medical doctors see more patients an hour for more hours. Happy people deliver projects on time, on budget. Value creation in the late capitalist economy is a function of the exchange of emotion and empathy.[ii]
Yet the boss is not necessarily a paragon of empathic understanding. On the contrary, it’s “by the numbers,” “get your numbers,” and if you don’t get your numbers, your days are numbered. And if you don’t have any numbers, that itself is a bad sign, and we will find some for you. Relations with coworkers and superiors can be Machiavellian—and conflict-laden. The guy who said, “We don’t need more data; we need expanded empathy” was counseled out. Truth be told, successful business requires data and empathy; and both have their uses.
Today empathy is trending. Everyone is “talking the talk” of empathy. What could be better than empathy? But “walking the walk” of empathy arouses resistances, which are a major point of engagement in a similarly titled chapter.
The empathy lesson? Coming from empathic understanding—identify upsets and breakdowns. Do so in the spirit of expanding relatedness and community. Identify the unfulfilled expectation, thwarted commitment, or undelivered communication. Restore what is missing, especially if it is empathy, to complete the expectation, commitment, or communication.
In other words, clean up your own act: if you owe something to another person—whether money, an overdue library book, a promised email response, or a borrowed lawn mower—arrange to pay it back. If you have lied, acknowledge the lack of integrity to the other person; and take action to repair the damage done. Asking forgiveness does not just mean the slate is wiped clean and the perpetrator is free to commit boundary violations again. It means the person asking forgiveness tells the truth about what he (or she) did. It means being prepared to deal with the cost and impact of one’s inauthenticities and integrity outages.
This creates a clearing for success with empathy by cleaning up inauthenticities: Take action assertively to repair disruptions in relatedness and communication by acknowledging your contribution to the disruption. A person cannot relate authentically—that is, empathically—to people while being inauthentic in other areas of his or her life. People have to compartmentalize in order to survive the day; but empathy is the one area where compartmentalization is least effective. The inauthenticity around empathy in one particular area tends insidiously to spread to other areas.
Challenging as it may be, creating a foundation of authenticity is actually the first step in recovering and expanding one’s empathy, one’s power in relation to empathy, and the authentic relatedness that empathy makes possible.
Absent such a foundation, a person is simply not ready to engage empathically. Even if readiness was established up front, it can be lost along the way. Go back to step one. Those who are unwilling to do so may drop off at this point. Empathy is simply too hard; but any other approach is built on sand. No matter how good the following recommendations may be, if one does not establish a foundation of authenticity for empathy, a clearing for success, one is putting buttercream frosting on a mud pie.
- Empathy, capitalist tool: “CEO” now means “Chief Empathy Officer”: You heard it here first, and not for the last time. One can already hear the push back. This conversation shows up like another responsibility with which the head of the organization is tasked. As if she did not already have enough alligators snapping at various parts of her anatomy, now “CEO” no longer means “Chief Executive Officer,” but “Chief Empathy Officer.”
The things that cause people to excel at getting business results (beating the competition, solving technical problems, dealing with legal issues) do not necessarily expand one’s empathy.
Never is empathy needed more in business than when it seems there is no time for it. Building a business, growing a market, innovating in products and services, are all about building teams, networks of people, and communities. Empathy is at the foundation of community. Therefore, empathy is the foundation of business. Though business leaders hate to be tasked with yet another job, empathy has to start at the top if it has any hope of percolating up from the bottom. “CEO” now means “chief empathy officer.”
When I ask executives what is the budget in the organization for empathy training and empathy consulting, they usually look at me with a blank stare or just say “zero.” However, when I ask what is the budget to reduce conflict, enhance teamwork, innovate and improve productivity, then they see possibility and make it a priority to obtain a budget.
At the risk of over-simplification, empathy training consists in surfacing the resistances to empathy, the pervasive fear and cynicism (and so on) in the organization that lurks just beneath the surface. Interpret the resistance: “It is perfectly understandable that you would be cynical, given what you have been through, but that is not who you (we) authentically are.”
- Empathy’s “dark side” strikes back: “Machiavellian empathy” emerges as a growing threat to empathic empathy. When those in the executive suite are surveyed, some 60% of executives believe that their organizations are empathic, whereas 24% of their employees agree.[iii] An empathy deficit?
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was famous for saying that it would be best if the leader—the Prince, in his day—was loved, but it is essential that he be feared. Machiavelli never actually said that the ruling Prince must be perceived to be empathic, even as he ruthlessly wields power behind the scenes. But that is what he implied.
In the context of politics, Machiavellian empathy refers to business people and politicians who present themselves as being empathic while manipulating, spinning alternative facts, and double dealing behind the scenes. Machiavellian empathy shows up in business, too. If managers are not in touch with their empathic abilities, they are counseled to “fake it till you make it.” Most never “make it” and continue “faking it.”
Whether or not one authentically understands the experience of the other person is less relevant to the Machiavellian empath than scoring points on a check list of concerned behavior.
If the corporation were a machine, which is a well-worn but all-too-accurate metaphor, empathy would be the lubricant that keeps the various parts working together without overheating. The number of corporations that are “over heating” and “going up in flames,” with dramatic news hitting the global media, is one index of those experiencing the most severe empathy breakdowns.
The explicit symptom is predictably a revenue shortfall, but behind the headlines lurk dysfunctional relationships, cynicism, a culture of bullying and shaming, loss of authenticity, lack of leadership, and lack of empathy.
Even the cynical sales person understands the value of taking a walk in the customer’s shoes, if only to sell him another pair. The wise (and empathic) sales person understands that in any business that allows for product differentiation or distinctions in service level agreements, building a relationship with the customer is the royal road to solution selling.
Strictly speaking, Machiavellian empathy takes nothing away from empathy’s intrinsic benefits and uses. Even if one wants to present the appearance of being empathic for propaganda purposes while continuing to operate with dubious business practices the behind the scenes, reality has a way of catching up with appearances.
It is not entirely fair, but when a person with psychopathic tendencies—once again, wanton lack of respect for boundaries, cruelty to animals, and a willingness, even eagerness, to inflict pain on others—grows up in poverty, the person often runs afoul of the criminal justice system. The person ends up in prison.
In contrast, when such a person grows up in affluence and gets an education in business, the person often becomes a hard-charging, “type A personality,” and a successful executive. The person ends up in the corner office. When psychopaths go to work, or get elected to political office, the result is sometimes snakes in suits (the title of a book cited in the endnote).[iv] We observe, and not for the last time, that the things that create success in business, do not always expand our empathy.
Amazon said it was a wonderful place to work. Then the New York Times got some employees to comment on the record about “mean” behavior.[v] Uber was disrupting the disrupters and creating the Gig Economy, which supposedly set us free. Then the CEO, Travis Kapernick, got unwittingly interviewed on camera by a driver.[vi] Bullying is not just for high school kids anymore; it has always lived in the business world, too. Still, there is no guarantee that the Machiavellian empath will slip up and document his or her own inauthenticity; but it just might happen.
Is this then the ultimate cynical moment? Is this the reduction to absurdity of empathy? If empathy is about setting boundaries, where is the boundary? The limit to Machiavellian empathy is Lincoln’s famous saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” Ask Travis Kapernick. Ask Bernie Madoff and Michael Milken.[vii]
- Empathic response is an act of imagination, not agreement: Positively expressed, empathic response means giving the other person back his experience in such a way that he recognizes his humanity in the experience. However, agreement is often what people want in expressing their unhappiness or describing the setbacks in life that they have experienced.
After giving an account of some dramatic encounter, the one person turns to the other with a significant pause in order for the other person to respond with a heartfelt, if not empathic, agreement and approval. One often turns to the other person to get validation that the experience conforms to one’s own preferred interpretation. One uses the spontaneous response of the other to guide how one really feels about what occurred. This does not rule out that one person is often looking in advance for a particular reaction and to “get a rise” out of the other.
The scenario is complex; and the “get a rise” is not necessarily what a gracious empathic understanding or receptivity is going to provide. “Tough love” shows the other what he does not necessarily want to confront. Sometimes so does “a rigorous and critical empathy,” specially when the latter is framed in a way that recognizes and respects the other’s struggle.
The bridge between the cynical present and an impossible-to-envision future is empathy. The empathic moment is the act of imaging a different world, a future world of expanded empathy, in which the community expands inclusively.
Different viewpoints are available with regard to one’s action, including the perspective of one’s adversaries. One forms an opinion by engaging the issue from different perspectives. One makes present to the mind the perspectives of those who are absent or even opposed. That is, one represents them. This process of representation adopts the points of view of those who have different standpoints.
Thus, empathy is closely related to what one can imagine about the other person in relationship to oneself. An empathy that does not include the other fails the definition of empathy. This especially applies when the other is at odds with oneself. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. The empathic response is an act of imagination.
- If you have “compassion fatigue,” maybe you are not empathic enough: It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue.” Could it be that people who are experiencing compassion fatigue, but claim to be in a break down of empathy, are actually in a break down of compassion?
If one is trying to be empathic, but one is experiencing compassion fatigue, maybe one is doing it wrong. Maybe one is practicing empathy “wrongly,” with inadequate skill, precision, completeness, or finesse; and one needs a tune up for one’s empathy.
One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have had mixed results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and related tasks. This is all excellent, and the use of empathic methods is making the world a better place in all these situations. So keep it up. There is nothing wrong with being nice and so on: do not be “unnice”! But paradoxically something is missing—empathy.
The empathy lesson “not more empathy, expanded empathy” indicates that if one subtracts empathy from compassion, then one gets sympathy, reaction, burnout, compassion fatigue, which end up giving empathy a bad name. Now I do not wish to give anyone a bad name, who is committed to empathy, compassion, or making a difference is overcoming human pain and suffering. On the contrary, I acknowledge and honor one and all. The battle is joined; we are all on the same side; but we want to deploy our limited resources wisely.
Expanding one’s empathy requires an engagement with one’s own inauthenticities around empathy.
Expanding one’s empathy requires engaging with one’s own resistance to empathy. Until we engage with our own resistance to empathy we will remain stuck in our blind spots, breakdowns, burnouts, and compassion fatigue. In order to expand one’s empathy, one needs to engage with applications of empathy in the tough cases—stress and well being, bullying, business, and gender and romance. Engaging with these implementations is essential to consolidating the mastery of one’s practice of empathy—practice, practice, practice.
- Empathy and humor are closely related, and converge even further: Both empathy and humor create and expand community. Both empathy and humor cross the boundary between self and other. However, empathy crosses the boundary between individuals with respect, recognition, appreciation, and acknowledgement, whereas humor does so with aggression, sexuality, or a testing of community standards.
Here “aggression” includes language that people would find insulting. Therefore, be careful. The aggression or sexuality in question is usually presented in such a way that it creates a tension by violating social standards, morals, or conventions to a degree that causes stress short of eliciting a counter-aggression against the teller of the joke.
Substituting humor for empathy can work in some situations, but in others it can create a breakdown in the would-be relationship. You know how the more objectionable the joke, the funnier it is?
The result is either the release of tension through laughter or a failed joke and a shameful, if not scandalous, situation on the part of the joker. Indeed when the violation of the social convention, moral, or standard is such that the target of the joke experiences a dignity violation, then the joke arouses anger or even rage, not laughter. The caution flag is out.
Ground zero of cynicism and humor is Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoon. It is wickedly funny because it expresses more than a grain of truth about dysfunctional, anti-empathic organizations.
In one classic example, the pointy-haired boss says that the organization will assign job functions based on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. For those readers who may not know, the MBPT is the famous test that distinguishes introversion and extroversion, thinking and feeling, and related categories. The boss continues: “For those of you who do not have a personality, one will be assigned by the human resources department.”[viii] I must say that I am deeply ashamed of myself; I can’t stop laughing.
In humor, stress and psychological tension are created by violating a standard—in this case against insulting the lack of personality of the corporate cog—and then the stress is released in laughter by the mechanism of the joke such as a pun, double meaning, or violation of expectations.
The more objectionable the joke is, the funnier it is. The put down, “If you do not have a personality, one will be assigned by HR” is indeed wickedly funny; but it is also deeply debunking of the corporate world (and shaming of the individual), in which people come to feel like a gear in an inhuman mechanism.
After a day at the office, people often feel as if their personality had been erased.
So a trace of empathy for the long suffering inhabitants of corporate cubicles does come to the surface after all. That is what Scott Adam’s Dilbert longs to express. It is a common place in the corporate world that people function as replaceable cogs in a well-oiled machine. Therefore, in this case, the cartoon is an example of how not to expand empathy. Cynicism and shame drive out empathy; and driving out cynicism and shame create a space into which empathy can expand spontaneously.
How then does one drive out cynicism, shame, denial, and so on? The short answer is by calling it out, acknowledging it, interpreting it, and offering an alternative point of view. Not “alternative facts,” which have come to mean “spin” and “deception”; but an alternative perspective. It is cynicism versus empathy.
Empathy is the foundation of community in a very deep way, for without empathy we would be unable to relate to other people. In being empathic with another person, one creates a community with the other person; likewise, with humor. Humor creates a community among the audience and joke teller as the tension is dispelled in the laughter. For more on creating community through jokes, I recommend Ted Cohen’s Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, which also contains some really funny jokes.[ix]
- Train and develop empathy by overcoming the obstacles to empathy: People want to know: Can empathy be taught? People complain and authentically struggle. People say, “I just don’t get it—or have it.” The short answer is: Yes, empathy can be taught.
What happens is that people are taught to suppress their empathy. People are taught to conform, follow instructions, do as they are told. We are taught in first grade to sit our seats and raise our hand 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, “Jump up and run around screaming” (unless it is recess!). But compliance and conformity are a growth industry 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 pyramid. The lesson? If a person can contract his or her empathy, the person can also expand it.
Now do not misunderstand this: people are born empathic, 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 math 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 that rule-making and the drum beat of compliance seem to be growing by leaps and bounds.
Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the resistances are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. That is the training minus all the hard work.
The hard work? Remove obstacles to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, narcissism, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, denial, competing to be the biggest victim, and injuries to self-esteem—and empathy spontaneously expands, comes forth, develops, blossoms. Yes, empathy can be taught.
- 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 the last two years that I am repeating, since it is still accurate but a work in progress—and, unfortunately, picking up even more speed, going in the wrong direction. The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”)—reportedly to be terminated with extreme prejudice at any moment—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.”
2. Empathy is the secret sauce in sexual satisfaction: Empathy is the new love. It is what people fundamentally desire – to be gotten for who they authentically are. When one person’s desire aims at the other person’s desire, then desire begets desire. The desire of the other’s desire is precisely the empathic moment. Sex goes better with empathy, providing access to the kind of kindling that transports the couple into a raging conflagration. The empathy lesson is that one takes off one’s inhibitions with one’s clothes, undressing one another.
While love is a many splendid thing, empathy is what is required to get off with another person. The “secret sauce” is when one partner gives permission to be turned on, and the other partner is inspired to accommodate. Then the Hollywood cinema cliché of sky rockets and fire works fits the moment. The recipe is about facilitating and sustaining such a state to create a peak experience . The secret sauce is empathy.
Desire unleashes a runaway process of desire between the partners that works something like the Dutch tulip craze of the 1630s, only in sexual favors. Like a speculative market bubble, desire becomes desirable because it is desired. But does such “irrational exuberance” in desire then threaten the entire relationship between the partners the way the housing bubble threatened the world economy? Certainly there are risks to the relationship in unleashing a sexual inferno. It requires a certain ego strength to let go and be vulnerable. In the case of sexuality versus economic bubbles, organism and ultimately pregnancy tend to moderate the runaway process. Meanwhile, the partners are willing to try to read the clues and do what the other wants the partner to do to the other person. A synchronization of desires occurs. The other can see through one to one’s desire. One can see through the other to the other’s desire. That’s the empathy lesson. This is starting to sound a lot like empathy.
And THE number one empathy lesson trending in 2018 (drum roll, please):
- Empathy is the ultimate anti-bullying antidote: Bullying is abroad in the land. Bullying is all about violating the boundaries between the bully and the target—personal, physical, emotion; empathy is all about establishing and reestablishing boundaries between self and other. Empathy is the antithesis of bullying. Wherever empathy lives, bullying has no place. When you think about it for two seconds, so is parenting, teaching, and being a traffic cop—all about setting boundaries.
At least initially, establishing boundaries is not about having empathy for the bully; it is about being firm about damage control and containing the bullying. Ultimately the bully benefits even as the community is protected from his perpetrations; but more in the manner of a three year old child, who, having a tempter tantrum, benefits from being given a time-out in such a way that he cannot hurt himself or others.
Kids in middle school have usually developed some empathy for those on the “inside” of their peer group. The developmental milestone for them is to be expand their definition of “inside” and widen the circle of caring, making more of “them” into “us.” The many different kinds of bullies, bullying, and possible responses on the part of children, students, teachers, parents, and administrators will not be repeated here. Suffice to say: if it’s mean, intervene.
Empathy versus bullying is receiving much needed attention in middle and high schools; but it is also a significant factor in business and politics.
Bullying is not just for high school “bad boys” anymore. In politics, Mr. T. returns tit for tat in a verbal salvo against “Little Rocket Man [LRM].” LRM man remains true to his name and fires a real missile test across Japan in the direction of the central pacific. Under a future scenario that is not hard to envision, a miscalculation leads to a fail safe situation, which does not fail safely. A nuclear exchange escalates, resulting in burning cities that put enough particulate matter into the upper atmosphere to create a twenty-five year long “nuclear winter,” causing a species extinction. The human species ends; it was just a bad idea anyway. Come on, guys, we can do better than that. This is not an inevitable outcome.
However, a word of caution: it seems really to be the case that LRM would rather see the people of the North eat grass rather than give up the nuclear weapons. These people might have something to say about that at some point, or maybe not. But if shooting starts, head for the bomb shelter, it will be too late for empathy to make a difference, except perhaps much later on for the survivors, if there are any.
Meanwhile, the empathy lesson: empathy deescalates anger and rage: When people do not get the empathy to which they feel entitled, they start to suffocate emotionally. They thrash about emotionally. Then they get enraged. The response? De-escalate rage by acknowledging the break down—it seems you really have not been treated well—clean up the misunderstanding, and restore the empathic relatedness. Empathy does many things well. One of the best is that empathy deescalates anger and rage.
Without empathy, people lose the feeling being alive. They tend to “act out”—misbehave—in an attempt to regain the feeling of vitality that they have lost. Absent an empathic environment, people lose the feeling that life has meaning. When people lose the feeling of meaning, vitality, aliveness, dignity, things “go off the rails.” Sometime pain and suffering seem better than emptiness and meaninglessness, but not by much. People then can behave in self-defeating ways in a misguided attempt to awaken a sense of aliveness.
“Empathy is oxygen for the soul” is a metaphor. But a telling one. When people do not get empathy—and a short list of related things such as dignity, common courtesy, respect, fairness, humanity—they feel that they are suffocating—emotionally.
People act out in self-defeating ways in order to get back a sense of emotional stability, wholeness and well-being—and, of course, acting out in self-defeating way does not work. Things get even worse. One requires expanded empathy. Pause for breath, take a deep one, hold it in briefly while counting to four, exhale, listen, speak from possibility.
The empathy lesson? Set boundaries. Look for balance. Be responsible. Own it. Empathic parenting is about boundary setting. With older children, “first you do your homework, then you go to the mall (or play a computer game).” Just maybe there is a lesson here for international relations too. A good fence makes for good neighbors. But there is a gate in the fence. And over the gate is a sign that says “Empathy.”
NOTES / REFERENCES / CONTACT DATA / COPYRIGHT
[i] Roman Krznaric. (2104), quoted in Belinda Parmar.(2014). The Empathy Era: Woman, Business and the New Pathway to Profit, London: Lady Geek: 91. Parmar does not cite a page in Krznaric, and I have not been able to find it so far.
[ii] Tristam Vivian Adams. (2016). The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy. London: Repeater Books: 56–77.
[iii] William Gentry. (2016). Rewards multiply with workplace empathy, Businessolver: http:// www.washingtonpost.com/ sf/brandconnect/businessolver/ rewards-multiply-with-workplace-empathy/ [checked on 03/31/2017].
[v] Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld. (2015). Inside Amazon: Wrestling big ideas in a bruising workplace: The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions. The New York Times, August 15, 2015: https://nyti.ms/1TFqcOG [checked on June 30, 2017].
[vi] Alynia Selyuk. (2017). Uber CEO apologizes over video of dispute with Uber driver. National Public Radio (NPR) All Things Considered: http://www.npr.org/2017/03/01/5179 88142/uber-ceo-apologizes-over-video-of-dispute-with-driver [checked on July 2, 2017].
[vii] According to Forbes: Milken made his billions in leveraged buyouts in the 1980′s, only to be sent to prison in 1989. He pleaded guilty to securities fraud after the government agreed to drop criminal charges against his younger brother, Lowell, and then served 22 months. The one-time Drexel Burnham Lambert executive has charted an entirely different course ever since and is a well known philanthropist.: https://www.forbes.com/sites/luisakroll/2012/10/26/billionaires-and-former-billionaires-who-have-spent-time-behind-bars/#6b7b75 b32107. Meanwhile, more breaking news, as this article is being written, some 49 men stand accused of sexual misconduct in various workplaces extending from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood production company (from which he was fired) through venture capital firms to restaurant businesses: https://www.nytimes.com/ interactive/2017/11/10/us/men-accused-sexual-misconduct-weinstein.html?_r=0. The problem is that, while it is good that this abuse is finally coming out, it has been hidden in plain for years and years. See Harry Markopolis’ (2010) statement in a different context above, “no one would listen” [also the title of his book]. Where is Lord Acton when we need him? He is the one who said: “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
[viii] Scott Adams. (1996). The Dilbert Principle. New York: Harper Business.
[ix] Ted Cohen. (1999). Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Contact data: LouAgosta@gmail.com
© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project, this post and all posts and content of this site
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