by Bud Nye
The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.
All our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary upon an unknown text, one that is perhaps unknowable but still felt.
The human body is the best picture of the soul.
Please read the opening quotes several times, slowly. Especially taken together, they express some profound truths about human thinking, feeling, consciousness, and our fundamental, biological nature as animals. Assuming the very large degree of validity of the ideas expressed in these quotes, and having accepted the extremely high probability of near term human extinction (NTHE), how might we best focus the little time we have left as individuals and as a species whether we have five years, 20 years, or 50 years to live? In the Introduction to my long essay “Facilitating Emotional Change In ESGs” (available here https://guymcpherson.com/2015/04/facilitating-emotional-change-in-esgs/), I wrote “In my opinion, the section on empathy serves as the most important and most practical section of this essay for extinction support group (ESG) participants both in and outside of their meetings.” Soon after finishing that essay I realized that I wanted to focus more intensely on learning about and using empathy, perhaps in that process helping others to do the same. Why? Because empathy plays a critical role in all of our relationships from birth to death at an old age, and, based on attachment theory, our relationships serve as the most important organizing processes in our lives as humans. (Also, clinical psychotherapy research consistently demonstrates the importance of empathy across all treatment models.) If, as Guy suggests, “Only love remains” this suggests to me that “Only our relationships with each other (including other species) remain”—and empathy plays a fundamental, critical role in those relationships and in our loving each other. (Based on these ideas, a group of us in Tacoma have recently started a support group that we call an Attachment Support Group For Singles and Couples (ASG). One can see our MeetUp page here: http://www.meetup.com/Attachment-Support-Group-For-Singles-and-Couples/ .)
This essay reflects that focus on empathy. Even in the extremely unlikely case that industrial civilization could remain viable for another 100 years, to me it would seem entirely appropriate for us to emphasize empathy with each other for whatever amount of time we might have left as individuals and as a species. I have based this essay largely on five books, in alphabetic order: Emotion-Focused Therapy by Leslie Greenberg (2011), Empathy Reconsidered, New Directions in Psychotherapy, edited by Bohart and Greenberg (1997), Counseling & Therapy Skills, 3rd. Ed., by David Martin (2011), Love Sense, The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, by Dr. Sue Johnson (2013), and The Transforming Power of Affect, A Model For Accelerated Change, by Diana Fosha (2000).
I know very well that as a fairly long essay and with its basis in natural science—largely psychology and neuroscience as applied to understanding human thinking, emotion, and behavior—many people who read and comment at Nature Bats Last will find this essay completely unacceptable and not worth reading. This probably includes those with their personally convenient, defensive, human supremacist views of natural science to the effect of “We can study anything with natural science, including any other species, but not humans because our species is special; we are exceptional. We are not animals like all others that someone can study using science. We are the culmination of a very long-term perfecting process in the universe and we possess an immaterial consciousness or soul, which places us outside of the realm of natural science.” According to this reasoning, very much like that in the 17th and 18th centuries regarding natural science, and based on fundamentally spiritual and/or religious beliefs, we humans presumably possess supernatural, God-like characteristics that place us “above” or “outside of” the realm of valid scientific study, certainly when that study includes our brain functions and consciousness. Or so that ever-so-popular, Cartesian duality tale goes with its alleged magical, non-physical forces, entities, and processes, which supposedly permeate and run the universe. Happily, many psychological and neurological researchers have not shared these old, dualistic, Cartesian values and as a result of the work of people like John Bowlby, John Gottman, Susan Johnson, Les Greenberg, and colleagues, we now have a deep understanding of human attachment, emotion, and love relationships, including some highly effective treatments (which depend largely on empathy).
The Scott Johnson crew at Fractal Planet allows as valid only opinions based on a naïve, narrow, linear, deterministic, excluded middle, Cartesian interpretation of natural science with respect to Earth’s biosphere and its energy flows. Many of them seriously believe that we can extract terawatts of “renewable” energy from Earth’s biosphere without further killing it in the process. They read “the science” (meaning their particular, linearly deterministic interpretations of science), as suggesting that this makes good sense. They conveniently exclude complexity theory, nonlinear thermodynamic, probabilistic scientific views through their bullying. (See my essay “McPherson’s Wrong About Global Warming!?” found here https://guymcpherson.com/2014/06/mcphersons-wrong-about-global-warming-thoughts-on-some-possible-psychological-and-emotional-motivations-for-the-attacks-on-guy-mcpherson/ and “What “Purpose” Do I Have?” here https://guymcpherson.com/2014/07/bits-from-reese-jones-and-bud-nye-and-an-idea-from-daniel-drumright/.) Meanwhile, a group here at Nature Bats Last similarly imposes its own narrow views and interpretations of natural science, but here more focused on humans than on Earth’s biosphere. Much like Johnson’s group, they often impose their views through bullying to disparage, insult, and otherwise discourage anyone who disagrees with them, especially any psychological and neuroscience evidence-based disagreement in comparison with their spiritual views—because, according to them, we presumably cannot validly use natural scientific processes to study humans.
Each of these groups has constructed its own, narrow sectarian frame regarding how we supposedly best use natural scientific evidence and reasoning. I find these strongly intellectualized, self-justifying, emotionally reactive and defensive group processes both extremely fascinating and highly unfortunate. Unfortunate or not, they serve as excellent examples of how our powerful, non-conscious, primary emotions drive our reasoning, not the other way around (see the Pascal opening quote), leading us inevitably, over tens of thousands of years, to create our irreversible, ecocidal self-annihilation trap.
On the other hand many other readers, who for the most part for many good reasons do not comment here very often, if at all, do consider the scientific study of humans extremely relevant, important, and valuable. Many also have no trouble at all reading 14 condensed pages concerning something as important for healthy human development and functioning as empathy. Either way, whether one considers the essay acceptable or unacceptable, the question and response format that I use here should help readers focus their time only on the issues that they have an interest in.
Does “talking with someone” help us?
Many people believe that “talking to others” serves as one of the most effective ways for people to feel better, at least temporarily, when they feel down. I would like to make two points regarding this. First, whether talking will help depends entirely on the situation and the talking processes used. Talking with others works as a two-edged sword that can cut powerfully in either positive or negative directions. “Talking” can cause great harm as well as help greatly depending on the words used and how said. (Tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and so on account for about 70% of the meaning of a verbal message.) Second, I think we need to attend much more to the nature of our listening and our responses, than to our “talking”. Related to these points, much research shows that empathic listening within a trusting relationship works, by a fairly wide margin, as the most importantly helpful variable across all psychological methods for helping others, including behavioral, psychodynamic (Freudian), cognitive, and so on.
The idea that having others deeply, empathically hear us when we express our thoughts and emotions concerning the high probability of NTHE largely motivated our interest in starting our Tacoma ESG two and one-half years ago. It continues to motivate my more recent, crystal clear emphasis on emotion focused ESGs. It has motivated my excitement regarding attachment theory and its application to ESGs and my most recent emphasis on empathy.
What does “empathy” refer to?
To support others people commonly see two options. Some see themselves giving a kind of warm, supportive reflection of what another person says. Others think that they need to gather evidence and give advice, reassurance, suggestions, and clever interpretations. Actually, neither of these common approaches work very well, but the people around us for the most part model these for us. Meanwhile, we have a third, much more effective alternative: empathy.
Empathy, as I define and use the term here, involves communicating a deep understanding of another person’s intended message, especially the experiential-emotional part. It also involves responding in an emotionally supportive way such that the speaker recognizes the emotional resonance of the listener. Every word counts in this description. With empathy we do not just intellectually understand what a person said; we must hear what they meant to say, their intended message. And we must not just understand, even deeply; we must communicate that understanding somehow so that the other person recognizes that we understand deeply. It proves absolutely essential that the other person feels understood—that they perceive our understanding—including the experiential, emotional part of their message, which plays a critical role. Support involves both intellectual and emotional processes; meanwhile people usually have the most trouble dealing with their feelings. For this reason we listen to hear what the other person tries to say, and we do this to hear the feelings implicit in their message. Meanwhile, providing support often involves some pretty painful stuff, especially in an ESG(!), and people usually find it much easier to talk among themselves in abstract, cognitive, intellectual terms rather than in emotional terms. For this reason, in ESGs we need to make a special effort to tune in to, focus on, and heighten the emotions that accompany otherwise often highly intellectual expressions.
Where does empathy come from? (What allows it to happen?)
We find ourselves much more a social animals than our bizarrely individualistic society recognizes. How so? Evolution biologically wired us for deep connection to one another. In the 1990s the team of Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma, Italy accidentally stumbled onto the solution to a mystery that philosophers had struggled with over ages: How can we know what happens in others’ minds? They discovered mirror neurons. Mirror neurons make us feel what others feel. They explain why we shrink back in fear when Freddy Krueger attacks the hero in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and why we feel joy when the young bicyclists lift into the sky in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. This ability to enter into another’s experience has special relevance in our relationships with others, especially our love relationships in which responding to a partner’s needs in a sensitive way plays a critical role. This great sensitivity begins when we reach about two years of age, when we can recognize ourselves in a mirror. “Knowing me” and “knowing you” have a linkage, like two sides of the same coin.
How can we know what another person feels? It actually involves no effort. If we stay calm and attentive to another person’s gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions, we can feel what they feel even when they cannot give it a name. We can see fear and the intention to turn away before they even say “I don’t want to talk about this.”
What qualifies as “empathy”, and what does not?
Empathic understanding does not work only as a process for setting up good rapport or engaging in a friendly listening process, though it does do these things. Many approaches accomplish these things and then get mislabeled as “empathic”. Instead, in listening with empathy, as Laura Rice describes it, a listener actually tries to get a feeling of what the other person says, to take it in, and “taste” what the other person experiences in that moment. The listener then tentatively communicates this understanding and asks the other person to check it against their experience. As needed, the speaker then corrects and extends the listener’s perceptions, then the cycle starts again with the listener continuing to try to get the feel of what the other person says, selectively attending to that which seems most alive and poignant in the speaker’s expression.
Perhaps the most difficult barrier for most people in listening with empathy involves not trying to solve any problems, not offering suggestions, not giving advice, and not making clever interpretations of what the other person said that suggest things the speaker may not realize. Most of us find it difficult not to do these things because we do them so often out of automatic habit, and because we so often see this kind of advice-giving “support” modeled by others around us. With our unconscious habits, we often have no awareness of doing these things. Most people will need practice with feedback from others in order to stop doing these things, instead replacing them with empathic listening processes. Empathy involves focusing on listening to what the other person says, including, critically, noticing the feelings they express, and then frequently communicating to the other person, almost on a moment-by-moment basis through body language and words, that we have heard and understood them.
Throughout the empathizing process, the listener neither agrees nor disagrees with the other person’s view. Instead we simply try to sense it and accurately demonstrate that we have heard and understand it. We attend to the intended message that the other person attempts to communicate, listening for what they say with their words, including their tone of voice, facial expressions, and other body language. We do not listen for what another person does not say, nor for some conclusion or picture that we can draw about the other person from what they say. The intention involves understanding, not offering the other person insight or interpretation into something of which they have no awareness. Neither does it involve offering some kind of advice. The listener thus engages in an active effort to understand the other person’s experience in an active listening way.
Can we always use empathy when communicating with others?
It does not make much sense to expect that we can, or should, always try to communicate in an empathic way with others. Why not? Because we communicate with others for many different reasons in many different contexts and situations, and with needs that vary widely. For example, if someone asks us for the time or for directions to get somewhere, it will probably make best sense simply to provide the requested information. If a person directly requests advice, feedback, or an opinion, we would generally best respond directly to the request. Also, the difficulty in communicating empathically varies greatly in different situations and contexts, with different time constraints, distractions, interruptions, and so on. Then, of course, communication also includes two roles: a speaker and a listener; we cannot all, always listen.
Different situations call for different responses. For example, in therapy it often helps to promote awareness, arousal, and expression of traumatic fear or unexpressed resentment to a significant other while in day-to-day life it might make much better sense to use coping behaviors and regulation of emotions. So we need to use good judgment regarding the appropriateness of using empathy in a particular situation. Even so, it probably remains safe to say that, in general, it will help all of us greatly to listen deeply with empathic feedback as much and as often as possible while also recognizing and accepting that even under the best circumstances empathic listening will not work as some kind of magical cure-all. This certainly holds true in support groups. In some distracting or time-limited situations it might make best sense to schedule another time and place to talk so that you can do some quality empathic listening.
Do we have different kinds of empathy?
Yes. We can use empathy in a number of different ways. I will describe two main ways: empathic understanding, or attunement, and empathic exploration, or what Laura Rice calls evocative empathy in the form of conjecture. With empathic understanding we communicate with another person that we fully grasp their emotional and non-emotional meaning. With empathic exploration we push to further explore emotional issues. Empathic understanding serves as the most important way for ESGs to create an emotionally safe, accepting climate. It communicates to participants that others value them, it validates others’ feelings, helping us fully to experience and accept ourselves. In the presence of validating empathic understanding by others, we tend strongly to accept our own feelings, trust our experience, and feel confirmed in our own existence.
Empathic exploration (or “evocative empathy”, or “empathic conjecture”), on the other hand, helps us engage in productive exploration within ourselves. It stimulates deeper experiencing and understanding, and it helps us symbolize new aspects of our experience not previously in awareness. This guides us to focus on unclear edges of our experience and helps separate our experience into greater clarity as well as integrating new levels of meanings.
With empathic exploration (evocative empathy), participants enter into a process of attending to and symbolizing their own and other’s previously unknown experiences. In many situations (not all) this process has automatically helpful effects. (If a person expresses intense vulnerability, we should not try to have them explore these feelings to get clarity, nor focus on the interaction. Instead, we should empathically affirm, understand, and validate these feelings. Empathic affirmation, rather than exploring, involves conveying a sense of understanding and validation of what this really means for the person. We invite tears during this time of great vulnerability.) Out of this internally focused, evocative process, signs of emotional difficulties will arise that will give us more opportunities for empathic intervention.
Do women have the ability to communicate more empathically than men?
We have a social, stereotypical expectation that women can communicate with more empathy than men. Studies show that in situations free of this stereotypical expectation, men communicate with as much empathy as women.
How does empathy relate to attachment theory?
In two earlier essays I introduced the idea of emphasizing attachment theory in ESGs: “A Proposed Model For Near Term Human Extinction Support Group (ESG) Functioning” (12/2014) found here https://guymcpherson.com/2014/12/a-proposed-model-for-near-term-human-extinction-support-group-esg-functioning/, and “Integrating Attachment Theory With ESGs” (2/2015) found here https://guymcpherson.com/2015/02/integrating-attachment-theory-with-esgs/ . Empathy plays a fundamental role in attachment theory. Whether we realize it or not, from birth until death at an old age, empathy plays a critical role in our lives. Because of mirror neurons in our brains we have an innate tendency to feel with and for others, and we have survived by caring about and cooperating with others. Biologist Fans de Waal emphasizes that “We would not be here today had our ancestors been socially aloof.” Indeed, it would make good sense us to have the scientific name Homo vinculum, “one who bonds”. Psychologist Ed Tronick of the University of Massachusetts says, “the maintenance of [emotional balance] is a dyadic collaborative process.” In other words, we find ourselves designed to deal with emotions along with another person, not by ourselves. Emotion works in contagious ways. We literally “catch” each other’s sentiments and feel what other people feel. This forms the basis of empathy.
In what ways can empathy benefit ESG participants?
To effectively use empathy, a participant listens to another person and enters their internal frame of reference. They experience empathic understanding and communicate this to the other person. In this process, one continually attempts to understand and respond to another person’s perception of inner and outer reality at that moment, and without imposing some external view of reality—least of all the listener’s own views! Importantly, this works as a continuing process of actively responding in an ongoing manner, as opposed to listening for long periods of time and then providing a single summary type of understanding. This ongoing responsiveness creates and conveys deep involvement and moment-by-moment support for further exploration of hidden emotions.
One person’s communicated empathic responses strengthen another person’s ability to “make sense” of their experience. The relaxed feelings of safety created also free up the speaker’s energy to focus on processing instead of on anxious defense. Together, ESG participants explore and “discover” each other’s individual and shared experiences. Ideally, each participant immerses themselves in another’s world and uses this experience as a reference point. Doing this further increases our ability to attune to and resonate with other’s experiences. We naturally signal our shared experience through facial expression, words, tone of voice, body language, and so on.
What importance does empathy have in emotion focused ESGs, ASGs and life?
In EF ESGs and ASGs, as in child rearing, participant’s empathy and other’s experience of it provide the foundations on which the entire supportive enterprise rests. In emotion focused extinction support groups and in attachment support groups, as in our everyday lives, effectively using empathy promotes engagement in the following six ways. It:
- reaffirms and clarifies other people’s experiences,
- models acceptance of another person’s experiences,
- slows down often too fast exchanges, enabling people to process their experience,
- organizes different aspects of a person’s experience into a whole,
- comforts a person in response to a difficult emotional experience, and it
- helps a person explore the meaning of important and often powerful experiences.
Dealing with emotional issues often involves some extremely painful memories as well as, in ESGs, painful images of a likely horrific future. Herein lies a critical weakness in how evolution wired our brains to process information and live our lives: we find that it instantly feels good not to think about or feel those painful memories, thoughts, and images. Learning theorists have a technical name for this kind of learning. They call it “negative reinforcement”, a complex term for the everyday experience of relief from discomfort or pain. (Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that negative reinforcement means punishment, but it does not. Reinforcement, both positive and negative, always increases the frequency of a behavior. Punishment, both positive and negative punishment, always reduces the frequency of a behavior.) Because of this powerful reinforcement for avoiding painful feelings, most people find it much easier, and seductive, to talk in unemotional, cognitive terms, if they talk about or deal with painful emotions at all. Just like using crack cocaine, anxiety reduction works as an extremely powerful and immediate reinforcer. When we avoid or deny a painful thought or emotion, within our nervous system we immediately get powerfully reinforced for doing so. (For much more on these avoidance and denial processes, see my essay titled “Primary Emotions, Reactive Emotions, And Defenses” here https://guymcpherson.com/2015/05/primary-emotions-reactive-emotions-and-defenses/.) Most people require the empathic help of another person in order to face and process their painful primary emotions.
How do most therapists perform using empathy?
Carkhuff and Berenson in 1997 reported a disconcerting study that should motivate all of us to work at developing our empathy-related skills. They assessed the most common level of functioning in interpersonal skills among general and professional populations. On a five-point scale, with three “minimally facilitative” for helping people feel deeply understood, and five maximum facilitating, they found: The general public and college freshmen scored 1.5; nurses and teachers 1.7; guidance counselors 1.9; graduate students in psychology 2.1; trained subprofessional and subdoctoral helpers 2.7; and functioning professionals with advanced training in the skills 4.0. So most people, including most therapists, do not meet even “minimally facilitative” standards of empathic responding.
Why do we usually have such trouble interacting in empathic ways with others?
At least five possibilities exist for why we sometimes have trouble relating with others in empathic ways to others despite our mirror neuron wiring. First, a person might have underdeveloped or poorly functioning mirror neurons, as happens in autism. Second, stress or depression may have exhausted a person’s mental resources so that they have become more or less emotionally numb. For example, abuse early in life tends to shrink the hippocampus, the area of the brain that deals with ordering experience into coherent emotional memories. Susan Johnson: “As a result, the brain becomes more sensitive to emotional stressors, such as separation anxiety, but has a less developed neural network for containing such anxiety.” Third, our extremely narcissistic culture with its powerful television, radio, and other advertising and entertainment media, strongly teaches us not to interact with others in empathic ways. Fourth, we may simply get distracted. Our own overwhelming fear might block our ability to focus on the other’s anguish. We find it hard to concentrate on another person when we spend much or all of our brainpower trying to calm ourselves. How well we can deal with our own emotions will greatly affect our ability to tune in to and feel empathy for others, and this relates to the fifth possibility: Finally, responding with empathy means often allowing oneself to experience another person’s pain in a significant way. People usually want to avoid such pain, not enter and experience it. This strong tendency we have to avoid fear, grief, shame, and so on, makes empathizing with others difficult.
In addition to this, I paraphrase here the last paragraph on page 73 in Les Greenberg’s 2002 book Emotion-Focused Therapy, Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings: “Presence involves remaining fully in the moment and contacting others’ emotional experience congruently and in a non-power-oriented manner. Having the ability to remain fully present to the other in an open manner, rather than there for the self, works as a highly developed skill that requires letting go of preconceptions and giving full attention in the moment. Coaches must not bring extraneous personal baggage, personal needs, or even agendas for coaching into the encounter. They need instead to remain fully present with and for the other person. To do this, a coach needs to have developed a high level of emotional maturity, or at least have the ability to attain it while in session.” Clearly, many reasons exist for our experiencing difficulty in relating to others in empathically effective ways.
Should we consider humans inherently selfish?
The quality of our relationships with others serves as the bedrock on which we build our existence. As Susan Johnson says, “Our closest love relationships shape who we are and, more than perhaps any other single factor, shape our life story.” Indeed, the ways we tune in to and engage with others sculpt the very society we live in, and a civil society depends on connection with and trust in others. Primatologist Frans de Waal refers to the “invisible hand” that reaches out to others. Susan Johnson: “De Waal argues that we should abandon the idea that humans are inherently selfish and only help other after tallying up costs and benefits. The calculation has been made for us. We naturally favor empathy unless we are consumed by fear or rage.”
What tends to suppress our natural tendency empathically to care for others?
Securely attached people live in what they perceive as a safe world, they exhibit less self-absorption, and less preoccupation with threats than anxiously or avoidantly attached people do. This allows them to focus on, empathize with, and have tolerance for others. John Bowlby believed that when given loving care as children, human beings naturally develop in empathic and altruistic ways. On the other hand, he also believed that insecure attachment tends strongly to suppress or override our natural tendency to care for others. Unfortunately, a large percentage of us grew up insecurely attached.
Where, geographically, do we find the greatest reported sense of well-being and happiness?
The greatest sense of well-being and happiness does not occur in the wealthiest nations, but in those with the highest trust among citizens and the most bonding-friendly social policies. Indeed, wealth comes with a high price tag. Many studies show that becoming preoccupied with materialistic concerns occurs with a loss of empathy for and loss of trust in others. A preoccupation with acquiring more possessions or reaching for ever greater highs from alcohol, other drugs, or sex does not work as an effective substitute for empathic connection with others. Our need for emotional connection exists so intrinsically within us that no substitute exists.
Does a support group that emphasizes learning about and using empathy require a professional therapist?
Perhaps I have too much naïveté, but I think that support groups do not require the assistance of professional therapists. In my opinion, insisting that they do amounts to commodifying relationships based on industrial capitalist reasoning. Humans have related quite well to each other in highly empathic ways from our beginnings as a species, thank you—and without the assistance of professional therapists—because evolution wired our brains with mirror neurons. Will some ESG groups sometimes behave in unhelpful ways for some people without the presence of a therapist? Certainly. Meanwhile, as fallible human beings therapists sometimes cause trouble. So, even though the presence of a professional therapist would most likely increase the probability of success of support groups, their presence would produce no guarantee. Meanwhile, many obvious practical constraints and growing needs act to make their presence an irrelevant, academic concern. In my opinion the benefits that will accrue from people simply meeting and supporting each other, just as humans have for tens of thousands of years, far outweigh the risks.
Let’s also consider an alleged need for professionals from a practical point of view: the needs for support already far outstrip the affordable accessibility of therapists, and those needs far more likely than not will grow exponentially. Already, a huge percentage of people do not have the luxury of expensive therapists, and this trend will surely continue to grow over time. Various groups of people, including the homeless, those with PTSD, ESGs, and many others need to, and can, do a “good enough” job of taking care of their own mutual support needs without the assistance of professional therapists as our social support systems collapse.
What about self-empathy?
We sometimes find it easier to have empathy for others than for ourselves. Meanwhile, a capacity for self-empathy plays a crucial role to psychic healing and we must nurture it as a powerful antidote to corrosive self-blame and self-loathing. Developing self-empathy and self-compassion go hand-in-hand with developing empathy and compassion toward others, who in the process become more real and three-dimensional. One way to jump-start self-empathic tendencies involves asking them how they would feel toward someone else in the same predicament; ask them, especially, how they would feel toward their child (actual or imagined) if that child had to deal with what they have to deal with.
How do we empathically deal with another person’s defenses?
Whether another person responds to in-the-moment expressive interventions emotionally or with increased anxiety and defensiveness, we explore their reactions in an empathic, supportive, and direct way. We reframe defenses with appreciation for their protecting the person. Rather than challenging the person’s defenses, as some methods suggest, we meet them with explicit empathy and validate them as absolutely necessary in the circumstances in which the defenses arose. Rather than pressure the person to change and abandon defensive efforts, we acknowledge them for the good work already done, and encourage them to remove the pressure they put on themselves to do more. As with a person wearing a cast for a broken bone, we do this based on the assumption that when they no longer need their defenses, they will no longer rely on them.
How do we best see empathy as helping others to adapt in more healthy ways?
In emotion-facilitating environments, the individual feels safe, helped, and deeply understood. We find pathology rooted in an individual’s adaptive efforts to cope with overwhelming emotion through the institution of defenses. As helpers, we seek to undo the effects of emotion-related failures through a stance of emotional affirmation and engagement. No longer alone, the person can then begin to process formerly feared as unbearable emotion. By fostering a climate of emotional openness and sharing, the other person and helper evolve a relationship in which mutual emotional coordination can occur without defensive exclusion of vital aspects of the self. Feeling supported and understood, the person can access primary emotions, reap the rewards, and thereby reach an increasingly authentic sense of self.
What do we wish to accomplish emotionally with empathy?
Les Greenberg: “From the EFT perspective, change occurs by helping people make sense of their emotions through awareness, expression, regulation, reflection, transformation, and corrective experience of emotion in the context of an empathically attuned relationship.”
Awareness. The most fundamental overall goal EFT involves increasing awareness of emotion. Why? Because when people know what they really feel, they reconnect to their needs and have motivation to meet them. Developing an awareness of and symbolizing core emotional experience in words give people access to the adaptive information and the action tendency inherent in emotion. Importantly, this awareness does not involve thinking about feeling; it involves feeling the emotion in awareness. We cannot change what has become disowned or split off. When we feel that which we have disclaimed, it changes. Only when we have felt emotion does expressing it with language become important in awareness. The goal involves acceptance of our emotion. We find self-awareness and self-acceptance interconnected, and to truly know something about oneself, one must feel it and accept it. Four important stages of problematic emotion awareness occur: (1) awareness after an event, when reflecting on what one felt in the past; (2) reduction in the length of time it takes to develop an awareness of one’s primary emotions; (3) recognizing the emotion as it arises and having the ability to stop it before it arises, transforming it before it emerges fully, if it makes best sense to do that in the situation; and, finally, (4) the situation does not trigger the problematic emotion at all.
Expression. Helpful emotion expression does not involve venting secondary, reactive emotion but rather overcoming avoidance of emotional experience and having the ability to express previously constricted primary emotions. Because of the strong human tendency to avoid experiencing and expressing painful emotions, in our support group meetings we must encourage each other to overcome our avoidance and approach painful emotion by attending to our bodily experience, often in small steps. Meanwhile, optimum emotional processing includes integrating both cognition and emotion, and transformation of emotion, not just tolerating it. After achieving contact with primary maladaptive emotional experience, such as core shame, basic insecurity, or loneliness, and expressing the emotion, participants must also cognitively orient to that experience as useful information, symbolize it in awareness, and explore, reflect on, and make sense of it, finally transforming it.
Regulation. In some situations, regulation of emotion proves important. Secondary reactive emotions, such as despair and hopelessness, or anxiety about anxiety, or primary maladaptive emotions, such as shame regarding worthlessness, anxiety related to basic insecurity, and panic, generally require down-regulation. Providing a safe, calming, validating, and empathic environment serves as the first step in helping emotion regulation. We follow this with teaching emotion regulation and stress tolerance skills involving things like identifying triggers, avoiding triggers, identifying and labeling emotions, allowing and tolerating emotions, self-soothing, breathing, and seeking distraction. Meditative practice and self-acceptance often help greatly in achieving a working distance from overwhelming core emotions. Regulating breathing, observing one’s emotions, and letting them come and go help greatly in regulating emotional distress. Promoting people’s abilities to receive and have compassion for their emerging painful emotional experience serves as an important step toward tolerating emotion and in self-soothing.
Reflection. Promoting reflection on emotional experience helps people make narrative sense of their experience and promotes its assimilation into their ongoing self-narratives. Writing about emotional experience has positive effects on autonomic nervous system activity, immune functioning, and physical and emotional health. Through language, people can organize, structure, and ultimately assimilate both their emotional experience and the events that may have provoked the emotions. Writing a story provides a cognitive organizing process, a kind of time gestalt in which a particular plot or theme determines the meaning of life events and actions. The story transforms the person’s experiences and memories into a meaningful coherent story, orders our experience, and provides a sense of identity. Les Greenberg: “Human beings long to experience their own sense of personal meaning and need to create meaning to overcome an existential vacuum.”
Transformation. Perhaps the most important way to deal with maladaptive emotion involves not just exposure to the emotion, nor regulating it, but transforming it with other emotions. This holds true especially for transforming primary maladaptive emotions, such as fear and shame, and sadness related to lonely abandonment using other adaptive emotions. In EFT we want to arrive at maladaptive emotion not for its good information and motivation but to make it accessible for transformation. We have an important paradox regarding the path to emotional change: it needs to start not with trying to change the emotion, but with fully accepting the painful emotion. We must fully feel and hear their messages before they will become open to change by other emotions. So we have a major premise that guides intervention in EFT: if you do not accept yourself as you exist, you cannot make yourself available for transformation. One cannot leave a place until after one has arrived there. For emotion one has to feel it in order to heal it. One must first accept, even embrace, those aspects of oneself that one most wants to change. Self-acceptance thus always precedes self-transformation. The process of changing emotion with emotion goes beyond ideas of catharsis, completion and letting go, exposure, extinction, or habituation in that we do not purge it, nor does it simply attenuate. Instead, we use another feeling to transform or undo it. Enduring emotional change of maladaptive emotional responses occurs by generating a new emotional response, not through a process of insight or understanding, but by generating new responses to old situations and incorporating these into memory. We can in fact change the past—at least the memories of it!
Corrective emotional experience. New lived experiences with another person have special importance in providing a corrective emotional experience. Having one’s emotions accepted by others rather than rejected leads to new ways of living. Now people can express emotions, including vulnerability or anger, without getting punished and they can assert without censorship. The undeniable reality of this new experience allows one to experience that they no longer remain powerless children facing powerful adults.
How might we learn to use empathy as individuals outside of a training course, emotion-focused ESG, or ASG meetings?
- Learn about empathy by reading and watching training videos
- Actively look for opportunities at work, among family, and among friends to listen empathically and then practice doing that
- Write reminders on our calendar
- Practice by using written dialogs found in books like The Transforming Power of Affect and in Counseling and Therapy Skills. We can read the dialog using paper to cover the next material and think of how we might respond to the things a person has said, then uncover the next lines to see how the therapist responded. (In doing this we need to remember that no one, right, best response exists. Many possible responses exist at each moment.)
- While watching a movie or reading a novel, think of how we might respond empathically in various situations.
- Forcefully and persistently practice until we have developed new habits and skills—a long-term process.
- Have patience with ourselves as we learn this complex, subtle skill.
How might we learn to use empathy within EF ESG and ASG meetings?
I see no reason why any group of people that wishes to do so, such as an emotion-focused ESG or an attachment support group, cannot learn about empathy and practice using empathic skills with each other. This idea largely motivated my writing this essay: so that I and others might learn about and practice these critical attachment and relationships skills.
What serves as perhaps the single most important principle for listening with empathy?
To listen effectively with empathy, we most importantly focus on the present emotional experience of the speaker, not on events and ideas. We then reflect back what we feel with our words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
What specific skills that support listening with empathy should I learn and practice?
Practice using RISSSC skills: Repeat key words and phrases; use Images or word pictures that evoke emotions; use Simple, concise phrases; Slow the process and pace of speech, both yours and the speaker’s; use a Soft and soothing tone of voice; use the “Client’s” words and phrases in a supporting and validating way.
What general processes can we use to increase the effectiveness of empathic listening?
Mirroring (or reflecting). We can mirror the other’s emotions and validate their experience. We do this by reflecting back the emotions, sometimes enhancing them, always validating, and letting the other person hear and see in our voice, eyes, face, and words the depth and meaning of their own experience.
Anticipatory mirroring. We can respond emotionally to the other person as if they expressed their feelings as we think they may experience them and express them if they could. In doing this, we project what the person might feel if they could allow themselves to experience these emotional responses. This can facilitate their getting in touch with their feelings.
Amplifying. When the person gives only a hint of an emotional experience, we can acknowledge the feeling and amplify it by introducing our own emotional reaction to it. For someone who has experienced the painful isolation of having their feelings ignored or ridiculed, this can arouse greater emotional experiencing.
Upping the ante. If a person speaks in terms of “irritation” we can reflect it back as anger. Similarly, we reflect sadness as grief, and an “upsetting” incident as a nightmare. In upping the ante, we do not want to overshoot: we do not aim to artificially heighten affect but instead to capture the precise nuance of their most undefended emotional experience. The other person’s visceral experience serves as the ultimate judge of the proper fine-tuning.
Naming and acknowledging. When a person has an emotional experience it helps greatly for us to acknowledge and name it. People commonly have tears in their eyes, their hand in a fist, or a tender look on their face without knowing or acknowledging that they feel sad, angry, or loving. A simple question like “What words describe how you feel?” or a suggestion, such as “Put these feelings into words” can make a huge difference. For many people feeling emotional means weakness or lack of control; naming and acknowledging emotions allows working through these associations, lessening shame, anxiety, and fear of affect. Undoing reliance on defenses against emotional experience rarely happens with only one trial. We have to make these interventions repeatedly. We must not underestimate the tenacity of defenses. Naming and acknowledging emotions works even more powerfully when combined with mirroring emotional responses.
Specificity and detail. Specificity works as the enemy of generalization, vagueness, and denial, as well as other intellectualized defenses. By simply asking “Can you give me a specific example?” we immediately engage with another in an emotionally significant way. Specific detail provides a window into how the person perceives, constructs, and operates in their emotional world as the person spontaneously selects the given scenario. We can better understand every issue or problem a person brings up when described concretely, in specific detail. If a person can include the sights, sounds, and smells of a situation they describe, they will come closer to reliving the experience and its related emotions. We can help by asking specific questions early on, and by trying to picture the scene, people, activity, and drama as it unfolded. If a man says he hates his wife, we can ask him to select one such instance with detail about where, when, how they sat, who said what, and so forth. We root all emotional-experiential work in the specific example. Diana Fosha: “The high level of clarification and detail lays the groundwork for further affective-experiential exploration.” The more detailed an account, the more difficult it becomes for defensive distortion to undo gains. A focus on specificity and detail does not only combat defense; it also helps the unfolding of experience in the presence of another.
Body-rooted experience. People often have little awareness of the extent to which their physical sensations associate with their emotional reactions. Shifting the focus of attention from what a person thinks to how they feel—specifically their physical sensations and visceral experiences—serves as another way to circumvent defenses without confronting them head on.
Do we use empathy to comfort others?
Yes and no. (But probably more no than yes.) Most people usually do feel comforted when they experience empathic understanding. On the other hand, experiencing evocative empathy can feel quite uncomfortable, even painful at times during the process. This can happen because it provides an avenue for, and encourages a person to experience, sometimes painful or upsetting sensations or emotions. Remember: we cannot leave a place until after we have arrived there, and that arrival can sometimes feel distinctly uncomfortable. On the other hand, experiencing previously unexperienced primary emotions usually leaves a person with positive feelings of significant relief, resolution, accomplishment, reduced tension, and/or calm, and they find this noticeable emotional “shift” deeply comforting, although uncomfortable at the time they experienced it.
How does empathy relate to knowledge?
Many people somewhat naively believe that persuading and motivating others to act largely involves “a matter of bringing empirical and irrefutable proof in front of them before they will acknowledge anything.” After eight years of teaching high school physics and chemistry, including getting heavily into the new field of Physics Education Research (PER) and developing some friendships with some of the researchers, as well as more recently getting heavily into to the new field of emotion-focused therapy, I would say that we find the situation, actually, much, much worse than this. How so? For this reason:
Contrary to ever-so-popular belief, bringing empirical and irrefutable proof in front of people far more often than not has little if any influence on them. Many, many science teachers waste huge amounts of time based on this popular belief/assumption (one that I shared for about 50 years). The idea that providing “empirical and irrefutable proof” will change people in significant ways grows out of a false assumption that humans exist as rational animals, but we do not. We find ourselves first and foremost emotional animals, and we actively construct all of our knowledge, largely prompted by our emotions in doing this construction. Others cannot and do not in any sense “pour knowledge into our heads”.
For sure, we can find language—others telling us something, books, or hearing a lecture—helpful, but only if this occurs within our proactive, knowledge construction process. Otherwise, all of the telling and lecturing works like water off a duck’s back. So our telling others things, including providing all kinds of bomb-proof evidence, will have little or no effect until, unless we somehow first “capture” their primary emotions regarding the subject. Thus the crucial importance not just of what we write and say, but how we write and say it. Most people, most of the time do pretty continuously work at constructing their knowledge, but we do that construction based mainly on unconscious emotional processes active within us, not based on conscious, rational reasoning. I know: this clashes severely with what our human supremacist culture has taught us deeply to believe about human rationality.
If I really believe this, why would I go to the trouble of writing any of the essays that I have written and Guy has published? Because I believe that some percentage of readers do proactively work at constructing their knowledge regarding the things I write about. These readers may find some of the things I write about, which for the most part comes from authors I have read, helpful in their knowledge construction processes just as I find it extremely helpful to read others’ work in constructing my knowledge.
How does empathy relate to sexuality?
A few quotes from the often recommended book on sexuality titled Enduring Desire, Your Guide to Lifelong Intimacy by Michael Mertz and Barry McCarthy (2011): “Cultivate mutual empathy, the “emotional embrace” that constitutes the vital glue of your relationship.” “When there is conflict, empathy is the default mode you need. Without empathy as the foundation for decisions about action, your problem-solving choices—however smart—might fail because they are not molded to the concept of ensuring each partner feels accepted—the foundation of an intimate team.” “Your relationship is the environment for quality couple sex, and empathy is the premier emotional ‘glue’ for your sex life.”
How does empathy relate to people thinking about near term human extinction (NTHE)?
A secondary, primary-emotion-avoiding, reactive process may very well serve as the single most important, human process (aside from the more fundamental thermodynamic processes) that accounts for most of the self- and other-destructive behaviors of humans throughout our history as a species—with its highly probable tragic climax of near term human and other species’ extinction. This secondary, primary-emotion-avoiding, reactive process probably also accounts for our obsession with magic and religion. For just one of many possible concrete examples, resenting another person’s good relationship (an example, from the movie “Seven Years In Tibet”) serves as a secondary, reactive emotional response that “protects” the resenting person from a more painful primary emotion, probably great sadness related to not having such a rewarding relationship.
Reactive primary emotion-avoiding effects like this serve a person in the short term by “helping” them to avoid and distract themselves from their still more painful primary emotions. (This can have survival value in some situations in the short term.) Thus, our reactive emotions work in powerful, immediate gratification, negatively reinforcing ways, much as consuming crack cocaine, alcohol, and many other mood altering drugs does, but it occurs immediately, internally, and thus much more powerfully. (“Negative reinforcement” refers to relief from discomfort and pain, not to punishment as many people believe.) In summary: we find ourselves emotionally wired to avoid painful but helpful emotions by replacing them with less painful and unhelpful emotions, and we do this with ultimately fatal consequences for us as a species in the form of global heating-, ecological collapse-, nuclear power plant collapse-related NTHE.
Given the adaptive value and automatic, spontaneously changing nature of our primary emotions (anger, fear, joy, disgust, surprise, and sadness), while our secondary reactive emotions do not have much adaptive value and do not readily change, it would probably serve us all well frequently to ask ourselves, “What do I do here that keeps me out of touch with my primary emotions?” and then commit to working at not doing those things. What a nice idea. But notice the Catch-22 here: a person will pursue this internal questioning and responding process only if they have a strong willingness to face and go through significant emotional pain—the very process that we so strongly work at avoiding. Most people normally will do this kind of painful emotional work only with much empathic support of another person; thus the importance of empathy in ESGs in helping those processing the high probability of NTHE.
Meanwhile, far more often than not people react with strong, secondary, reactive anger when others challenge their favorite beliefs, which they use to avoid their more painful primary emotions, perhaps most often and most strongly, fear and shame—just as many people may as they read this. This accounts for much of the bullying, verbally violent writing that occurs at Nature Bata Last and in many other places. It also emphasizes the importance of slowly, gradually helping people to explore these powerful emotional issues, as they can, using empathy. We will have little success in helping people by challenging and pushing them; we will do much better to create safe emotional environments that allow spontaneous, unconscious, emotional processing to occur. (For much more on primary versus secondary, reactive emotions, see my essay titled “Primary Emotions, Reactive Emotions, And Defenses” here https://guymcpherson.com/2015/05/primary-emotions-reactive-emotions-and-defenses/.)
Will you give a couple of concrete examples of empathic responses?
- Regarding abrupt climate change, ecological collapse and NTHE, a person might say something like “It’s not fair that my children will have to experience the coming horrors!” On one level, one can see this as an accurate statement of fact about simple justice. But this remains fundamentally a feeling message. Our job, as sensitive listeners, involves bringing the related feelings to life in a way that leaves the speaker with a sense that we understand on an emotional level what they meant. We might say something like “Help me if I have this wrong, but I sense that you feel not just angry, but sad, and maybe even afraid, about their likely suffering—and your own.” In doing this, we have to do two things. First we have to understand what they meant based on the subtle cues; second, we need to find words facial expression, tone of voice and so on to let them know that we understood. The purpose of empathy involves helping another person fully face their experience, to face what they feel and think in that moment but cannot quite see clearly. Meanwhile, people with an external focus may find it difficult to focus internally, and this might include both the speaker and the listener.
- While describing a situation during a meeting, a participant breathes deeply. In response, another participant uses evocative empathy saying “It’s like ‘if I show him the real me, I don’t think he’ll actually accept me and love me.’”
McPherson’s latest book is co-authored and illustrated by Pauline Schneider. Ms. Ladybug and Mr. Honeybee: A Love Story at the End of Time can be ordered from the publisher here and from Amazon. Trailer is embedded below.
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McPherson’s recent book is co-authored by Carolyn Baker. The Second, Revised edition of Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind is available. Electronic copy is available here from Amazon.
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