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Noted in Passing: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Author, Prozac Nation

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

Elizabeth Wurtzel (her young self): Cover Art: Prozac Nation

Elizabeth Wurtzel (her young self): Cover Art: Prozac Nation

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.

REFERENCES

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

Review: The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

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

Cover Art: The Collected Schizophrenias

Cover Art: The Collected Schizophrenias

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

Esmé Weijun Wang, author: The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays

Esmé Weijun Wang, author: The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays

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

Top 10 Trends in Empathy for 2020

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.

Moutain path with sign in Rocky Mountain National Park

Mountainous empathy paths ahead for 2020 with sign in Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 .

  1. 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])

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

Top Ten Empathy Gifts for the Holidays

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

Empathy is a dial, not an on-off switch

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

Empathy is a dial, not an on-off switch

Empathy is a dial, not an on-off switch

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

 

Compassion fatigue: A radical proposal for overcoming it

One of the criticisms of empathy is that is leaves you vulnerable to compassion fatigue. The helping professions are notoriously exposed to burn out and empathic distress. Well-intentioned helpers end up as emotional basket cases. There is truth to it, but there is also an effective antidote: expanded empathy.

For example, evidence-based research shows that empathy peaks in the third year of medical school and, thereafter, goes into steady decline (Hojat, Vergate et al. 2009; Del Canale, Maio, Hojat et al. 2012). While correlation is not causation, the suspicion is that dedicated, committed, hard-working people, who are called to a

Compassion Fatigue: Less compassion, expanded empathy?

Compassion Fatigue: Less compassion, expanded empathy?

life of contribution, experience empathic distress. Absent specific interventions such as empathy training to promote emotional regulation, self-soothing, and distress tolerance, the well-intentioned professional ends up as an emotionally burned out, cynical hulk. Not pretty.

Therefore, we offer a radical proposal. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, stop being so compassionate! I hasten to add that does not mean become hard-hearted, mean, apathetic, indifferent. That does not mean become aggressive or a bully. That means take a step back, dial it down, give it a break.

The good news is that empathy serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy results in “compassion fatigue.” However, empathy lessons repeatedly distinguish empathy from compassion.

Could it be that when one tries to be empathic and experiences compassion fatigue, then one is actually being compassionate instead of empathic? Consider the possibility. The language is a clue. Strictly speaking, one’s empathy is in breakdown. Instead of being empathic, you are being compassionate, and, in this case, the result is compassion fatigue without the quotation marks. It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue,” which is a nuance rarely noted by the advocates of “rational compassion.”

Once again, no one is saying, be hard hearted or mean. No one is saying, do not be compassionate. The world needs both more compassion and expanded empathy. Compassion has its time and place—as does empathy. We may usefully work to expand both; but we are saying do not confuse the two.

Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experiences of the other person; compassion tells one what to do about it, based on one’s ethics and values.

Most providers of empathy find that with a modest amount of training, they can adjust their empathic receptivity up or down to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. In the face of a series of sequential samples of suffering, the empathic person is able to maintain his emotional equilibrium thanks to a properly adjusted empathic receptivity. No one is saying that the other’s suffering or pain should be minimized in any way or invalidated. One is saying that, with practice, regulating empathy becomes a best practice.

Interested in more best practices in empathy? Order your copy of Empathy Lessons, the book. Click here.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Review: The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki

Short review: two thumbs up. Zaki and his work are the real deal. Zaki “gets it” as regards empathy. The most important take-away: empathy is trainable, teachable, malleable, acquirable, and an expandable competence and skill rather than an unchangeable personality trait that one either has or not.

The next most important take-away: the world needs expanded empathy and more kindness. As I read Zaki, empathy and kindness feed into one another in a fundamental way. Empathy provides a clearing within which compassion – which Zaki calls “kindness” – shows up.

 The battle for kindness, the title, is a real battle in which people have to decide whether aggression and greed get the upper hand or possibilities of human

Cover art: The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World

Cover art: The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World

flourishing are shared among members of the community. The “battle” – but here is scare quotes – is also about the optimum methods, given limited resources, for expanding empathy itself in the community through education, individual action, and community activism.

 The long review: Zaki throws down the gauntlet: “If you wanted to design a system to break empathy, you could scarcely do better than the society we’ve created” (p. 8).

Zaki’s Jeremiad creates a sense of urgency and a call to action by citing tribalism, intolerance, the unintended consequences of social networking such as bullying, fake news, pervasive human aggression, genocide, and the drowned, would-be Syrian migrant child, Alan Kurdi. Heart-breaking. I am already nearly vicariously traumatized.

By the end of Chapter One, the reader is starting to get a sense of the risk of compassion fatigue. Evidence-based research indicates that empathy peaks in the third year of medical school (Hojat et al 2011; Halpern 2001), and absent decisive intervention, the future holds, not expanded empathy but, compassion fatigue, burnout, and empathic distress. The remainder of the book provides the antidote in the context of the issues and ongoing debate about the relevance of empathy.

Zaki’s own evidence-based, peer-reviewed research as a professor of psychology – and his fundamental contribution – focuses on the notion of flexibility, malleability, and plasticity versus fixity of empathy. At the risk of over-simplification, when people believe that working at something makes a difference and when they actually work at it, then they get better at it. The something in question is empathy. In several ingenious experiments, those who have the mindset [key term: mindset] that practicing empathy expands empathy make progress with the empathic skill in question.

No one is saying that one can merely change one’s mind, the way one would rather order fish instead of steak at a restaurant. Not so simple. Work means work; and much of the subsequent debate about empathy – the “battle” in quotes – is about what actually does work: Contact with diverse individuals seems to expand empathy (unless it doesn’t); story telling (and what kind of stories!); reading fictional literature; skill exercises similar to cognitive behavioral therapy; mindfulness meditation; psychodynamic therapy [not one of Zaki’s examples]. Many conditions and qualifications apply. The list is long and not mutually exclusive.

One of the things that most impressed me about Zaki’s evidence-based research into empathy (on which his book is based) is the recognition of the ways in which empathy can misfire, breakdown, or otherwise go off the rails (e.g., Zaki and Ciskara, 2015, Addressing empathic failures, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 24, no. 6: 471–476). 

Thus runs the standard critique of empathy that it is too parochial and ends up applying only to the in-group. The solution? To overcome the limitations of empathy, expand one’s empathy. There is nothing inherently limited in empathy such that it cannot be extended to strangers. That it does not automatically occur to many people, including high school students, to do so does not mean they would not be able to do so or even befit from doing so.  Hearing the story of the Good Samaritan might incent some. Some communities acknowledge the issue by making a moral imperative to welcome strangers without exception and provide for their well-being when asked. This results in real drama when the stranger who shows up is also otherwise regarded as an enemy.

That empathy can breakdown and misfire is not a problem for empathy as such; that you make arithmetical errors does not invalidate number theory. More likely such a breakdown in empathy means the practitioner of empathy needs more training, experience, and skill applying the relevant distinctions.

That empathy does not automatically extend to the tribe in the valley on the other side of the hill does not mean there is anything wrong with empathy. It just means without training some people suck at being empathic [my term, not Zaki’s]. The solution is simply stated: expanded empathy. This apparent limitation just means the local tribe may usefully expand its empathy. That takes work – which is Zaki’s point.

If these seem like a bold statement of the obvious to you, dear reader, then that is good news, for Zaki’s research is getting traction. However, I can still cite many examples of average citizens, natural empaths, people on the autistic spectrum, or just ordinary citizens, who regard empathy as a fixed personality trait with which they are born or that is fixed in adolescence.

Such a perspective is a subset, though not a logically necessary one, of the view that human nature is static and fixed. For Marxists, people are essentially workers, producing a community; for Freudians people are essentially conflicted containers of sex and aggression striving to love and work; for Max Weber, people are driven by grand ideologies such as the world religions; for authentic Christians, people are sinners, yet God’s children, redeemed by the sacrifice of their Lord; for neo-Darwinians, people are survivalist, gene-producing mechanisms. This is list is long and not complete.

Zaki’s point – that empathy can be expanded, improved – is one that has been around for but not received the attention it has deserved. Empathy is not an “on off” switch, but rather a dial or tuner. Tune it up and tune it down based on circumstances. From that perspective empathy can even provide a filter that provides protection against being overwhelmed by the suffering of others while still remaining engaged with their humanity.

Thus, one has to be careful to believe the hype in the marketing material as regards “a bold new understanding of empathy.” As early as 1971, a man named Heinz Kohut, MD, published extensively that the results of a treatment using self-psychological methods he pioneered produced improved humor, wisdom – and expanded empathy. Thus, a footnote from the history of empathy.

Using what was the prevailing paradigm at the time, psychoanalytic talk therapy, Kohut treated his patients empathically. He gave them a good listening. Just as important as a good listening, when the listening broke down and was restored in a committed empathic relatedness, then the gains in empathy were consolidated and driven into the personality as reliable, repeatable competencies.

Along with Carl Rogers, PhD, of “unconditional positive regard” client-centered fame, and who Kohut apparently never read, separately and together, Kohut and Rogers put empathy on the map. The person’s empathy is expanded by restoring and working through the breakdowns in empathy that seemingly inevitably occurred as two human beings tried to relate to one another. The devil is in the details, but you have got to get empathy, struggle with it, and practice it, in order subsequently to be able to be empathic and use it to relate to other people.

Since this is not a softball review, the controversial issue is engaged:  is empathy inherently prosocial or, in the wrong hands, can empathy be used antisocially, harmfully, even diabolically, and under what conditions and qualifications. In short, does empathy have a dark-side and what is it?

Empathy clears away judgments, evaluations, biases, and prejudices and allows one person to respond to another as a whole human being. I assert that is what happened to Tony – one of Zaki’s examples – when, already a broken and isolated individual, Tony discovered the camaraderie of the white supremacists community. They “got him” as a whole person – at least initially – before further filling his head with dehumanizing memes about nonwhites and other marginalized groups. Hmmm.

You see the issue? Humanity is supposed to show up in the clearing created by empathic relatedness. But what if it doesn’t. Human beings are empathic and kind. They are also aggressive and greedy. Human beings are tolerant and accepting. They are also intolerant and biased. Human beings are a clearing for possibilities – some good, others, less so.

The wisdom of Zaki’s guidance: hey, guys, you are gonna have to work at it – i.e., expanding empathy. More problematic is what will happened if you don’t. If you do not do so, then the empathy will contract and the bad guys will misuse what little empathy they do in fact have and probably kill (or enslave) all the good guys before unwittingly blowing themselves up with nuclear bombs, biological weapons, or climate catastrophe(s).

The cure through empathy is exemplified by Zaki’s example of Tony, the racist, fascist, white supremacist, skinhead-type, who (it turns out) created a surface of hatred to cover his shame and loneliness (p. 60). Zaki gives survivors of abuse a bad name, though it is indisputable that Tony was one of those too. Not fitting in for sooo many reasons, Tony finds acceptance and toleration in a community built on hate, the white Aryan resistance.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Tony is now a parent – a life-transforming event in itself. Things are not going well and Tony is about to lose custody of his children, for whom he seems to have the standard parental love, even amidst all the emotional disregulation. Tony gets some empathy from Dov Baron, a trainer that Tony did not realize was Jewish, and Tony gets better. Wouldn’t it be nice? Get some empathy, one gets better. What this misses is that the transformation effects are a function of restoring empathy that has broken down in the relationship. And that is a lot of work (as indeed Zaki has assured us). It is probable that something like that breakdown-restore process is what happened between Dov and Tony.

Empathy reliably de-escalates anger and rage. I hasten to add that I am in favor of creating a space of acceptance and toleration by setting firm empathic boundaries; but the challenge is that, unless one is careful, the bad guys are just going to pump hatred and negativity into the space.

The bottom line for Zaki? Given a cleared space of acceptance and toleration, Zaki aligns with Batson’s and de Waal’s and (perhaps) the folk definition that empathy is inherently prosocial. Basically, empathy includes caring. Empathy includes compassion (see the definition p. 178). People want to reduce the pain and suffering of others. Why? Because people experience a trace of the pain and suffering of others as vicarious experience, shared experience, or emotional contagion (these are not the same thing!).

Even if one allows that the psychopath uses his alleged empathy the better to manipulate his victim, one can argue back that it is a misuse of empathy that is not inherently empathic.

However, an even tougher case, because it hits closer to home regarding the dark-side of empathy, what about the professional hazard of compassion fatigue?

I came away from Zaki’s account of the neonatal intensive care unit experiencing more than a little bit of vicarious suffering. Nothing wrong with that as such, but that is challenge to all the helping professions – and to empathy as such. This is also a credit to Zaki’s ability as a narrator. The story was compelling. The pain and suffering significant.

Reading Zaki reminded me of a radical proposal. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, regardless of your profession, maybe you are being too compassionate. It is no accident that the term is “compassion fatigue,” not empathy fatigue. I hasten to add that at no point does Zaki say “you are being too compassionate,” but it seems to me to be implied.

No one is saying be unkind or hard-hearted. But if empathy is a dial or stereo tuner (as Zaki notes), not an “on off” switch, then dial it down. The nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit finds herself confronted by innocent suffering and decides to think about her feet rather than the suffering around her. She thinks “this tragedy is not mine” (p. 116) rather than taking on all the emotions of the family of the dying preemie.  She dials down the emotion suffering, and lives emotionally to fight the good fight for another day. I repeat: dials empathy down rather than gets overloaded and has to turn it off. People are not necessarily born knowing how to do this, which is why practice is required. This is the world of tips and techniques for those on the front lines.

This is the age of evidence-based everything. In Appendix B, Evaluating the evidence, Zaki lists the claims made in each chapter and evaluates the evidence to support the claim on a 1 to 5 scale. Thus, for those claims for which the evidence is limited (rated 1 to 3), Zaki (and Kari Leibowitz) discuss the limitations. Perhaps this comment is one for the “no good deed goes unpunished fie,” and yet I would have appreciated reading why the positive evidence is so positive (nor do I disagree with the overall assessment).

The thing that is overlooked in an approach that regards evidence as based on people’s report’s of their mindsets is that people are self-deceived, limited in their ability to change perspectives, and just flat out at the effect of significant blind spots, prejudices, biases – i.e., mindsets. The bad guys will try to use empathy to create a space for white supremacy or other distorted, diabolical mischief in the space. Zaki makes a strong case that empathy is at risk of declining precipitously and specific steps such as training and education in empathy, conflict resolution, mindfulness, and other spiritual disciplines can make a profound difference in reversing this worrisome trend.

But this work overlooks resistance to empathy. Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood and apple pie. So why is there so much resistance to it? To use Zaki’s term, so why is there such an intense war for kindness? I am starting to sense that it is just too much work. The mindset is that it is just too hard and what is really needed is a lazy person’s guide to empathy. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

The issue with Zaki’s approach (and this should be read in the context of the otherwise highest assessment of his contribution), is the single-minded focus on kindness. Empathy creates a clearing [my phrase, not Zaki’s]; and on a good day, we can create the possibility of kindness (and related positive human phenomena) in the space that opens up. All good. No one is saying, be unkind or uncaring. But is caring really a part of the definition of empathy?

Empathic concern is a modification of empathy; but it is just one of many possible empathic responses. Acknowledgement of the other person, recognition of the other’s humanity, giving the other person back his experience in a form that he recognizes it as his own, are arguably the basic empathic responses born of empathic data gathering. We are related. Period. For an evidence-based approach, there is nothing wrong, but what is missing is that empathy is a form of data gathering about the experience of the other person. Empathy falls out of the equation if, regardless of the other’s experience, one should always be kind.

From an empirical perspective, no necessary connection exists between empathy and kindness. It might well be more practical and the line of least resistance to link empathy with human dignity, toleration of diversity, or respect for boundaries. There are some people who just do not feel very charitable or altruistic, but if they behaved so as not to hurt others, respected boundaries, paid their taxes, then the world would still be much better off than it is now. Now one may argue back that such a non-kind [not unkind!] person would be logically inconsistent since he relies on the kindness of strangers (at least indirectly) while not providing such kindness to others in return. Strange to imagine paying taxes as an empathic gesture – and yet perhaps it is one. The debate is joined.

Zaki’s book is fully buzzword-compliant. He gives a shout out to mirror neurons as the neurological infrastructure of empathy; the history of empathy in the work of Adam Smith, Theodor Lipps, and Edith Stein; and Gregory Batson’s experiments that provide evidence that empathy is inherently prosocial, creating (as I like to say) a clearing for altruism to show up.

Less charitable (but not necessarily less empathic) thinkers argue that Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis is actually the “no good deed goes unpunished” hypothesis in a world in which ethical conflicts are common. Why? After priming seminary students to commit to giving a lecture on The Parable of the Good Samaritan, they are sent off across campus. They encounter a man flat on his back (actually an actor and confederate in the experiment) at the entrance to the lecture. They have to decide whether to help him or keep their commitment to give the lecture. Never was it truer that the urgent drives out the important. The debate continues.

Zaki’s mindset is basically a product of the enlightenment – however crooked the timber of which mankind is made, we are susceptible of improvement.  Agree. Expect people to succeed, they just might do so. Expect them to fail, they start living into one’s low expectations of them. Yet Zaki’s approach also aligns well with the rather negative, post-modern idea that no governing metanarrative exists. (See the stuff on Marx, Freud, and so on for “grand meta narratives.”) Given the examples of human behavior so far, especially in the 20th century, the slide towards the abyss seems to be accelerating. His is a call to action that demands a response – an empathic one.

Zaki shares powerful personal anecdotes, about which I would have liked to have heard more. That’s where the empathy LIVEs. As a kid, between the ages of 8 years old and 12, young Jamil is caught in the cross fire of the years long divorce between his hard charging Pakistani father, working 18 hour a day to escape the poverty and deprivation he survived, and a kinder, gentler, Hispanic mother, who, nevertheless, struggled with her own emotional disregulation.

Zaki credibly asserts that he had to take his own initially limited empathy up a couple of levels to navigate the emotional mine field [and mind field?] of two parents blaming one another and trying to enroll him – the kid – in their perpetrations.

Fast-forward to Zaki’s building a family of his own, and his first-born is born with a condition that has the baby (and the family) in the neonatal intensive care unit. Not for the faint of heart. Zaki subsequently returns to the NICU to do qualitative research on empathy and the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. I know nothing (really!), but my sense of it all? In a world in which neither empathy nor kindness is particularly abundant, this book is Zaki’s way of creating expanded empathy for himself. Once again, my take? Zaki struggles; the reader – and the community – benefit. Our thanks to Jamil Zaki for his penetrating analysis – and his empathy!

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project