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Humor and empathy are closely related. We start with an example that includes both. Caution: Nothing escapes debunking, including empathy. My apologies in advance about any ads associated with the video.
Both empathy and humor create and expand community. Both empathy and humor cross the boundary between self and other. Both empathy and humor relieve stress and reduce tension.
However, empathy crosses the boundary between self and other with respect, recognition, care, finesse, artistry, affinity, delicacy, appreciation, and acknowledgement, whereas humor crosses the boundary between individuals with aggression, sexuality, or a testing of community standards.
If you have to explain the joke, it is not funny – nevertheless, here goes.
The community standard made the target of satire in the SNL skit is that people are supposed to be empathic. The husband claims he wants to understand social justice issues but when given a chance to improve his understanding – drinking the empathy drink by pitched by the voice over – he resists. He pushes back. He pretends to drink, but does not even take off the bottle cap. When pressured, he even jumps out the window rather than drink the drink.
The wife does not do much better. She resists expanding her empathy too, by pretending that, as a woman, she already has all the empathy needed. Perhaps, but perhaps not. People give lip service to empathy – and social justice – but do not want to do the hard word to create a community that is empathic and works for all.
The satire surfaces our resistance to empathy, our double standard, and our tendency to be fake about doing the tough work – including a fake empathy drink. If only it were so easy!
Therefore, be careful. Caution! The mechanism of humor presents sex or aggression in such a way that it creates tension by violating social standards, morals, or conventions. This occurs to a degree that causes stress in the listener just short of eliciting a counter-aggression against the teller of the story or joke. Then the “punch line” relieves the tension all at once in a laugh.
Another sample joke? This one is totally non controversial, so enables one to appreciate the structure of the joke.
A man is driving a truck in the back of which are a group of penguins. The man gets stopped for speeding by a police officer. Upon consideration, the officer says: “I will let you off with a warning this time, but be sure to take those penguins to the zoo.” The next day the same man is driving the same truck with the exact same penguins. Only this time, the penguins are wearing sunglasses. The same police officer pulls the driver over again and says: “I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo!” The man replies: “I did. Yesterday we went to the zoo. Today we are going to the beach!” Pause for laugh.
The point is that humor, among many things, is a way in which one speaks truth to power—and gets away with it. In this case, one disobeys the police officer. One is technically in the wrong, though vindicated. Penguins in sunglasses are funny. More specifically, the mechanism of the joke is the ambiguous meaning of “takes someone to the zoo.” One can go to the zoo as a visitor to look at the animals or one can be incarcerated there, as are the animals on display.
Instead of a breakdown in relating such as “you are under arrest!” the relationship is enhanced. The driver is following the officer’s guidance after all, granted the interpretation was ambiguous.
You get a good laugh—and a vicarious trip to the beach added to the bargain. Empathy is the foundation of community in a deep way, for without empathy we would be unable to relate to other people. Humor and jokes also create a community between the audience and storyteller as the tension is dispelled in the laughter (see also Ted Cohen on Joking Matters (1999)).
The story creates a kind of verbal optical illusion, a verbal ambiguity that gets expressed in laughter. In empathy perhaps one gets a vicarious hand shake, hug, “high five,” pat on the back, or tissue to dry a tear, expressing itself in recognition of our related humanity, while affirming and validating the self-other distinction.
Featured image of laughing carrousel horses (c) Alex Zonis
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Empathy is about relationships. Architecture is about building things that last. Building lasting relationships? A marriage made in heaven?
When you are building something – whether a bridge, house, or a relationship – the challenge is to get the fundamentals just right. The foundation is what connects the structure to the earth. This is the case especially with bridges that span vast chasms.
The architect building a structure knows that the structure has to go down to bedrock. You have to go down to what is stable and abides or the structure can be magnificent, beautiful, and elegant; but it will crack, lean over like the leaning Tower of Pisa, and then fall over due to design flaws. Or like the Tacoma Narrows bridge, it will start resonating in the wind and tear itself loos from its foundation and collapse. [Granted, the Leaning Tower was “fixed” by those ingenious Japanese engineers who hollowed out a space on the higher side enabling the Tower to “fall up.”]
Therefore, to explore the bedrock for the structure of empathy we have to ask what is bedrock in human relations? But wait. I thought the foundation of human relations was – empathy. The bedrock is empathy.
But what is the bedrock of the bedrock? On what is empathy itself founded? How do we get access to the foundation of the foundation? Isn’t the foundation just the foundation? Not exactly. Read on.
The way to get access to the question of what is the foundation of the foundation is to ask what can go wrong. Imagine empathy was a bicycle – it can get a flat tire, the handle bars can fall off, the chain can break, or the rim can get bent, and so on. A square wheel won’t roll. In each case, something is missing – wholeness. The bike as a bike is incomplete and, therefore, does not work.
Likewise with empathy. Empathy can break down. When we engage with the break downs, we get access to the foundation.
Empathy can break down as emotional contagion, conformity, projection, or get lost in translation. In each case, something is missing – wholeness.
The foundation of the foundation is integrity. The Roman Stoic politician and philosopher Cicero defined “insanity” (insanitas) as lack of wholeness, incompleteness, or being fragmented (see Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations a Roman “psychiatry”). Here “integrity” is not meant in the narrow ethical sense of right/wrong, but rather “integrity” in the sense of being authentic. In the case of empathy integrity means being present with the other person without anything else added or missing.
Therefore, the foundation of empathy is working on one’s own integrity and authenticity in being related. Without such a foundation, one is building on a mud pie.
You know how when things go wrong, the tendency is to find someone to blame and point the finger in someone’s direction? The word “responsibility” can hardly be uttered and our listening is “bad and wrong” and “who’s to blame,” you know? You did it! He did it! She did it! Now in the course of this work on empathy that finger has a tendency to change direction – and it points to oneself.
“I say I am committed to keeping my agreements but I am actually committed to not rocking boat” “I say I am committed to freedom of expression but I am in fact actually committed to being liked, being popular.” “I say that I am generous in my relationships but I am actually attached to holding onto grudges and grievances.” “I say that I am committed to being faithful in my relationship but the only reason I am faithful is that in fact I lack opportunity to betray my partner.” “I say I am honest but cut corners and cheat on my business expenses or taxes.” “I say that I am committed to telling the truth but I am actually committed to looking good.” You can provide examples of your own. This list goes on.
Therefore, clean up your own messes first. I have to work on myself – and you, dear reader, have to work on yourself – and we have to clean up our own acts prior to taking the empathy game to the street and coaching others.
The foundation is cleaning up one’s own integrity outages. Acknowledging the cost and impact and, where possible, making restitution and repair. The ultimate path to authenticity is cleaning up one’s inauthenticities.
Because a bridge falls down does not mean that bridge building is a failed science; because a tower leans over does not mean that the physics of building towers is in error. It means human beings on occasion misapply the practices of bridge building and tower making. Likewise with the practice of empathy. It’s the practice that counts.
Without consistent, enduring practice, the results you get will be a roll of the dice; and getting lucky is not a viable plan when anything important is at stake. That is the bad news and also the good news in expanding empathy in the individual and the community. It’s all about the practice.
Three recommendations: practice, practice, practice – and be sure to get a second opinion – a coach – to provide feedback on your practice (so the bridge doesn’t fall down!),
So, back to the architectural metaphor: a lot of site preparation is needed. The structure is multi-unit and multi-person. The site of empathy includes receptivity of the other’s feelings, understanding of the other as a possibility, talking a walk in the other’s shoes (the folk definition of empathy), and translating the other’s experience into one’s own and vice versa. Heating and cooling include emotional regulation and distress tolerance shows up as weather proofing and lightening rods.
From another point of view, empathy is not a standalone structure. It is a bridge connecting individuals and communities. It is a bridge over troubled waters on a stormy day and a source of satisfying relatedness on a sunny one.
Okay, I have read enough I want to get the book, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, a light-hearted look at empathy, containing some two dozen illustrations by artist Alex Zonis and including the one minute empathy training plus numerous tips and techniques for taking your empathy to the next level: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project
One of the misunderstandings of empathy is that “empathy means weakness.” Not so. Why not?
Empathy means being firm but flexible about boundaries. The most empathic people that I know are also the strongest and most assertive regarding respect for boundaries. Being empathic does not mean being a push over. You wouldn’t want to mess with them. Where such people show up, empathy lives—shame and bullying have no place. (For a working definition of empathy, see the note at the bottom of this post.)
Empathy thus solves the dilemma of how to deal with a bully without becoming a bully oneself. Bullies are notoriously causal about violating the boundaries of other people, because it is easier to cause pain than to feel pain. Bullies are taking their pain and working it out on other people. Bullies do not acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, and they work out their issues – I almost said “shxt” –on other people. Bullies are offloading their distress on other people. But what to do about it from an empathic perspective?
I am going to answer that question directly, but first take a short step back: Once the stones start flying back-and-forth, there is nothing to do but defend oneself or try to escape if outnumbered – retreat. If it is a school year brawl, hit ‘em back in self-defense if one is able. If the corporate boss is a bully, document and escalate – and update your resume just in case. If the bully is a politician, speak truth to power like Malcolm-X did: “You did not land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on you” – use humor to bring down arrogance and privilege.
Once the stones start flying, the conversation is no longer about empathy or vulnerability. It is about who has the biggest cudgel or stone. Empathy did not work – empathy is in breakdown along with common courtesy and decency – call for backup! However, if things are still at the stage of name calling, remember what to my secular ears the ultimate empath of the spirit, Jesus of Nazareth, said and did. He was outnumbered with the woman “taken in adultery” confronting an angry mob of scribes, elders, and Pharisees, armed with large stones: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 7:53 – 8:11). Nothing happened. No one dared be the first to assert his perfection. While the originality of this passage may be debated – did John really write it and who the heck is John, anyway – the pasage’s psychological power is beyond question.
In the face of loss of power, authority escalates to violence. Jesus dared to make himself vulnerable by aligning with the woman who had violated the community’s standards, which were so rigid that a case of infidelity threatened to below up the entire fabric of civilization. Otherwise, why would the authorities need to stone her to death? (And it really was all men who were about to do the stoning – so you can see there were many problems here!)
Always the astute practitioner of empathy, Jesus got inside their heads. He knew the authorities wanted to look good and claiming to be better than everyone else would make them look bad. Instead of shaming the woman Jesus turned the tables and put the authorities to shame. To get power over shame one has to allow oneself to be exposed and vulnerable to it. Be proud!
Thus, Brené Brown makes a parallel observation about vulnerability – she does research on vulnerability and shame – and asserts that it is a myth that “vulnerability is weakness.” Thus her project is to expand our appreciation of the power of vulnerability.
As Brené Brown uses the distinction “vulnerability,” she means living with uncertainty, living with risk, and living with emotional exposure. She understands vulnerability to mean letting go of “looking good” or fear of being ashamed. She means it to go in harm’s way emotionally or even physically and spiritually by having difficult conversations and taking actions about the things that make a difference – relationships, finances, careers, values, fairness, and so on. The inner game of vulnerability is different than the behavioral vulnerability that consists in leaving the password to your bank account on a yellow sticky pasted to your computer.
Brené Brown’s coaching is to expand vulnerability in the sense that I have my vulnerabilities; not my vulnerabilities have me. Her lesson “no courage without vulnerability” means that the courageous person goes forth into risk and danger in spite of being afraid. The person who imagines he is without fear is precisely the one who behaves in a foolhardy way, for example, Colonel Custer at the Little Bighorn, about to be wiped out, saying “We’ve got them now!” completely unaware of the risks he was taking. He did not have his vulnerability; his vulnerability had him – and did him in along with his regiment.
I hasten to add that empathy and vulnerability are different phenomena, not to be confused with one another. They are not either/or – the world needs more of each one – expanded empathy as well as the power conferred by expanded vulnerability.
You cannot do empathy alone. I get my empathy from the other individual. The other individual expands my empathy by giving me his; and I acknowledge the other individual’s humanity by giving him my empathy. The baby brings forth the parent’s empathy and is socialized by it – brought into the human community. The student brings forth the teacher’s empathy and is educated through it – brought into the educated community. The customer arouses the businessperson’s empathy and is served by it – brought into the community of the market. The list goes on.
Likewise, you cannot do vulnerability alone. The more armored up and defensive a person becomes, the less vulnerably, the less uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure the person incurs. However, without uncertainty, risk, or exposure, such essential results as innovation, productivity, courage, relatedness, satisfaction, and, yes, empathy, get lost.
Even though empathy and vulnerability are distinct phenomena, when they occasionally breakdown and fail, the component fragments are remarkably similar. Empathic receptivity breaks down as emotional contagion; likewise, in vulnerability a person is overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment.
Empathic understanding breaks down as conformity. Instead of relating to the other person as an authentic possibility, one conforms to the crowd and what “one does.” Likewise with vulnerability, risk is replaced with playing it safe, not rocking the boat, and remaining as invisible as possible.
Empathic interpretation breaks down as projection. Instead of taking a walk in the other person’s shoes to appreciate where they pinch the other person, one projects one’s own reactions and responses onto the other. Likewise with vulnerability, uncertainty is replaced with being right, making the other person wrong, and shutting down inquiry and innovation in the interest of not rocking the boat.
Empathic responsiveness breaks down in getting lost in translation. Instead of acknowledging the other person’s struggle as disclosing aspects of one’s shared humanity, one tries to “cap the rap,” get the last word in, and win the argument. Likewise with vulnerability, one talks about the other person instead of talking to them. Free speech is alive and well; but what has gone missing is listening. People are [mostly] speaking freely – no one is listening. It doesn’t work.
In each of the breakdowns of empathy, I do not have empathy – rather my break down in empathy has me. Instead of asking, what is wrong? Rather ask, what is missing? And, in this case, what is missing, the presence of which would make a difference, is a radical acceptance that empathy requires emotional exposure to the uncertainty and risk taking of related. That is precisely vulnerability.
When vulnerability is added to empathy the result is community. Since we are on a roll with our secular but empathic interpretation of spiritual readings, in the defining parable of community, empathy is what enables the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37) to be vulnerable to a vicarious experience of what the survivor of the assault and robbery is experiencing.
In contrast, the priest and Levi experience empathic distress – are armored up and defensive in the face of vulnerability – and have to cross the road. The Samaritan’s empathy tells him what the survivor is experiencing; and it is the Samaritan’s vulnerability and ethics that tell him what to do about it. The two are distinct. Yet empathy expands the boundary of who is one’s neighbor to be more-and-more inclusive, extending especially to those whose humanity has been put at risk by the vicissitudes of vulnerability. Be inclusive.
Note: the short definition of empathy is that it is a multi-phase way of relating to people individually and in community with receptivity to the other’s affects, understanding of the other as an authentic possibility, an appreciation of the other’s perspective, and responsiveness in acknowledgement of the other’s humanity in the other’s communication.
Brené Brown. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Avery, a Division of Random House Penguin.
Lou Agosta. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: PalgraveMacmillan.
_________. (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot.
________. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.
_________. (2018). Top Seven Lessons on Empathy For Leadership (webcast): Chicago: 2018: https://youtu.be/GrgDWDt4uqg
________. (2018). Empathy Lessons. Chicago: Two Pears Press.
_______. (2018). A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy. Chicago: Two Pears Press.
Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator). (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pears Press.
For further details and additional tips and techniques see Lou’s light-hearted look at the topic, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide or one of his peer-reviewed publications see: Lou Agosta’s publications: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)
© Lou Agosta, PhD and The Chicago Empathy Project
Empathy flourishes in a space of acceptance and tolerance. But acceptance and tolerance have their dark side, too. People can be intolerant and unaccepting. Be accepting of what? Be accepting of intolerance? Be tolerant of intolerance? Yes, be tolerant, but set limits. But how to do that given that we may still have free speech in the USA, but many people have just stopped listening.
“The Trouble With Empathy” is an article by Molly Worthen published in The New York Times on September 04, 2020. The author gets many things just right in an impressive engagement with the complexities of empathy, but in other areas, including the citations of certain academics, I have an alternative point of view. Hence, the trouble with the trouble with empathy is not a typo. The reply is summarized in the diagram (note that it is labeled “Figure 2,” but it is the only diagram – page down, please). For those interested in more detail, read on.
Babies are not born knowing the names of the color spectrum. Children are taught these names and how to use them in (pre)Kindergarten; likewise, with the names of the emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, and high spirits. However, there is a lot more to empathy than naming one’s feelings and getting in touch with our mammalian ability to resonate with one another in empathic receptivity and understanding.
As an adult, the fact that you failed to be empathic does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training.
Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.
Evidence from the past rarely demonstrates what innovations are possible in the future. Just because people are not born with wings does not mean people cannot fly. If the Wright Brothers had accepted the evidence, we would all still be taking the train. I hasten to add there is nothing wrong with taking the train. People can be intolerant, and I too am people. Work on oneself is constantly needed.
I open my mouth to be empathic and respond empathically—but instead of an empathic response, out jumps a frog: “I feel your pain.” What a fake! If I really felt your pain, then I would say “Ouch!” not “I feel your pain.” I find that I do frequently say “Ouch!” Or just shake my head and provide acknowledgement and recognition: “You’ve really been dealing with some tough stuff.” “Sounds like use could use some empathy.”
The point is not to devalue the attempted empathic response, clumsy though it may be. The point is to acknowledge that the lazy person expands his empathy in a practice filled with examples of not getting it quite right. If empathy were a sport, it would be filled with strikeouts, fumbles, off sides, failures, and incomplete plays. There would even perhaps be examples of “unsportsman-like conduct.”
Each of the four phases of empathy has characteristic breakdowns. This is not new news. The news is that if engaged with a rigorous and critical empathy, these breakdowns readily become breakthroughs in empathy.
Breakthroughs in empathy arise from working through the breakdowns of empathy. The Big Four breakdowns of empathy are noted: emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and getting lost in translation. These are not the only breakdowns of empathy, which are many and diverse, but these are the most frequent ones.
In the example of emotional contagion, one anxious person is telling the other person about all the reasons in the world that he is feeling out of sorts. Pretty soon, the person who is listening is starting to feel anxious too. The person’s receptivity—openness and availability—to the other individual’s emotions is working overtime and his empathic receptivity misfires, becoming: Emotional contagion. Emotional infection strikes again!
Often it is not so obvious. Often people are caught up in the emotion of the moment. The emotion itself is so powerful that it just sweeps over everyone present like a tidal wave—an emotional tsunami. The person is flooded—emotionally.
If the listener realizes that listening to anxiety-inspiring stories causes his own anxiety to spike, then that is already going beyond emotional contagion and the start of an empathic processing of the emotion.
If one stops in the analysis of empathy with the mere communication of feelings, then empathy collapses into emotional contagion. Empathic receptivity breaks down into emotional contagion, suggestibility, being over-stimulated by the inbound flood of the other person’s strong feelings.
Emotional contagion—basically the communication of emotions, feelings, affects, and experiences—can be redescribed as input to further down stream empathic processing. Then emotional contagion (communicability of affect) gets “normalized” and can very well make a contribution to empathic understanding.
Overcoming the breakdown of empathy into emotional contagion results in the breakthrough to vicarious experience. A vicarious experience is what a person has in going to the theatre, the movies, or a single-person player video game. I experience the fears and hopes of the character in the film, but I do so vicariously. Theatre, film, and the novel were “virtual reality” (VR) long before computers, special VR goggles, and social networking were invented.
Vicarious experience is not empathy. It is input to the process of empathy. Vicarious experience is the grain of truth in the fake-sounding empathy meme, “I feel your pain.” I feel your pain—vicariously. I experience an after-image of your pain—like the visual after-image of the American flag that results from starring at a vivid depiction of the off-color image of the stars and stripes. I repeat: we gat an after-image of another person’s feelings and emotions.
I am amazed that no one has as yet explicitly pointed out that we get after-images of other people’s feelings when we are exposed to those feelings for a sustained duration. A vicarious experience of emotion differs from emotional contagion in that one explicitly recognizes and knows that the other person is the source of the emotion.
You feel anxious or sad or high spirits, because you are with another person who is having such an experience. You “pick it up” from him. You can then process the vicarious experience, unpacking it for what is so and what is possible in the relationship. This returns empathy to the positive path of empathic understanding, enabling a breakthrough in “getting” what the other person is experiencing. Then you can contribute to the other person regulating and mastering the experience by being there for him and responding with soothing words and acknowledgement of the situation.
The next breakdown of empathy is settling for conformity instead of striving for possibility. We might also say: settling for agreement instead of striving for possibility.
People live and flourish in possibilities. Empathic understanding breaks down as “no possibility,” “stuckness,” and the suffering of “no exit” (the definition of Hell in a famous play of the same name by Jean Paul Sartre). You follow the crowd in responding to the other person; you do what “one does”; you validate feelings and attitudes according to what “they say”; you conform and express agreement; and, with apologies to Henry David Thoreau, you live the life of quiet desperation of the “modern mass of men.”
When someone is stuck, experiencing shame, guilt, rage, upset, emotional disequilibrium, and so on, the person is fooling himself—has a blind spot—about what is possible. This does not mean that it is easy to be in the person’s situation or for the person to see what is missing. Far from it. We live in possibilities that we allow to define our constraints and limitations—for example, see the example of the friend who was married and divorced three times. This expresses a strong commitment to marriage, though empathy and husbanding skills are seemingly limited.
If you acknowledge that the things that get in the way of your relatedness are the very rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules and possibilities precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. This brings us to the next break down—the break down in empathic interpretation.
Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation?
Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited.
Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.”
This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her.
My empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures.
The fact that you failed does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training.
Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. As that notorious bad boy of a certain 18th century enlightenment, Voltaire, is supposed to have said: Let not perfection be the enemy of the good. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.
Knowing Professor Worthen’s [the author of the NYT article that provoked this reply] interest in religious studies, I conclude with a reflection on empathy and the Good Samaritan. The Parable of the Good Samaritan speaks volumes (Luke 10: 25–37). The first two people, who passed by the survivor by crossing the road, experienced empathic distress. They were prevented from helping out by a breakdown of their empathic receptivity. They were overwhelmed by the suffering and crossed the road. In contrast, the Good Samaritan had a vicarious experience of the suffering. His empathic receptivity gave him access to the survivor’s pain. His empathy told him what the other person was experiencing and his compassion told him what to do about it.
To get Lou’s light-hearted look at the topic, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide or one of his peer-reviewed publications see: Lou Agosta’s publications: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
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