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This is the story, the narrative, of a survivor, Marsha Linehan, an innovator in the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD) using a method she and her team
invented called Dialectical Behavioral Treatment (DBT). Linehan has written a memoir, not a treatment manual (separately available (see references at bottom)). Her memoir contextualizes the diverse interventions used by DBT such as acceptance, distress tolerance, emotional regulation skills, self soothing skills, communication skills, limit setting skills, assertiveness training, and so on. She attempts and largely succeeds in connecting the dots between DBT and its skills and the key events in her life, many of which had not been publicly available.
While courage is needed for someone who has suffered from invalidation all her life to risk further invalidation in some arbitrary book review, dishing on the details of one’s life is definitely trending. Being vulnerable is trending – see Brena Brown who has virtually branded vulnerability – and Linehan succeeds in spades in opening herself up. Linehan’s narrative is by turns spiritually enriching, educational, funny, discouraging, and inspiring.
For those who require an orientation – and at the risk of over-simplification – DBT combines acceptance and tolerance such as one develops in meditation and mindfulness with the specific cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills designed to interrupt the dysfunctional thinking and negative self-talk of anxious and depressed neurotics. I see it as empathic validation plus homework in CBT skills.
More formally, DBT is an evidence-based, team-abed treatment, requiring individual and group work, that is included in clinical practice guidelines for the treatment of BPD, suicidality, and several other “acting out” types of addictive behavior such as substance dependency that have proved resistant to other forms of treatment.
Linehan’s memoir connects the dots between a specific DBT skill back to her experience in life. Often she calls out the instant in which the DBT skill was born, defined, invented, or got “borrowed” from another theory. For example, and once again at the risk of over-simplification, Linehan does a lot work on mindfulness, meditating in the context of Zen Buddhism; the DBT skill of acceptance is born. Another example, in the case of willingness – like, “I am willing to give it a try” – Linehan first encounters it at the Shalem Institute. Willingness is borrowed from the existential psychotherapists Gerald and Rollo May, but given its own special spin when combined with the Zen distinction of acceptance (p. 196).
In reading Linehan’s compelling and engaging narrative, she talks a lot about religion and love. The spiritual dimension is front and center.
William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) has nothing on Dr Linehan – she sees the golden bright light at the Cenacle Retreat Center over on Fullerton – possibly at about the time I was living around the corner on Belden Avenue. She has the “blue hydrangea” moment, too. Hence, the title of this review, “Saint Linehan” is not an irreverent joke, in the DBT sense, though it is that, too.
Linehan documents at least two mystical experiences that belong in James’ work. As noted, at the Cenacale Retreat House on Fullerton Avenue, Chicago, she experiences the encompassing, enveloping “bright golden light shimmering all over” (p. 102, p. 200). Then later she has the “blue hydrangea” pantheism experience of God being everywhere at the Shalem Institute of Christina contemplative prayer with a strong admixture of existential therapy from Gerald and Rollo May (p. 196, 201).
Linehan was in psychoanalysis at the time of her “golden light” experience, and, of course, she told her analyst about it. Now one might expect the analysis had read Freud and he would associate to the “oceanic experience” from childhood that Freud so compelling quotes on the first pages of Civilization and Its Discontents. Instead Linehan reports that the analyst said: “Marsha, I’m an atheist, so I have no idea what happened to you. But I can tell you this: you don’t need therapy anymore.” That was that.
Wait a minute! Freud was an avowed atheist, too, which is where this analyst got the idea, though Freud highly valued Jewish culture and Hebrew teachings. It may be deeply cynical, but I wonder that this so-called analyst (Victor Zielinski, MD, who spent a lot of years at Hines – another bad fit (?)) had not been wishing for awhile that this difficult individual would just “go away.” Another breakdown of empathy?
Marsha did not see it that way, she was sooo happy as she left the office. Though I accept the happiness, the accuracy of her insight into the cause of this happiness is what I am a tad skeptical about. She had a narrow escape from yet another invalidating, unempathic environment like her mother’s home growing up. I hasten to add this was prior to Heinz Kohut, MD, and his innovations, which powerfully embrace empathic listening and responsiveness in the psychoanalytically inspired (and based) context of self psychology.
The causes of BPD are still being debated, but the person is vulnerable in three areas. The person must have a biological disposition; the group (society, community, family, and so on) to which she is a part leaves the person feeling they do not fit in; and, most importantly, the person is not given a chance to develop the interpersonal skills needed to relate to others, regulate their emotions, and self sooth. In short, the aetiology requires an invalidating environment. Key term: invalidation.
To me the invalidation environment often looks like one that lacks empathy or one in which the caretakers are significantly “out of tune” empathically with the child. Of course, the environment may also include more obvious adverse or traumatic experiences. I hasten to add that while it is fashionable to dump on the parents, that is inadequate. One can get similar results as extroverted children are born to introverted parents (and vice versa) and so on. See Andrew Solomon’s book, Far From the Tree (2012). The apple never falls far from the tree? Oh yes it does! Marsha fell far from the tree. But that is not all.
In Linehan’s life, the mother is the image of the invalidating environment – Marsha was never quite right – she came within a hair’s breath of inventing self psychology but once she ended up on the inpatient psychiatric unit and had been subjected to the rigors of electro shock “therapy” that game was over – to save herself she had to wok from the outside inwards behaviorally and invent DBT.
So what did Linehan actually have to survive? She was the round peg in the square hole of her family. She was smart, got good grades, was out-spoken, and even popular in her own eccentric way. All the women in the Linehan family are wife line – thin; Marsha is “large-boned” and if she is not caution those bones can acquire adipose tissue. The mother is prim and proper and the model of an executive’s wife. The executive was remote, taking solace in his work, and keeping his distance from the “house wife obsessions” of the mother of his children. He emotionally abandons Marsha. Meanwhile, according to Marsha’s mom, she [Marsha] just couldn’t do anything right.
Marsha needed fixing and no one knew better how to do it than mom. Yet no matter how much Marsha improved, no matter how good she got, Mom consistently found something to criticize. One can only get better for so long; then one has to be good enough.
The sister’s example was always there to be thrown at Marsha. And mom apparently even warned the sister to stay away from Marsha, further isolating her emotionally in the family, as Marsha was apparently a bad example. She was getting good grades and popular – a bad example of what? “Girls were supposed to be demure, sweetly charming, quietly spoken, and not given to expressing strong opinions, especially around men. They should defer to men at all times and in all things” (p, 111). Her mom valued a “girly girl,” who knew her place. This was not going to go well.
Marsha starts living into the devaluing judgments of her close relatives. Marsha gets to adolescence and her “apparent competence,” her skill in maintaining a false self [not Linehan’s term], the good girl, even if a tad eccentric, breaks down. She has some dates, but she never succeeds in getting a steady boy friend in high school. She comes unraveled, beset with acting out in the form of cutting – what would come to be called para suicidal behavior thanks to DBT.
There was an noticeable absence of trauma on Linehan’s life, except those traumas which she eventually inflicts on herself in cutting with a razor and related para suicidal acting out. But invalidation was pervasive. If empathy is like oxygen for the soul (psyche), Linehan was suffocating. She starts flailing about like someone who can’t breathe.
A constant drumbeat occurs of “you are not all right,” of “you are not important,” “you are less than.” Highly destructive to the nuclear self.
Even though Marsha eventually overcomes many of her demons, mom’s behavior never changes in spite of an honest effort. For example, years later, Marsha is getting her doctorate in social psychology, a significant accomplishment under any circumstances. Congratulations? “Mother had made a dress for me for Aline’s [her sister’s] wedding, and on the morning of graduation she was more focused on fitting my dress than she was on my getting a doctorate” (p. 118).
The word “empathy” occurs once in Linehan’s text (p. 94); and, of course, the word itself as a mere word is dispensable in principle. The text and Linehan’s life work is steeped in empathy. Empathy LIVEs in Linehan’s work. But not empathy as emotional contagion or “touchy feely” fragilization. Key word: fragilizing (p. 223). Not you are very fragile and have to be spoken to softly and treated with kid gloves.
There may indeed be moments for a quiet heart-to-heart talk, and such conversations are highly significant, but if a person is carving up their arm with a razor, this person may be a lot of things, but fragile is not exactly one of them. How shall I put it delicately? They are in a lot of pain and suffering and are employing emergency merges to try and survive the moment.
Paradoxically pain and suffering can become a highly uncomfortable “comfort zone” for the client. Personal suffering is ruining the person’s life, but the person is attached to the suffering. This is the case not only with BPD but with most kinds of mental and emotional disorders. This is different than moral masochism, but sometimes not different by that much. The patient has to be motivated to engage the tough work of moving beyond stuckness to have new experiences, which are by no means guaranteed to be immediately rewarding or satisfying. That is where validation comes in.
We have conceptualized invalidation as a cause of the suffering, so Linehan and DBT deliver validation as part of the treatment. But what is validation? A lot of work is done to meet the client where she is. The client says, “My life sucks.” And that is usually the most accurate available description. The person really is miserable and there are good reasons for it. What’s so about life needs to be validated before the individual can consider the possibility of moving forward out of stuckness. The therapist’s validation provides access to the client’s acceptance of their situation. Acceptance of the situation provides an opening for moving beyond the limits of the situation.
The challenge to the treatment is that acceptance and validation provide access to change, but it does not seem that way to the person who is in pain. The challenge is that pain and suffering can be sticky.
“Validation” means you experience your experience. Invalidation is being told – sometimes quire persuasively – you did not experience your experience. How is that even possible? Believe me, it happens a lot. Blaming the victim. Redescribing the experience as caused by the survivor’s own shortcomings. “Don’t you ever talk that way about Uncle John again! He did not pull down your pants” [not an example in Linehan]. Pretty soon the child does not know what he is experiencing.
The client usually likes to be validated. Validation is different than agreement or disagreement. It means the other person “gets who you are.” It means one is responded to as a whole person, not a diagnosis, label, body part, or partial entity. It means one is responded to as the possibility of flourishing and accomplishment, even if, at the moment, one is stuck in emotional misery. For my money, that is an alternative redescription of empathic understanding. For many, validation is itself a new experience and some can’t believe it or be open to it. It takes time, but most people promptly, though not instantaneously, perceive it as authentic, especially when it is authentic.
Then the client can be motivated, leveraged, incented, to practice new skills, take risks interpersonally, and just try stuff out instead of wallowing in a funk of anxiety and depression. The validation is the empathic moment. To get it right requires expanded empathy. Though the word is not much used, as noted, empathy LIVEs in the work Linehan and DBT treatment programs are doing. But then you also have to do the exercises.
Before I read Linehan’s memoir, I knew that she was a survivor. I knew she was a survivor of some of the things for which DBT is a successful treatment. I knew about the “physician, health thyself” aspect of her work and the work at Zen Buddhist retreats – as indeed is often the case with innovators who have to overcome personal demons in order to thrive – Kay Redfield Jameson and Elyn Saks, for example. Indeed Freud and Jung belong on this list – especially Jung.
I digress at this point to point out that Henri Ellenberger (Discovery of the Unconscious (1970)) has the distinction of a “creative illness” – which often has major psychosomatic aspects as the body is the best picture of the human soul/psyche – from which the individual emerges with renewed energies to produce his or her magnum opus or masterpiece. Arguably Linehan’s two years on the inpatient unit were her “creative illness,” though I cannot believe it seemed to her that way at the time.
What I did not know prior to reading the memoir was about the electro convulsive therapy (ECT). Linehan reports she once knew how to play the piano. The ability never returned after the ECT. She got into a pre med program at Loyola in college and found that she had forgotten all her biology and much of her science, once again probably as a result of it having it blasted out of her by ECT and significant does of anti-psychotics – you forget what is bothering you and a whole bunch of other stuff too). So Marsha Linehan is also a survivor of ECT, and not in the best sense of the words.
Need I add that Linehan, with some conditions and qualifications, does not endorse the inpatient treatment of psychiatric disorders? One of her many videos on Youtube makes the distinction between a “life worth living program” and a “suicide prevention program.” I paraphrase Linehan in redescribing suicide to a suicidal client: “It’s good that you see feeling suicidal is a problem; but really suicide is a solution to escape from a messy and painful life; and our job in DBT is to give you a better solution through skills such as self-soothing, distress tolerance, mindfulness, emotional equilibrium training,” By the way, “redescribing” is a DBT skill that has many origins, but most properly credited to the modern philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe.
Linehan’s makes a strength out of a weakness in the memoir as she enrolls important people in her life of giving her an account of publication of what was going on at the time, which she then quotes in the memoir. Still, the number of times is significant that she reports, “I just can’t remember” or “I don’t know why I did this” [or words to that effect].Such statements become an important part of the rhetorical stance of this work. They are also, in their own way, examples of a DBT skill. One does not always need to understand in order to get the result. Understanding has its uses, but also its limitations. If one sits around waiting to understand, it could be a long wait. Get in action. Try something. If it does not work, stop doing that, and try something different.
What I did not know was about the extent and depth of the self-harm. She gets put in isolation, and she launches herself head first off the chair in a frenzy of disequilibrated self-harm. Yes, people were supposed to be watching her, but somehow this kept happening. Traumatic brain injury?
What I did not know is that Linehan, finally on the road to recovery, considered becoming a monk or nun. She took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as a Lay Religious person instead. In the irreverent spirit of DBT, I note that her career total was zero for three, though here I am making an educated guess, I believe she honored the spirit of her vows.
Since this is not a softball review, I have critical observations. Linehan learned more from that unempathic psychoanalysis than she realized – she was working on an early version of self psychology. Thus, I have some “tough love” for one of the inventor’s of tough love in the context of treatment. However, the one thing I am not going to do is invalidate Linehan’s experience. Her report of her own experience is whole and complete and perfect in every way. She gets to say.
This business of “wise mind” – a DBT koan – needs work. My intuition is that human beings cannot intentionally “be wise.” Some people may end up being wise as a result of processing their experiences in profound ways. Wisdom comes forth “out of the mouth of babes” in that some individuals get in touch with a “beginner’s mind” and are able to express hard-to-capture distinctions hidden in plain view, about life, relationships, and everything. In that sense, yes, “wisdom happens.” Kant said, “Only God is wise.” Kohut said that a certain wisdom – along with humor and expanded empathy – can be brought forth as the result of a successful analysis of the self; but that wisdom was mostly acceptance of our limitations, suffering, and finitude. So I have NEVER been comfortable or “on board” with the over-simplifications in DBT about “wise mind.”
Linehan is often on a tear – standard behavioral therapy doesn’t work with the most seriously distressed (suicidal) patients and cognitive behavioral therapy has serious issues, too. You have to get a person whose life and all-available-evidence “prove” that “all the good one’s are taken” or “life sucks” to be reasonable and admit that “some of the good ones are not taken” or “life does not have to suck at all times.”
Emotional mind does not acknowledge cognitive penetrability or cognitive impenetrability. Cognitive mind does not acknowledge the emotions display a “logic” of their own, disclosing important aspects of a situation while also concealing other aspects. Cognitive mind can tell you “what’s so,” but cognition lacks the power to motivate you to do anything about it. Abstractions do not move people, emotions do. There is a dialectical encounter between the two – and that is commitment, which tries to find a emotional motivation for what cognition shows to be an authentically valid path forward.
The thing about the iceberg is that it’s the iceberg “all the way down.” The visible part of the iceberg is not a different iceberg than the less visible part submerged beneath the water. The behavior is visible, but the biology is not visible, what the individual had to survive is not visible, how the community reacts to the individual of is not visible. But unlike – or perhaps just like – the iceberg, research treats these all as different siloes. It is true that we all – including Linehan – now speak of the bio-psycho-social individual and express authentic commitment to integration. But the effort required to integrate just shows how dis-integrated the entire phenomenon is.
The tip of the iceberg does not regard itself as distinct from the iceberg. The “tip” is our abstraction. Likewise, with behavior. Linehan demonstrates this compelling as she takes the psychoanalytic distinction of “introject,” operationalizes it, and shows collects evidence that DBT improves measures of introject over against a stricter behavioral intervention. Amazing.
How shall I put it delicately? Like every other individual, Linehan has a privileged access to her own first person experience – the golden light moment, the blue hydrangea moment. She also has many advantages in interpreting what that experience means, since, like every other individual, she knows a lot about her own history that others might or might not know. But as to what the experience “really means,” one individual has as good a chance of getting it right as another once the experience has been captured and reported. At first she says “The golden light means God loves me”; but then, since that experience was like [felt like] her love for Ed [a person who she actually loved deeply], she reinterprets the golden light to mean “I love God.” So she has to continue searching for God’s love for her, which brings us to the blue hydrangea by which time the meaning of God and of love have shifted.
But wait. Her Zen experience will eventually have taught her this is just another Zen koan – it is like the ambiguous Gestalt image the duck-rabbit where the rabbit’s ears and the duck’s bill and the figure spontaneously reverses – perhaps she got it right the first time – “God is God” and “love is love.” In short, Linehan is really slinging it here, and there is nothing wrong with that. It works. Her rhetoric is that of the beginner’s mind after long struggle. She is irreverent, assertive, disruptive within limits (and without), and contrary within limits (and without), innovative, all DBT skills, and we thank you, Marsha, for being Marsha.
Marsha M. Linehan. (2020). Building a Life Worth Living: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 384 pp.
Marsha M. Linehan. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
Marsha Linehan Interviews Kelly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgzw50SbokM
© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
If ever there was a time for online (tele/cyber) talk therapy, this is it.
In case you were trekking through Tibet or living in a cave with Buddhist monks, allow me to clarify why. Key term: social distancing.
It is not that anyone who is sick or symptomatic would knowingly go to an in-person
therapy session anyway, nor does one have to avoid mass transit or public taxis or garage attendants (who may park one’s auto while coughing on the steering wheel). Reasonable accommodation works well. Yet just because you have a germ phobia or are getting clinically paranoid does not mean you cannot get physically ill!
Therefore, keep calm – and carry on – I mean: wash your hands!
Okay, this is not funny. The lesson? Psychotherapy 101 teaches us that the most fearsome thing is – the unknown.
You know how in the vintage black and white monster movies, once you actually see the guy dressed up as Swamp Thing, it is a lot less scary? The creature may still be disgusting, but it is no longer nearly as scary? The scary part is when the heroine is innocently combing her hair and the swamp thing (which is “off camera” and the audience cannot yet see) is silently sneaking up behind her.
You know that scenario? Well, that’s what we’ve got here with the World Health’s Declaration of a pandemic. I will not further comment on the details as numerous resources are available from WHO and the Center for Disease Controls, frequently updated as we learn more and more about what to do or not do.
Just as many businesses, schools, colleges, universities are working remotely – that is, online – for example, delivering a webcast online, clients and therapist may leverage the convenience and social distancing of online therapy for their therapy sessions. One can also apply the lessons of social distancing in an in-person office setting, but it has to be a reasonably large office (which I do have) about the distance of two sneezes across. However, that is not what I am talking about here. What am I talking about? Download a video telecommunication application (function) such as Zoom (this is just an example, not a product endorsement), which reportedly uses encryption. Then review the instructions or call the Help Desk (which I am not operating for purpose of this post).
I cut to the chase. Here are two lessons learned since I originally published this post about online (cyber) therapy in September 13, 2019.
First, an online session presents new opportunities for the equivalent of slips of the tongue. There was one individual with whom the occurrence of the word “mother” was inevitably followed by the Internet connection freezing up, requiring a restart. You can’t make this stuff up. After I called it out, he stopped messing with the volume controls, which seemed to have occasioned pressing the wrong button. Therefore, in an empathic space of acceptance and toleration, the therapist may reasonably provide understanding, accommodation, and some extra time to reinforce and support relatedness.
Next, I can see many psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers with contracts with insurance companies getting stressed because insurers generally resist paying [will not pay] for tele-consultation (or will do so only (say) in Alaska where there is no other provider within 200 miles).
That is definitely an issue; and it will not be solved here. It may require an act of Congress to curb expanding monopoly rents on the part of insurers during a national crisis, and I would be in favor of such action. It is true (as far as I know) that one cannot take someone’s blood pressure over Skype, though I would not rule out some innovator coming up with an attachment that connects to the computer’s USB. In any case, I am not holding my breath, and I am continuing to expand my online empathy consulting practice, since – how shall I put it delicately? – my relationship with insurers is actually more than a distance of two sneezes across and, in many cases, breaks down in that an empathy deficiency is not [properly speaking] a medical diagnosis.
Update: March 17, 2020: This just in from The Washington Post: “Medicare expands telemedicine to allow seniors to get virtual care at home” [https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/03/17/coronavirus-latest-news/#link-FAF2A2J73BDH3FH6GUHMGM5OSE] This is progress – and it is about time!
The following was published on September 13, 2019 and is repeated here as highly relevant to our current wellness challenges.
The genie is out of the bottle. The day that the first therapist invited his one-on-one client (who had an urgent need for a conversation but an inability to get to the office) to put down the phone and dial into Skype, the genie escaped from the bottle.
The reader will recall that in the 1001 Arabian Nights the Genie was very powerful but a trickster and nearly impossible to control. Making wishes is tricky, and if one is not careful, the sausages end up stuck to one’s nose and one must waste the last wish to get them off. In this case, the Genie is Internet technology such as Skype and Google Groups and the emerging conveniences, affordances, complexities, entanglements, and even resistances that it offers.
In the Arabian Nights, the hero, Aladdin, had to trick the Genie to getting back in the bottle by appealing to his narcissism. “You are not all powerful,” Aladdin said. “A large creature like you could not possibly fit in that small bottle!” The Genie’s wounded narcissism caused him to prove that he can indeed fit back in the bottle. Aladdin puts the stopper back on – trapped! However, in the case of the Internet and online communication tools, do not look to be able to turn back the clock.
But there is good news. The human face is an emotional hot spot. It is rich in micro-expressions many of which are available and visible even though the “real estate” on the screen in less rich in detail than an in-person experience. Indeed it is not even clear that the face as presented online is “less rich.” It is the only thing being displayed, and the viewer is led to concentrate on it in detail. But here the trade-off of bodily presence versus the imaginary comes into the foreground.
The criticism fails that the online conversation between persons lacks the reality of the in-person encounter. But this criticism fails, in a surprising way. The criticism fails not because the online media is so real. Rather the criticism fails because the in-person psychotherapy encounter is shot through-and-through with the imaginary, with symbolism, the imaginary and irreality. The “irreal” includes the symbolic, the imagined, the fictional, the part of reality which is distinct from the real but includes the past and the future and the imaginary, which are not really present yet influence reality.
In psychotherapy, the in-person encounter is precisely about the symbolic and the imagined – the transference. The basic definition of “transference” is that the person relives emotionally the relationship to objects (persons) from the past, persons who are not physically present in the room (or in the virtual space online).
What we are calling the “virtuality” of the technology media adds an additional dimension of irreality to the symbolic and imagined transference relationship. Yes, the media is the message (as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote), but with the arrival of online therapy the media is first and foremost the transference. The message now occurs with a strike-through, message.The online technology itself becomes a source and target of transference.
The one thing that immediately occurred to me: Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications. This is less the case with certain forms of narrowly focused behavioral therapies, which are nevertheless still more ambiguous than is commonly recognized. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.
While virtual reality (VR) goggles as such are not a part of any online therapy group process, VR goggles are currently being used in individual psychotherapy with clients who are dealing with phobias and related individual issues.
[See www.psious.com– an engaging start up which is promoting the VR goggles for psychotherapists. The author (Lou Agosta) reports: I have no financial relationship with this company, and I wrote a blog post in 2016: “A Rumor of Empathy at Psious”: https://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq]
For example, it is much easier for someone with a fear of flying to put on a set of VR goggles in the therapist’s office and take a virtual trip to the airport, board an airplane (in VR), and be taxing down the run away (in VR), than it is to do this in the real world. The next step in a group process is to create an avatar that resembles one’s individual physical self, warts and all, and to join the other avatars in an online virtual reality group session. New possibilities are opened up by this form of therapy for dealing with all kinds of emotional and mental issues that are beyond the scope of this article.
Here the point is just to look at how virtual reality (“virtuality”) already lives in the in-person psychotherapy session even as it might have been conducted in 1905. There is a strong sense in which the conversation between a client and a psychodynamic therapist already engages a virtual reality, even when the only “technology” being used is a conversation is English or other natural language.
For example, when Sigmund Freud’s celebrated client, Little Hans, developed a phobia of horses, Freud’s interpretation to Hans’ father was that this symbolized Hans’ fear of the father’s dangerous masculinity in the face of Hans’ unacknowledged competitive hostility towards his much loved father. The open expression of hostility was unacceptable for so many reasons – Hans was dependent on his father to take care of him; Hans loved his father (though he “hated” him, too, in a way as a competitive for his mother’s affection); and Hans was afraid of being punished by his father for being naughty. So Hans’ hostility was displaced onto a symbolic object, the horse. Hans’ symptoms (themselves a kind of indirect, “virtual reality” expression of suffering) actually gave Hans power, since the whole family was then literally running around trying to help him and consulting “The Professor” (Freud) about what was going on. In short, the virtual reality – now remove the quotes – made present in the case is that the horse is not only the horse but is a virtual stand-in for the father and aspects of the latter’s powerful masculinity.
So add one virtual reality of an imagined symbolic relatedness onto another virtual reality of a simulated visual reality (VR) scenario, the latter contained in a headset and a smart phone. Long before VR technology, therapists of all kinds, including behaviorists, used VR by activating the client’s imagination by asking him or her to imagine the getting on the feared airplane. One may try to escape virtual reality by not going online, but the virtuality follows as long as human beings continue to be symbolizing, imagining creatures.
This blog post is an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To order the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc]
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
The Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations, eds., Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick, published by Routledge:
Table of Contents
Introduction to the book Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick
Section 1 General considerations for online therapy edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 1 Introduction to the general consideration section: principles of internet-based treatment Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 2 Interview with Lewis Aron and Galit Atlas
Chapter 3 Empathy in Cyberspace: the genie is out of the bottle Lou Agosta
Chapter 4 Sensorimotor psychotherapy from a distance: engaging the body, creating presence, and building relationship in videoconferencing Pat Ogden and Bonnie Goldstein
Chapter 5 The clinic offers no advantage over the screen, for relationship is everything: video psychotherapy and its dynamic Gily Agar
Chapter 6 Cybersupervision in psychotherapy Michael Pennington, Rikki Patton and Heather Katafiasz
Chapter 7 Practical considerations for online individual therapy Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick
Secion 2 Online couple and family therapy edited by Shoshana Hellman and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 8 Introduction to the online couple and family therapy section Shoshana Hellman and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 9 Interview with Julie and John Gottman
Chapter 10 Internet-delivered therapy in couple and family work Katherine M. Hertlein and Ryan M. Earl
Chapter 11 Digital dialectics: navigating technology’s paradoxes in online treatment Leora Trub and Danielle Magaldi
Chapter 12 Practical considerations for online couple and family therapy Arnon Rolnick and Shoshana Hellman
Section 3 Online group therapy edited by Haim Weinberg
Chapter 13 Introduction to the online group therapy section Haim Weinberg
Chapter 14 Interview with Molyn Leszcz
Chapter 15 Online group therapy: in search of a new theory? Haim Weinberg
Chapter 16 Transformations through the technological mirror Raúl Vaimberg and Lara Vaimberg
Chapter 17 Practical considerations for online group therapy Haim Weinberg
Section 4 Online organizational consultancy edited by Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 18 Introduction to the online organizational consultancy section Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick
Chapter 19 Interview with Ichak Kalderon Adizes
Chapter 20 All together, now: videoconferencing in organizational work Ivan Jensen and Donna Dennis
Chapter 21 A reflexive account: group consultation via video conference Nuala Dent
Chapter 22 Practical considerations for online organizational consultancy Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick
Epilogue Arnon Rolnick and Haim Weinberg
George Steiner passed away in the fullness of time at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 90. This blog post acknowledges and honors him for his contribution, largely previously unnoted, to the understanding and practice of empathy.
Those who are interested in learning more about his many, many books and the
details of his biography can consult the New York Times obituary cited below – he grew up speaking French, German, and English and claimed not to able to remember which came first and he graduated the University of Chicago after a single year in 1948.
In so far as one of the major breakdowns of empathy is when empathic response gets “lost in translation,” George Steiner’s book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) is devoted to empathy and restoring it in the fact of misunderstanding. This turns out not to require the use of the word “empathy.” What is basically a Bible story and a single paragraph in Genesis turns out to be nuanced enough to sustain a five hundred page plus treatment.
Thus, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 11: 1–9) forms the backdrop for one of Steiner’s major contributions and, at the risk of oversimplifying his diverse and multidimensional contribution, may be the single best presentation of his life’s work.
As you may recall, in what is basically a Babylonian, not a Hebrew, myth, which gets included in Genesis, there is a Golden Age. It consists in the earth and the peoples of the earth being “of one language and one speech.” I elaborate the point: Disagreements between people about the meaning of truth, beauty, goodness, utility, or freedom simply do not occur because there is only one language, which everyone shares.
So misunderstandings are impossible on principle in this Golden Age. Not only does this make life very agreeable, it gives the people enormous power. You know the expression “Power to the people!” Well, such is actually the case in this story. The people are one, and the people decide that they are not going to settle for life here on earth, they are going to move into heaven. They start building a tower – the Tower of Babel – because heaven is “up there” and how else would you get there?
Next scene. The Gods are looking down from above, as the tower is getting taller and taller. And it is not like just a few people are coming. They are all coming. The Gods are even getting a tad worried about this development – but not for long. A stratagem is needed to foil this unacceptable and obvious sin of pride. Pride goeth before the fall. The Gods “confuse the tongues,” mix up the languages, of the people. The people now become the peoples with each separate community having its own identity and manner of speaking incomprehensible to its neighbors. Before there was only one language, now there are many.
The one builder says: “Pass me the slab.” But he is now speaking a different language than his coworker, who thinks he is saying, “Pass me the mud” or even worse, thinks he is saying, “You are an idiot.” General chaos breaks out with significant aspects of paranoia, xenophobia, hostility, and aggression. Fistfights break out (not actually in the story, but “off stage”). The work on the tower is halted. The project fails. History begins. The Golden age ends; the people are scattered and become different communities (nations); history as we know it starts.
It is a history of misunderstanding between people and peoples, resulting in border disputes, personal disputes, contractual disputes, inheritance disputes, disputes over disputes. Often attempts are made to settle such disputes with aggression, resulting in more disputes. Thus results the current situation of humanity, in which we are not only separated by different languages but misunderstandings occur even within the same language, which becomes other to itself due to ambiguity and vagueness. Not a pretty picture.
So what has this to do with empathy? In so far as empathy lives within language, this is a story about empathy. The Golden Age was one of perfect understanding – empathic understanding. Much of history consists in human understanding getting lost – lost in translation. The result when misunderstandings occur is the current state of the relations between diverse communities – one of hostility and the risk of aggression.
Enter George Steiner’s work: After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translations. The word “empathy” does not occur in this work, yet it is one permeated by the empathic project of overcoming breakdowns in understanding as meaning gets “lost in translation.”
When we practice translation, we are practicing getting in touch with the world of the other person in its nuances and significance. That is top down, cognitive empathy. When we practice translation, we create a clearing for the experiential dimension of a person’s experience to emerge into a clearing in which the feeling can be communicated. That is bottom up, affective empathy.
After Babel is a work of vast learning in which Steiner makes the case for the study of languages, especially as they occur in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Proust, since that is what humans speak and use and live in, rather than language as such as an ideal abstract system. We quite often succeed in translating, even though our translations are far from perfect, in need of revision, and vulnerable to ambiguities of nuance and significance.
To make the connection between translation and empathy, something that Steiner never explicitly does, we are cast upon the seas of the interrelations between different texts. Jorge Luis Borges is celebrated for his fictions that expose the deep structure of nonfictional reality. Early in After Babel (p. 70), Steiner turns to Borges’ short piece “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939).
The title itself points to what is absurd, even logically alien in Borges’ approach, since everyone knows that Miguel de Cervantes is the author of Don Quixote. Menard’s project was not to compose another Quixote, which would be easy, but the Quixote itself (p. 71).
This is the empathic moment: “Far more interesting was ‘to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard’, i.e., to put oneself so deeply in tune with Cervantes’s being, with his ontological form as to re-enact, inevitably, the exact sum of his realizations and statements.
Here empathy is no mere psychological mechanism for the transmission of a contingent feeling, but the foundation of relatedness between persons in time and history.
At this point Steiner quotes Borges’ quoting Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts. They are of course identical quotations from Don Quixote. The reader of Borges’ text (and of Steiner’s use of it) is left scratching his head. But then the punch line:
To write of “history as the mother of truth” at the beginning of the 17th Century when Cervantes was authoring the work was eminently sensible. But to write this way three hundred years later, at the beginning of the 20th Century is a work of towering genius (no pun intended!). When Menard was re-enacting Cervantes’ act of authorship – i.e., transforming Cervantes’ being into his own – Menard did this three hundred years later – after William James has stated that history is not what happened but what we judged to have happened. This a work of supreme and prodigious translation: “The arduousness of the game is dizzying [….] When the translator, negator of time and rebuilder at Babel, comes near succeeding, he passes into that state of mirror [….] He does not know ‘which of us two is writing this page’” (pp. 71, 72–73).
Strictly speaking, this could be seen as a breakdown of empathy, since it implies a merger of the two beings, but the integrity of empathy is restored when the merger turns out to be temporary and transient, preserving the distinction between self and other.
Though Steiner makes the case for comparative literature as the lever of humanization – even while intermittently deploring the state of the humanities as a discipline – in translating back-and-forth, the idea of a logically perfect, ideal language and radical translation are never far away. Radical translation, in turn, puts us in mind of radical empathy – the progressive liberal trying to empathize with the Evangelical Christian and vice versa. How is that going?
Translation is indeed a metaphor for the situation of human understanding, community, and the challenge of expanding empathic relatedness. But in so far as translating is also occurring literally and constantly within a given natural language whenever we ask another person what they are trying to say, even as they say something that seems meaningless, translation is virtually identical with historical existence, our way of being in the world after the fall at Babel.
Granted the matter is devilishly complex, rather than ask what is wrong, point out what is missing – what gets lost in translation? Each of ten thousand distinctions leads to more distinctions and the “fan out” is virtually beyond calculation. Is space available for a space of acceptance and toleration and to resume work, if not on a tower, on a bridge over troubled waters?
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William Grimes, (2020), George Steiner, prodigious literary critic, dies at 90, February 03, 2020, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/books/george-steiner-dead.html
Lou Agosta, Empathy Lessons, (2018), Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278312&sr=1-1-spell
George Steiner, (1975), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, London: Oxford University Press (a Galaxy Book). 507pp, $4.95 (original price): https://www.amazon.com/George-Steiner/e/B000AQ1YD6?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278399&sr=1-1
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Elizabeth Wurtzel (1967–2020) died at the age of 52 on January 7th in New York City of metastatic breast cancer. Wurtzel became a notorious “bad girl,” with a wicked sense of black humor, sparing few, least of all herself, and a disarming “tell all” candor in her break through memoir Prozac Nation.
Full disclosure: I am catching up on my reading. Triggered by Wurtzel’s passing
away, I had not read her best selling Prozac Nation until earlier this week (01/14/2020). I acknowledge I need to get out more.
Now I am familiar with pathographies – autobiographies and biographies of mental pathology – having read Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Jamison’s “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mani, and Character,” and Elyn Saks’ The Center Will Not Hold, all worth reading – as is Prozac Nation. Thus, I bring an innocent reading – and eye – to a work that is anything but innocent.
Wurtzel is credited with putting the funny but self-lacerating memoir on the literary map, with its account of her emotional struggles against the Black Wave of depression, volatile internal conflicts, and acting out in the form of cutting, starting at age eleven. Subsequent attempts to attain emotional equilibrium through substance abuse and volatile relationships with members of the opposite sex, the narrative actually turns into a coming of age story. Some coming; some aging.
Not quite stream of consciousness, but definitely a rapid fire, back-and-forth conversation of Wurtzel with herself, it puts me in mind of the cliché: your mind can be a bad neighborhood; if you go there, you are going to get mugged, albeit in a comical way; mugged by negative self-talk, devaluing self assessments, and rage at the narcissistic slights inflicted by intimates, strangers, and intimate-strangers alike.
Wurtzel’s writing is shot from a cannon. The character sketches are wickedly funny and just as cutting as her own practices of self-injury. One example: “If Archer weren’t so good-looking, I’m not sure he’d exist at all, since he lacks most vital signs [….][H]e is the best opportunity to hang out with a gorgeous man and be certain that there will be no sexual tension whatsoever” (p. 224).
Wurtzel literally calls out the elephant in her family’s living room early in the narrative (p. 58): her parents are fighting, from the time Elizabeth is two years old, when her mom divorces her dad. The parents continue to fight (including in court) throughout her childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood, all the while “telling me that their [hostile] feelings for one another shouldn’t affect me,” blaming the victim if she feels affected, making the child an unwitting pawn.
Usually an emotion will shift after a few hours and a depression will shift after a few months, even if no intervention is undertaken other than good rest and good nourishment. To keep the disorder in place, active measure must be undertaken by the person, environment or both. The ongoing family situation is a significant contributor to the extraordinary duration of the distress.
It gets worse. The dad has access to health benefits through a good, albeit low level, corporate job; but it seems that every time the growing Wurtzel gets into an emotional crisis (chronic emergency would be more like it), the dad stops paying for psychotherapy, telling her its nothing personal. The real reason is usually a dust up with the mom.
Queue up the late rock-and-roller Stevie Ray Vaughn: Caught in the cross fire. Elizabeth is. She cannot help but internalize the conflict. Any kid would. This is the way it is. It starts so early and continues so unremittingly, that one must be positively as blind as the parents not to see it: this is an invalidating environment.
Another example of invalidation that might be straight out of Heinz Kohut, MD: “For instance, I’ll walk into her [mom’s] apartment and she’ll just blurt out, Those shoes are so ugly! And I never asked her. And I like my shoes […] The concept of Who asked you? does not exist in my family […] We’re all meshed together” (p. 231). Unremitting, serial breakdowns in empathy, resulting in emotional contagion, conflict, and enmeshment with the toxic self-object and hostile introject. Ouch!
Abandonment comes up early and often. In year-after-year of being sent off to a different camp, depending on which one offers a discount to her and her mom, who are living in a kind of genteel poverty. It induces a real panic about abandonment in the young Wurtzel, resulting in dozens of calls requesting rescue. Having been dutifully rehearsed during latency, this fear takes on a life of its own. “[…] [B]eing alone turns into a terrible fear that I will have no friends” (p. 89).
In several relationships with college BFs (at Harvard College) Wurtzel cries and cries sad tears, angry tears, at the prospect of separation such that the behavior creates the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. She goes well beyond “high maintenance” into the land of continuous confrontation, just plain crazy shit, and the bottomless pit of infinite upset all the time. Meanwhile, the guy wants a friend with whom he can go to the movies and party, maybe perform some consensual sex acts between reading about Derrida and Marxism. Enough.
Years later it comes out. The man Elizabeth thought was her dad, who was divorced after two years by the mom, and who also thought he was the dad, is not the biological father. Even though he did not have the DNA data, somehow he was never able to relate to Elizabeth in quite the proper parental way. (See the article by Wurtzel entitled Bastard, cited at the bottom of this post.)
Wurtzel has a gift for zingy one-liners, coming out of the blue, and yet creating their own context instantaneously. As regards the above-cited elephant, “We went to Alaska and we froze to death” (58) – emotionally. More like the abandoning, ice box father and the bonfire mother. Things heat up, especially with her mom: “I come from a family of screamers” (p. 185). Balance is hard to find.
The subtitle is “Young and depressed in America,” and one can sees Wurtzel’s editor’s skillful hand in connecting the dots between individual suffering, of which there is an abundance, and the breakdown of communities, ongoing, whether due to globalization, an opioid epidemic, or the malling / mauling of America.
The reader learns the difference between sadness and negative self-talk and what we might call existential depression: “I’d been expelled from the place where possibility still existed” (p. 60). Depression is the loss of the possibility of possibility. It is not just that I lose love and long for love; I lose the possibility of the possibility of love. This is gonna be tough going.
This is definitely a page-turner. Hard to put down. However, there are also some loose ends. I mean in the narrative, looser than Wurtzel herself.
The title is premised on the interpretation that Wurtzel suffered between the ages of eleven and twenty one from a hard to treat Black Wave. Tons of talk therapy – finally she can’t stop crying for days – and not for the first time – and her shrink prescribes an anti-psychotic – Mellaril [thioridazine] – and its anticholinergic effects promptly dry up her mucus membranes, allowing her “to get a grip on it.” She is able to stop crying.
I am reading this passage and scratching my head. This is an emergency measure, right? Wurtzel is a lot of things, but her reality testing of the everyday is good enough. I know nothing, really, and am not a prescriber. However, I have been know to echo Lou Marinoff’s saying, “Plato, not Prozac!” And yet: An actual antidepressant such as imipramine or disiprimine would have had the same anticholinergic effects, have dried up the tears physiologically, and it might actually also operate as an antidepressant, would it not?!
Perhaps it was because of the unremitting of suicidal ideation that Wurtzel endorsed and expressed that no medical doctor recommended a tricyclic antidepressant. A person can actually hurt themselves with the tricyclic antidepressants, as with any powerful drug, which can cause a fatal heart arrhythmia if consumed contrary to proper guidance and in volume. But if this is supposed to be an emergency measure, a small number of pills in small dosages, closely supervised, would also have been possible would it not? Was Wurtzel getting adequate medical treatment even by advanced 1994 care standards? We may never know.
I am not one noted to value psychiatric labels, seeing them as getting in the way of being fully present with the other person as a possibility. Yet Wurtzel has a breakthrough towards the end of her narrative when she gets one – a label – along with the newly available fluoxetine (Prozac). Her psychiatrist gives her a diagnosis of atypical depression. I would add, demonstrably treatment resistant. “Atypical” because years of talk therapy and first line antipsychotics have barely made a dent in her unremitting self-abuse, inclination to self-medicate with weed, alcohol, and acting out with a series of boy friends, a couple of whom are the target of an intense romantic idealization combined with a neediness calculated eventually to drive them all away. However, at this point, the Prozac seems to work – except that about two weeks after starting to take it, she is feeling a tad better, and her only serious suicide attempt reported in the book occurs. Hold that thought.
One thing lifted Wurtzel’s work head and shoulders above your average narrative of suffering and redemption for me. Wurtzel is working through her invalidating environment and she gets it: “…[M]y addiction to depression …involved the same mental mechanism as someone else’s alcoholism” (p. 23).
Suffering is sticky. The risk of suffering is that it becomes an uncomfortable comfort zone. The body and the mind adapt to chronic pain and chronic stress. Even when the result is still pain, not numbness, the entire messy complex takes on a life of its own and becomes: suffering. If you water the tree of your sorrows, the tree grows. It grows until the suffering becomes the man-eating plant in the back of the Broadway play Little Shop of Horrors. That seems to have been going on here.
Empathy lessons occur in abundance in Prozac Nation, but they are mostly in a privative mode – that is, empathy is conspicuously missing.
Wurtzel is hungry for someone to respond to her as a whole person, writing: “I love you and I support you just the way you are because you’re wonderful just the way you are. They don’t understand that I don’t remember anyone ever saying that to me” (p. 231).
Wurtzel’s mother “loves” her as long as (if) she is brilliant, gets into Harvard, and they can continue intermittently to tear at one another’s guts on special occasions. He dad “loves” her as long as she does not make herself too needy, will pose for his photos, and otherwise leave him alone. Her friends “love” her as long she as is funny and amazing and the life of the party. Her boy friends “love” her as long as she continues to put out, which she does all too casually, leaving her feeling cheap. The impingements come fast and thick; here “love” means acknowledging someone as a whole human being, i.e., empathy; but no one gets her as a possibility.
My take on it? If, at any point, someone would have given her a good sustained listening, something important would have shifted. Nor is it quite so simple. Her suffering would not have been magically disappeared; but it would have been decisively reduced. Once again, we will never know for sure.
Page after page of this page-turner, Wurtzel is explicitly crying out for “love,” and people are trying to love this individual, who seemingly inevitably gets caustically cutting towards others or becomes a needy emotional sponge, an unlovable rag of self-pity, albeit with a sense of humor, driving them away. Thus, Wurtzel’s ultimate test of love: love me even when I am deep down unlovable. It doesn’t work that well.
One can have empathy with the loveable but loving the unlovable is a high bar, by definition impossible. This person needs the firm boundaries of a rigorous and critical empathy. But instead Wurtzel’s friends and counselors efforts are lost in translation and become emotional contagion, projection, and inconsistent efforts to force compliance and conformity.
Finally, Wurtzel does get some empathy from the shrink disguised in the narrative as “Dr Sterling.” She was. Wurtzel writes: “Dr Sterling knew that somewhere in my personality there was a giggly girl who just wanted to have fun, and she thought it was important that I be allowed to express that aspect of myself (pp. 211–212). Predictably the breakdowns and out-of-attunements are frequent. The cutting remits but the acting out – street drugs, sexual misadventures (including the “accidental blow job”), and repetitive, endless phone calls – ramp up.
So what happens? Along comes Prozac [fluoxetine] and Dr Sterling gives it to her. Wurtzel is feeling better as a result of the medicine. But “better” is relative. Wurtzel gets into it with her psychiatrist, and she locks herself in the bathroom and takes the whole bottle of Mellaril [thioridazine], knowing that her shrink is waiting outside the door for her. As Wurtzel feels herself going under from the effects of the drug and she hears her shrink shouting outside the door, she unlocks it.
Now never say that someone who threatens suicide or actually swallows the pills is not suicidal. Never. People have been known to be all-too-unlucky in such situations and succeed where they are using a bad method to try and solve the problem of their suffering. I suggest this was one of those, and arguably as a result of the un-inhibiting effects of the Prozac.
Those are such facts as reported in the narrative. Throughout the book, Wurtzel is plagued by suicidal thoughts, she cuts herself and engages in taking street drugs and crazy sex, but not until she gets the Prozac does she actually take action and make a serious attempt at suicide. Hmmm.
I am not making this up. It is in the book. Has anyone read it since 1994? This is the book entitled “Prozac Nation” and is regarded as some kind of strange endorsement for Prozac. Wurtzel subsequently and consistently denied it was an endorsement of fluoxetine [Prozac], emphasizing her commitment to being self-expressed. That she succeeds in doing in spades. Definitely. What some authors won’t do to move some copy!
I read Wurtzel’s memoir for the first time ever upon learning of her passing on January 7, 2020. We can measure the distance between the publication in 1994 and today in that of all the reviews between then and now no one – not one – mentioned that the fear of abandonment, the invalidating early environment and ongoing invalidating entanglement with the warring parents, the volatile emotions (especially atypical depression), volatile relationships, volatile self-identity, and para suicidal behavior are the check list for borderline personality disorder. I hasten to add checklists are overrated, and I acknowledge I might have missed something.
However, it does put me in mind of a quotation from Marsha Linehan, innovator in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and who, in the video cited below, is talking on camera with permission with an avowedly suicidal patient. Linehan says: “I think it is good that you see it as a problem that you feel suicidal and want to fix that; but suicide is not so much a problem as a solution.” Pause for jaw dropping effect. “People’s lives are so messed up that they want to check out as away of solving the problem. What our program does is help you find a better solution – so it is not really a suicide prevention program so much as a life worth living program.”
Elizabeth Wurtzel succeeded in having one of those lives worth living, even without a formal program and in spite of all the challenges put in her path by accidents of biology, early experience, and her own demons. She had gifts aplenty and she managed to use them to attain a good measure of power, freedom, and full self-expression. Above all, self-expression. We are enriched by Wurtzel’s comet-like trajectory through our post-modern modernity and diminished by her passing. It is truly an ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls moment.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, (1994) Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, New York: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (paperback edition), pp. 339, $16.99.
‘I believe in love’: Elizabeth’s Wurtzel’s final year, in her own words by Elizabeth Wurtzel, https://gen.medium.com/i-believe-in-love-elizabeth-wurtzel-s-final-year-in-her-own-words-e34320e41ee0
Bastard Neither of my parents was exactly who I thought they were by Elizabeth Wurtzel, https://www.thecut.com/2018/12/elizabeth-wurtzel-on-discovering-the-truth-about-her-parents.html
Elizabeth Wurtzel by Liz Phair, June 16, 2017, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/elizabeth-wurtzel
Lou Agosta, (2018), Empathy Lessons, Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1
Marsha Linehan talks with a patient about borderline personality disorder and dialectical behavioral therapy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgzw50SbokM
© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Esmé Weijung Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays (Gray Wolf Press, 2019: 210 pp.) are an articulate and clarion cry to bring empathy to an arena in mental health where it has been missing.
My take on it? Ms Wang seems not to have been one of those survivors whose mental disorder is inextricably entangled with her genius. She was already talented and successful, studying at Yale, before her first breakdown.
The disorder was a major curve ball, delivered at high velocity, and hitting her in
the head – and heart. She gets up, dusts herself off, and, with writing that knocks it out of the park, recovers her own humanity with compelling accounts of her experiences, both humorous and heart-rending, thereby enriching ours and expanding our empathy.
At risk of mixing the metaphor, life handed her lemons. By my estimate, about a bushel. She did not merely make lemonade. She has concocted a kind of electric cool-aide. This is a beverage which perhaps will leave one feeling a tad trippy and vertiginous, but one which expands one’s empathy, not only for survivors of mental illness, but for our humanity at large. The rumor of empathy in Wang’s work is no rumor – empathy lives in Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias.
The celebrated psychiatrist-philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) wrote in his seminal two volume psychiatric text General Psychopathology (1913/1959) that lack of empathy was diagnostically significant for a diagnosis of schizophrenia. If one is having trouble empathizing with the other person, the diagnosis of schizophrenia is by no means certain, but belongs on the short list.
The doctor and therapist struggle to have empathy for the often-bizarre constellation of symptoms characteristic of schizophrenia – hallucinations, delusions, incoherent “word salad” speech. The care-takers, from their own perspective, experience a lack of out-bound empathy from the patient, whose suffering is thereby aggravated in being further cut off from human connectivity and isolated.
One thing Ms Wang’s memoir of her disorder makes crystal clear is that her empathy is functioning full throttle. Even if her empathy is sometimes inaccurate (as is everyone’s) or misfires (as does everyone’s), Wang’s empathy lives as a commitment to appreciating the other’s point of view and relating to the other with affinity and appropriate affection. Wang fully experiences the dignity violations, lack of respect, and objectifications on the part of the medical system and professionals trying to help her, leaving her alternatingly in despair and enraged.
Paradoxically a dimension of her reality testing continues to function even as she is fearfully hiding in the closet due to psychotic symptoms that demonstrate to her the break down of her reality testing.
While it is true that most sufferers and survivors of the collected schizophrenias do not present as “high functioning” as Ms Wang, growing evidence is available that, even in the acute phase of the disorder, most psychotic persons appreciate that the hallucinated voices and ideas of reference are somehow subtly and significantly distinct from everyday reality. This awareness, however tentative it may be, can be leveraged and made the target of therapeutic conversation. This has clinical significance for cognitive behavioral and emotional interventions in the acute and the survivor phase. This is the empathic moment of which even so celebrated a shrink as Jaspers missed.
“High Functioning” is itself the title of an chapter in which Ms Wang is in recovery. She is giving presentations on mental health to interested citizens and professionals as part of some gig and good work she has landed after her professional career was ruined by the disorder. The reader gets background on Wang’s earlier career as a fashion journalist. We get a reading list of other “high functioning” individuals who have struggled with mental illness and go on to get PhDs, McArthur “Genius” Grants, and endowed chairs in psychiatry at major universities such as Kay Redfield Jameson, Elyn Saks, and other notable authors of “pathographies.” Pathographies are an emerging but not really new category of biographies and memoirs of survivors of mental illness.
This paradox of reality testing within the breakdown of reality testing has also been pointed out by thinkers whose critical inquiries into mental illness need to be better known. I am thinking especially of the work of Louis A. Sass (1) and Matthew Ratcliffe (2), whose books are cited at the bottom of this review. (See also my related blog reviews of Ratcliffe: https://wp.me/pXkOk-8g and Sass: https://wp.me/pGb20-pp.)
There is something for everyone in Ms Wang’s collection.
She acknowledges that she takes her anti-psychotic medications on schedule, and, moreover, the medications that work for her right now are so-called first generation, haloperidol and quetiapine (Seroquel). She argues that the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) takes positions dear to the heart of the families of the mentally ill (take your meds, allow for involuntary incarceration in an emergency (5150: code for involuntary commitment), be a good “mental patient” conforming to the hierarchy in which psychiatrists are I authority).
At the same time, Wang is an evangelist and a strong advocate for RAISE (Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode) and the need for autonomy for the mentally ill: “Rarely did I experience such a radical and visceral imbalance of power as I did as a psychiatric inpatient amid clinicians who knew me only as illness in human form (p. 57).
The anti-psychiatry movement will find comfort and is well-represented in Wang’s work. Not only do the mentally ill have to survive the illness, they also have to survive the system that is supposed to help them: “Though nearly all the statements a psychiatric patient can make are not believed, proclamations of insanity are the exception to the rule” (p. 101). Crazy making rules and treatments. If that is not a double bind, I would not know one.
Wang takes a position: “I maintain, years later, that not one of my three involuntary hospitalizations helped me. I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas” (p. 110). A bold statement of the obvious: That is tragic – and an outrage.
The honest broker, Wang then reports on individuals who committed violent crimes and/or killed themselves while in the grips of psychotic episodes. No easy answers here.
The social justice dimension is not pervasive in Wang’s memoir – perhaps because Wang’s family and husband were able to be supportive enough to arrest her slide into the abyss of insanity just short of the edge – but explicitly surfaces periodically and powerfully: “nearly 1.3 million people with mental illness are incarcerated in state and federals jails and prisons” (Department of Justice) (p. 110). Wang does not say what percentage is getting the treatment they need in accordance with professional diagnostic guidelines. I am going to be optimistic: 25%?
Since this is not a softball review, a point occurred at which I was about to put down the book with the admittedly devaluing, objectifying judgment: This individual is a walking laboratory of psychiatric (and medical) curiosities.
Wang endorses the Cotard delusion, in which the person claims that I part of his
body does not belong to him or that he as a total person is dead and should be disposed of properly. My empathic understanding of this disorder – and this is not the truth with a capital T but consider the possibility – is that the person’s emotional life has been short-circuited. The person is emotionally “dead,” for without emotions and affects we lack vitality and aliveness. Wang’s credibility (with this review) is restored as she reports she was so desperate she was considering ECT (electro shock therapy), but did not go through with it. The disorder spontaneously remits.
In an ongoing and increasingly desperate search to regain her power over the seemingly endless series of (un)related disorders, Wang suspects she may have an autoimmune disorder. Whether late stage Lyme disease is one of those, I do not know.
By this time, Wang is a relatively well-informed professional patient with limited but apparently sufficient resources, and she manages to go on a kinda of new age medical retreat to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the treatments with a “lyme literate” medical doctor (LLMD).
Always the honest broker, Wang reports the writings of Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, in which Wang compares Lyme is to the problematic, hard-to-pin-down, possibly delusional disorder, called having “Morgellons.” Jameson gives an account of the person who has Morgellons, in which the individual experiences worms or worm-like sensations, crawling beneath his flesh, which, apparently, sometimes pops out. Yikes.
At this point, I abandon any skepticism I might have about Wang’s suffering as a medical patient as my own limitations or arrogance. I decide to acknowledge once again there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies (note: “philosophy” meant “natural science” in Shakespeare’s time).
(1) Louis A. Sass, (1994), The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
(2) Matthew Ratcliffe, (2017), Real Hallucinations: Psychiatric Illness, Intentionality, and the Interpersonal World, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 290 pp.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
10. Empathy is the new love. You know how in fashion gray is the new black? Same idea. Empathy is the new love. What people really want is to be “gotten” for who they authentically are as a possibility. In hoping to be understood for who they really are as a possibility, people are not asking for love; they are asking for empathy. If empathy is the new love, what then was the old love?
According to philosophers and poets, the old love is akin to a kind of madness—sometimes divine madness, sometimes just plain earthly madness. The one who is in love is semi-hypnotically held in bondage by an idealization of the beloved. In one way, love shows up as animal magnetism, a powerful attraction; in another way, in a quasi-hypnotic trance, love idealizes the beloved, and, blindly and madly overlooks the would-be partner’s failings and limitations.
Folk wisdom, as noted, suggests that love is blind; Bob Dylan, that love is just a four letter word; Plato, that love is a kind of madness. So far, love sounds like tertiary syphilis.
The goal of love is to erase the boundary between the self and other. Merger of one’s mind and body with the beloved’s mind and body is the sought after result. In contrast to love, empathy navigates or transgresses the boundary between oneself and other such that the merger is temporary and the integrity of the self and other are maintained. One has a vicarious experience of the other—but the difference and integrity of the self and other are preserved.
So from the relational perspective of too much or too little merger and engagement with the other person—love shows up as a breakdown in empathy. It is now love versus empathy. In contrast with empathy, love is a boundary transgression, but one that is permissioned, invited, welcomed. Thus in empathy one creates a space of acceptance and toleration in which love lives.
- Empathy and politics: this is an election year in the USA. Politics in this age of polarization is characterized by bullying. How does empathy speak truth to power?
How to deal with bullying without becoming a bully? Set firm limits – set firm boundaries – thus far and no further. Being empathic does NOT mean giving up the right to self defense.
Still, without naming any names, the problem with mud wrestling with a pig is that everyone gets dirty – and the pig likes it! No easy answers here. One modest proposal:
Empathy is the emotional equivalent of jujitsu – use the aggressor’s energy to send him flying the other way. Being empathic does not mean being nice, agreeable, or even being disagreeable. It means knowing what the other person is experiencing because one experiences it too as a sample or trace affect.
As discussed further below in the trending one-minute empathy training, drive out cynicism, aggression, polarization, bullying, and the result is that empathy spontaneously comes forth, expands, and develops.
Power and force are inversely proportional. As the bully’s power goes down, the risk of the use of force [violence] increases. Empathy is powerful, and if necessary it meets force with force. But then it is no longer an empathy; it is empathy in the form of a breakdown of empathy. Empathy consists in restoring the boundaries and integrity to the situation.
- Empathy, capitalist tool: Empathy is the ultimate capitalist tool: No business or enterprise can operate for long, much less flourish, without empathy to facilitate teamwork, coordination between customers and sales persons, employees and employers, leaders and staff, and stake-holders at all levels. Even the cynical sales person understands the value of taking a walk in the customer’s shoes, if only to sell him another pair.
Unfortunately, business leaders lose contact with the human dimension of business in solving legal problems, meeting information technology breakdowns, reacting to the competition, or dealing with the latest accounting crisis.
Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it.
Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, leaders need expanded empathy. I hasten to add that, ultimately, both empathy and data are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. If the product or service is wrappered in empathy, has an empathic component as part of the service level agreement, gets traction in the market, and beats the competition’s less empathic competing offering, then we have the ultimate validation of empathy. “CEO” now means “chief empathy officer.” We do not just have empathy. We have empathy, capitalist tool.
7. Your brain on empathy: “It’s all in your head” is a necessary truth, but not in the sense that you are imagining your experience of joy, fear, anger, pain, or suffering. It’s in your head because it—your experience—is in your brain, that is, your nervous system. We are neurons “all the way down.”
A word of caution. This scientific discovery of mirror neurons and mirroring phenomena should be distinguished from the neurohype occasioned by the application of the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) to issues that extend from the pseudo-disciplines of neuro-law to neuro-aesthetics to neuro-marketing and even neuro-history.
Show a jury in court a picture of a person’s brain and it gives the argument credibility (whether for or against conviction). But it is just a picture. Monitoring the neurological activation of individual brains in response to such conditions as videos of painfully impacted limbs, legal arguments, classic paintings, advertisements, and so on, has reached the point where an alternative point of view is being offered on statistically questionable, “voodoo correlations” in fMRI research.
The debate is whether or not mirror neurons exist in human beings. Even if they do not, mirror neurons in monkeys have completed the work that needs to be completed. Some kind of mirroring system exists. It is highly probable that there is an analogous system, even if more complex and diffuse, in humans that functions in mirroring emotions and behavior and that underlies our relationships in empathic community.
However, what the debate has suggested, entirely independently of the status of mirror neurons, is that human beings are connected biologically in a way, not completely understood, such that we resonate with one another affectively. The debate over whether human beings have mirror neurons in the narrower sense continues. The neuro-hype is dialed down in the year ahead.
- Empathy is good for you health and well-being. Empathy is on a short list of stress reductionpractices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathyin the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul.
The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Expanding empathy reduces stress; and reducing stress expands empathy. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being. Here empathy is both the end and the means.
A substantial body of evidence-based science indicates that empathy is good for a person’s health. This is not “breaking news” and was not just published yesterday.
We don’t need more data, we need to start applying it: we need expanded empathy. Note: the list of evidence-based articles and peer-reviewed publications is long, not repeated in this short blog post, and can be found in Chapter Four of my Empathy Lessons .
- Online empathy in cyberspace: While nothing can substitute for an in-person conversation, after two people get to know one another, an online conversation is a good option in case of relocation, bad weather, or unpredictable scheduling dynamics. You know that resistant client who just can’t seem to get to his session due to traffic, rain, or other tenuous excuse? The possibility of an online session, which requires a computer and the privacy of a closed door, shows up the resistance for what it is.
Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications. This is less the case with certain forms of narrowly focused behavioral therapies, which are nevertheless still more ambiguous than is commonly recognized.
Think about it: Those who complain about the lack of reality in a conversation over Zoom may usefully consider the amount of fiction and fantasy in any psychodynamic conversation, full stop. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.
(Note: This trend is in part an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To order the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc])
- Empathy and law enforcement: My friends, associates, and colleagues on the police assure me that posters branded with the logo of the local police and a pitch for expanded empathy are showing up in police station locker rooms, break rooms, and behind the scenes facilities. At this point in time, these are for the police, not the public.
Street smart police “get it” that empathy is distinct from compassion or “being nice.” Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experience of the other person. The police officer’s emotional radar has to be out about what the would-be suspect or citizen or fellow officer is experiencing if the officer is to avoid making a potentially bad situation worse.
If the would-be suspect is enraged and about to escalate such a scenario requires a distinct response than if the suspect is afraid and literally shaking in his shoes. Empathy provides valuable and indispensable emotional intelligence about the mental status of the other person. The police are already guided by their common sense, intuition, and gut feeling in approaching other people. Why not provide explicit training in what to do with one’s empathic receptivity, for that is what this “gut feeling” and intuition amount to? Police departments are realizing that practice in empathy lessons can refine and fine tune the intuition and gut feeling so these actually become powerful tools literally in keeping the peace or when necessary minimizing the appropriate use of force.
All this is important and communities will benefit from expanded empathy on the part of the law enforcement. However, there is another reason that indicates this trend has traction. The public does not always hear about the multi-million dollar financial settlements that municipalities are required to pay for wrongful death or excessive use of force, because these agreements come with rigorous confidentiality clauses. Police who lack training turn out to be extraordinarily expensive to the tax payers. In this context, “lack of training” does not mean insufficient time taking target practice. It means the need for practice in putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and considering possibilities for conflict resolution, de-escalation, and community building. In short, empathy is an important part of the gear deployed by law enforcement as the warrior cop, which will still be needed in extreme situations, gives way to community policing. Really, is there any other kind?
- Natural empaths get expanded empathy. This continues the trend from last year. Paradoxically, natural empaths suffer from a lack of empathy. Natural empaths are so sensitive to the pain and suffering of the world that they must isolate themselves, cutting themselves off from the emotional life sustaining recognition and support that people require to flourish and be fully human.
The Natural Empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is swamped by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or overcome by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics.
But the suffering is not inevitable. Such statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy.
The empathy lesson for the Natural Empath is to “tune down” her empathic receptivity and “tune up” her empathic understanding and interpretation, while being more flexible about her ethical standards. Here “flexible” does not mean be unethical, but rather allow for the possibility that one needs to work on the balance between one’s own well-being and that of others in helping others.
Now please do not jump to conclusions. That does not mean the Natural Empath should become hard-hearted or unkind. That would definitely not expand empathy. In order to overcome the breakdown of empathic receptivity, what does one actually do in order to expand or contract one’s empathic receptivity?
The empathy lesson for such individuals? Practice methods of “down regulating” one’s empathy. For example, focus on mentalizing, top down empathy, placing oneself in the other person’s shoes, rather than imaginatively evoking the vicarious emotions of the other person’s experiences. Perspective-taking exercises—imaginatively putting oneself in the other’s point of view—expand the participant’s empathy during training sessions. Perspective taking incidentally promotes helping, “pro social” behaviors when it indirectly activates pro-social emotions such as compassion.
Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive, Natural Empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathic receptivity in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Do the work of “up regulating” empathic interpretation whereby one imaginatively puts oneself in the other person’s position and considers the experiences thereby inspired vicariously, reducing the “load” on the emotions. This is different than intellectualizing, compartmentalizing, or distinguishing in thought, but perhaps not different by much. The differences are nuanced, but of the essence.
The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—Natural Empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case.
- Empathy and psychiatry: The mind engage fixing their own professional house: The psychiatrists with whom I talk advocate a deep and authentic appreciation of the practice of empathy—in order to get the patient to take the medicine. I express agreement—if you are thinking of stepping in front of a bus, don’t! Take the medicine and live to fight another day.
However, this points to the blind spot in psychiatry: A conversation for possibility with another empathic human being also changes one’s neurons and does so in a different but as deep and powerful a way as a psychopharmacological intervention. The mechanism is complex is not fully understood, but neither is the mechanism for lithium salts or antipsychotic medications.
Psychiatrists and many general practitioner MDs are perpetuating a fiction that the drugs they are prescribing are correcting biochemical deficiencies caused by disease, much as (say) a prescription of insulin corrects a biochemical deficiency caused by diabetes (for example see Anne Harrington’s The Mind Fixers, p. 273, which I have found essential in identifying this trend and whose language I paraphrase here). Such rhetoric is badly oversold. No one is saying that the medicines do not help the person tolerate distress, regulate emotions, or self-sooth. Often they do. However, the rhetoric is indefensible and the science is at best a work in progress.
Given the complexity of the scientific challenges, psychiatry need not feel embarrassed. However, neither should it be enthusiastically promoting imminent breakthroughs and revolutions as if it were an adjunct to the popular press or a corporate press release.
The underlying science is not anywhere near the level the neurohype would have us believe. “You have a chemical imbalance” is a marketing position, not a scientifically established truth. “Schizophrenia is like diabetes and you have to take this antipsychotic drug for the rest of your life” is a rhetorical position, not a scientific fact. This is scientism, not science. This is psychiatry’s troubled search for the biological basis of mental illness. The trend being highlighted here is that, as a profession, psychiatry will focus on medical interventions in the context of culture and community.
- The one-minute empathy training is trending: Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic.
Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously comes froth.
Now do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does notexpand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.
The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!
Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple.
Okay – I have read enough and I want to order the book Empathy Lessons to learn more about expanding my empathy: I want to order the book HERE.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
How is Christmas like a day at the job? Give up? You get to do all the work; and the big guy in the suit gets all the credit. Pause for laugh. [Note: if I have to explain the joke, it is not funny.] ‘Tis the season – to be materialistic and buy and spend. I am exhausted just thinking about it. Therefore, the recommendation?
Give empathy for the holidays. You never need an excuse to be empathic; but during the holidays it just might make sense to slow down and expand one’s listening even more diligently. My approach to this top ten list count down? I am taking off the list material things; but allowing spending [some] money on activities that are empathic or are direct enablers of empathy.
The idea? Give an experience – one worth receiving – whatever that would look like. This is a count-down. For example:
(10) Do not give a food processor; rather make the other person a gourmet meal. Do not give a vacuum cleaner [that would be a disaster]; take over doing a set of chores that need doing for week (or other defined time frame). It makes sense to document this by means of a certificate or diploma, as they say, suitable for framing.
(9) I saw a Restaurant with a sign: “No Wi-Fi – Talk to One another”. That is the right idea. If you like the menu, make the reservation and go there. They do not have a sign? Make your own sign and bring it along, even if the restaurant does have wi-fi.
(8) Sign up the receiver as a member at the local Art Institute and go as a guest with the recipient of the gift. Art is a significant enabler of empathy. But do not take my word for it – according to the celebrated enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, one of the main moments of the experience of beauty is the communicability of feeling – stage one of empathy.
(7) Sessions in yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, or other spiritual exercises – where you get to do something
(6) Same idea as above, but with a conventional focus – two tickets to the theatre, opera, or dance with time scheduled for conversation both before and after to discuss the experience
(5) A massage or time in a sensory deprivation tank where one is able to relax or expand one’s introspection (a significant enabler of empathy). Caution: This is “product placement” – actually a service – see ChicagoFlotation.com. It’s a trip.
(4) Every MacBook Pro has the technology to make a movie. Make a movie in which you acknowledge and recognize the other person – your partner, boss, employee, colleague, peer, friend, enemy, cousin, grandmother, etc. If you have talent as an aspiring stand up comedian, now is the time. Comedy is closely related to empathy – in both cases a boundary is traversed. In one case, comedy with aggressive or sexual overtones; in the other case, empathy, the focus is on recognition of one’s shared humanity. Remember, you have to create a context in which empathy is made present.
(4a) Same idea as above only … Write a poem or short story in which you are self-expressed about the relationship, what is means to you, how it works, and what it means as a possibility.
(3) If the relationship is an intimate one, then it makes sense to provide an intimate experience. Depending on trends and tastes (and I acknowledge that I need to get out more), this may be easier for her than him. Still, he may usefully concentrate on things she values, already mentioned throughout this post, for example, fixing dinner, time for conversation, demonstrated affection and affinity, and if such has been in short supply for any reason, family time including the children.
(2) There are a set of attitudes and behaviors for which empathy is an enabler, though they are distinct from empathy (this is the opposite of things that enable empathy such as art and relaxation). The consequences of our actions escape us and while stupidity is not a crime, sometimes maybe it ought to be. Therefore, forgiveness was invented. Empathy create a learning for many things – including prosocial behavior. Make a donation in your friend’s name to Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, or donate blood to the American Red Cross.
Other things in the same ballpark as forgiveness include compassion and make-a-wish. In surveys on prosocial behaviors, compassion is the phenomena most often mistaken for empathy. Heavens knows, the world needs expanded compassion – and expanded empathy. If you can make someone’s wish come true – and that looks like a puppy – then it is an option, too. Include a pet care service, obedience lessons (for the owner!), or complimentary dog walking.
And the number one gift of empathy for the holidays is
(1) Turn off your smart phone [no texting!], and talk – have a conversation – with the other person.
And a happy holiday to one and all!
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
People treat empathy as if it were an “on-off” switch.
Turn it “on” for friends and family; turn it “off” for the “bad guys”. Turn empathy “on” for coworkers, customers, and insiders; turn empathy “off” for competitors, for compliance, and for efficiency and speed. Turn empathy on for the hometown baseball team, the Cubs or Sox, if you are from Chicago like I am or turn it off for
the competition, especially New York teams such as the Mets or Yankees! If you have encountered die-hard fans, then you know that I am only partially joking. However, in business today—as in sports and as in dating with prospective romantic partners—you are competing in the morning and cooperating in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the switch tends to get stuck in the off position.
The guidance? Empathy is a tuner or dial, not an “on-off” switch. Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable and exposed to burnout and “compassion fatigue.” As noted, the risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one’s would-be practice of empathy is off the rails, in breakdown.
Instead of practicing empathy, maybe you are being too compassionate. If you are flooded, maybe—just maybe—you are doing it wrong. In empathy, the listener gets a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or experience, including their suffering. The listener suffers vicariously, but without being flooded and overwhelmed by the other’s experience.
This is not to say that some accounts of trauma would not overwhelm and flood anyone. They would. They do. However, we are here engaging with the example of a committed listener who spends his or her day listening to a series of depressed, anxious, or otherwise upset people.
Empathy is like a dial, lever, or tuner—turn it up or turn it down. If one is overwhelmed by suffering as one listens to the other person’s struggles, one is doing it—practicing empathy—incorrectly, clumsily, and one needs expanded skill training in empathy.
The whole point of a vicarious experience—as distinct from merger or over-identification—is to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being inundated by it. Key term: sample the other’s experience. One needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity to reduce the emotional or experiential “load.”
Another way of saying the same thing? Empathy is a filter—decrease the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or increase the granularity (i.e., close the pores) and get less.
The empathic professional can expect to have a vicarious experience of the other person’s experience. If the other person is suffering, then he will have a vicarious experience of suffering. He will have a sample of the other person’s suffering. He will have a trace affect of the sadness or grief or anger or fear (and so on) of whatever is a burden to the other person. It will be a toe or an ankle in the water instead of being up to the neck in it. The experience will just be a taste of brine rather than drowning.
The power in distinguishing between empathic receptivity and empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness, is precisely so you can divide and conquer the practice and performance of empathy.
If your “empathic distress” indicates too much openness, do not be “closed off,” but tactically reduce the openness. Increasing the granularity of your empathic receptivity reduces the empathic receptivity and reduces your empathy as a whole. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, then you need to tune down your compassion and expand your empathy. If you are experiencing burnout, then it is likely that emotional contagion is leading to empathic distress. In this case, you need to tune down one’s empathy.
Interested in more best practices in empathy? Order your copy of Empathy Lessons, the book. Click here.
(c) Lou Agosta PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project