Empathy Tuesday

September 23, 2014

A shout-out for Empathy today. Great short clip by RSA shorts and Brené Brown.

I’m also interested in looking at the roots of empathy in childhood. Two clips which I sometimes show my students are the “Still Face Experiment” and the “Emotional Baby”. In the “Still Face Experiment”, a mother initially reacts to her baby’s distress with a non-responsive face. She then comes alive again in the interaction and it’s a moving example of disruption and repair. The “Emotional Baby” video shows a baby crying in response to the emotion of the mother’s voice singing a moving song.

Our own ‘baby experiment’ is ongoing. Tessie is almost five months old now and is doing well. Both L and I are doing less well and are suffering from sleep-deprivation. Those night-time feeds are a killer (for L – I get to change a nappy and go back to bed). Tonight will be the first time I get to feed Tessie in the middle of the night (if she wakes up, which has become her norm now). I’m really not looking forward to that, but if it means that L gets some sleep then it will be worth it.

I suppose it does help that Tessie is a cute baby (aren’t all babies?) When she gives me one of those smiles then I can get over my need for sleep (at least for a while).


Which brings me round to this. If you don’t see me around the blog – commenting, reading, posting – then this is why. We’re hanging on.



Babies and Bullying

November 2, 2011

BABIES are to be used in classrooms throughout Scotland as part of a pioneering initiative to reduce levels of bullying and aggression. The Herald in Scotland reports that the project, called Roots of Empathy, encourages children to interact in a nurturing manner with each other by bringing a baby and its parent into the classroom over the course of a school year.

Pupils are shown the attentive, loving interaction between the parent and child in a bid to teach them to better understand their own feelings and the feelings of others. The primary focus of the programme is to reduce problem behaviour, including fighting and bullying.

Louise Warde-Hunter, strategic director of children’s services at Action for Children, which is running the project, said it helped schoolchildren to get along.

“This raises levels of empathy among classmates, resulting in more respectful relationships and a dramatic reduction in levels of aggression among schoolchildren,” she said. “By increasing levels of emotional literacy in children at a young age we can lay the foundation for safe and caring classrooms and, in the long-term, safe and caring societies.”

That makes perfect sense to me but I’m still trying to get round the idea of bringing Baby F to school. I’m sure the kids would ooh and aah (well I hope they would) but the whole ‘bring a baby to school’ idea would involve quite a bit of organization and involvement from the mother (L in this case). Not practical for us since L is already swamped at work and I’m trying to get up to speed with the requirements of being a school psychologist 12 years after I last worked as a school counselor.

I’m enjoying it but there’s a fair amount of anxiety about living up to the standard set by my illustrious predecessor, who earned his PhD in Psychology in his last six months here and was a much-liked and respected speaker at schools and conferences. I’m lucky if I manage to get to one conference a year so the idea of actually presenting at a conference seems light years away.

I’m pretty pleased that I’ve managed to post something since I’m usually so discouraged by the lack of sustained concentration when it comes to blogging that I don’t post anything at all. Perhaps I’m losing my blogging enthusiasm. But one thing I would really like is if any of my blogging friends managed to find me on Goodreads so that I can keep up-to-date with what people are reading and have read and recommended.

Quite unrelatedly, L and I were browsing through Exclusive Books on Sunday when we saw a series of Gruffalo-related soft toys. They’re delightful and I was very tempted but eventually we thought that a book was probably more worthwhile. While we were admiring the true-to-the-book likeness of the toys, security arrived and were escorted into the backroom where the booksellers were keeping a shoplifter. I gathered that the shoplifter was a she and that she was black but other than that I didn’t hear anything more and felt a bit bad about being too curious. I remember that in the London riots the looters smashed all the windows in one street except Waterstones (which the commenters saw as a sign of the times – trainers being far more in vogue than books). But now I can’t help being curious. What was this woman trying to steal? Perhaps a DVD or a magazine. I can’t imagine anyone stuffing The Gruffalo under their jacket. But what if it was something for her child? Would we think any differently about it?

On the same topic, if you want to hear what Jenny Diski has to say about shoplifting (and her own shoplifting of books as a young teacher) then check out the podcasts at The New Yorker. I’m still reading and enjoying her Skating to Antartica but I don’t have anything interesting or profound to say about that.

A little empathy goes a long way

July 27, 2010

I just got a comment from a blogging friend to the extent that he resents the fact that I have to go on deployment to such a dangerous place. That comment meant a lot to me, perhaps because when I posted a status update on Facebook about going to Darfur, only two people commented. Now I’m almost never on Facebook and I don’t blame people for not responding since I almost never comment on other people’s status updates either. But it did make me think about the kind of support I’m getting (and not getting) as I struggle with anxiety about preparing to go to Darfur.

One Colonel suggested that my official passport application will take another six months and won’t be ready by the end of the month as I was told. A major told me that I probably won’t be home for Christmas since a replacement is unlikely to arrive in December and the OC of the base there has to give his approval before you can get on the plane. A staff officer was telling me about SA soldiers who were ambushed and robbed of their equipment, their vehicles and their wallets by Sudanese rebels. And then there are the comments about the unbearable heat. 45C to 50C in summer apparently according to one Colonel (although he was making that estimation on the basis of his daughter’s experience in UAE). My sister sent me a very helpful two-page list of everything that I should remember to take with me, which also had the unfortunate side-effect of making me more anxious.

And so what I’m left with is anxiety that rises and subsides again but generally appears to be on an upwards trajectory. The effect is almost paralysing. I sit in my office and worry and worry. I make a few phone calls and I’m told that I have to wait another month. And then I worry some more and feel a mix of powerlessness, resentment, anxiety and dread.

My social work colleague suggested that I plan a wedding for December, which will necessitate being back in South Africa. Now that’s not a bad idea and not very far away from being a reality. Watch this space. But I don’t want to put off this deployment for any longer than I can. If L and I schedule a wedding for December there’s a chance that they won’t send me until next year, which is really not going to work for us.

In the meantime I have other work to attend to and I find that my ability to read and write is deteriorating. It’s not that I can’t read and write. It’s just that I don’t have the sustained calmness and attention to do so. I’m on high alert here. Loud noises make me jump. And loud voices (which are quite common here) make me jump even more. I know that if I was a dog I would probably be cowering in the corner of my office and shaking almost uncontrollably. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I would just bite the next person who steps on my already fragile sensibilities.

But I’m going to have to address this anxiety one way or another. Some more therapy perhaps. Whatever it takes.

Rugby, apartheid and Empathy Deficit Disorder

September 7, 2009

At the Western Province versus Blue Bulls rugby game on Saturday (which I attended with my dad and one of his friends), I got smacked on the head by an over-zealous Blue Bulls fan. It happened like this. On the way into the stadium, I got caught up in the crush of fans waiting to be searched for weapons. As we waited our turn to be patted down, the fans with the WP jerseys inevitably started taunting the fans with the Blue Bulls jerseys.

One inebriated WP fan with no front teeth and a little daughter in tow would lean into the face of a female Blue Bulls fan and shout “WP jou lekker ding!” (WP you lovely thing!) while another man took a placard with “PROVINCE” on it and kept shoving it right in front of her eyes. She kept ignoring the chants and knocking the placard out of the way with her hand. In front of her a woman in a Springbok rugby jersey bobbed up and down as she faced the other fan and joined in the chorus of “WP jou lekker ding”.

Then Ms Blue Bulls got hold of her team’s flag and started waving it around, knocking the placard out of the way each time the drunken WP fan put it right in front of her face. Somewhere in the melee, she also managed to smack me on the head with it. Already annoyed at being caught up in this little scene, I caught the flag and muttered “moenie my slaan nie” (don’t hit me) before managing to get away. The Blue Bulls fan looked momentarily embarrassed at having hit me and then continued waving her flag.

Now I mention this little incident because it seems to represent, on a very small scale, a lack of empathy. Not the hitting on the head perhaps (because that was an accident) but the drunken taunting of an opposing fan. As I’m typing this I realise that I could well have misread the situation entirely. Perhaps the Blue Bulls woman thrived on the attention she got but I found it quite annoying that the WP fans seemed to enjoy her discomfort. They had a captive audience and they were not going to miss out on having their bit of fun.

What I’m leading up to here is a broader discussion on the lack of empathy generally, particularly in South Africa.

Washington-based psychotherapist Douglas LaBier wrote an interesting article a while back on what he calls Empathy Deficit Disorder. It’s not something you’ll find in the DSM but it’s surprisingly common and is associated with many mental illnesses, especially the personality disorders, autism and schizophrenia.

Empathy is something that’s largely ignored in the popular media (or at least our popular media). On Friday a colleague was telling me about an interesting presentation on empathy, ‘mirror neurons’ and gender differences. Basically the study found that women have a far greater capacity for empathy than men, regardless of whether the person they observed was considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Men on the other hand actually took delight in the pain of those they considered ‘bad’. I could see this played out on Saturday at the local rugby game. A player on ‘our’ team gets hurt and we feel his pain whereas if an opposing player goes down in a crunching tackle, all the home fans cheer with delight. Now I’m not suggesting that they want to see him stretchered off the field but I’m always amazed at how South Africans in particular take delight in the setbacks of opposing teams. If the Aussie cricket and rugby teams are doing badly, the average South African sports fan will be puffed up with glee. And then they will feel crushed and rather depressed when their team loses. I just don’t get it. Hence my surprise this Saturday when the Aussies whalloped the Springboks and everyone got rather glum about it. It was just one game and the Springboks are still favourites to take the Tri-Nations so why not feel happy for a resurgent and very talented young Aussie team?

But that’s just sport. On Sunday P and I took a walk around our local supermarket – not the one we usually go to but the one that’s closest to our house. The lack of common courtesy, sensitivity or even awareness of the personal space of others came as a bit of a shock to me. Now I will often accidentally bump into people and apologise but your average shopper seems solely focused on their objective and oblivious to anyone else. They won’t even look at you while they effectively push you out of the way and there are very few smiles or acknowledgements of others’ emotions (and you’ll be lucky if you get a few words out of the cashier as well).

It’s easy to generalise this to society as a whole but it does strike me that apartheid was a fundamental lack of empathy towards the ‘other’ to an astonishing degree, justified in the name of ‘science’ and rationality. Terms such as ‘separate development’ and ‘racial differences’ were used to justify why those with the power (whites) should basically exploit those of ‘other races’ for their own advantage. I’m simplifying here but that’s what it seems to come down to. Is it any wonder that the ‘formerly disadvantaged’ (as well as the formerly advantaged) display an alarming lack of empathy in the form of a violence and abuse?

LaBier says:

EDD develops when people focus too much on acquiring power, status and money for themselves at the expense of developing … healthy relationships. Nearly every day we hear or read about people who have been derailed by the pursuit of money and recognition and end up in rehab or behind bars. But many of the people I see, whether therapy patients or career and business clients, struggle with their own versions of the same thing. They have become alienated from their own hearts and equate what they have with who they are.

So what’s the solution? LaBier suggests that …

Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain to take advantage of what is known as neuroplasticity. … […] By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do and you can build respect for others. This doesn’t mean that you are whitewashing the differences you have with other people or letting them walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts and trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences.

I also think we need a concerted approach to teach empathy as part of the curriculum and we need to elect public officials who display this quality. And, more generally, I’d like to see a greater awareness that South Africans as a whole need to work on this if we’re to have a more healthy, happy society.

Learning from Barack: Anger, Empathy, Community

November 21, 2008

Reading Parts 2 and 3 of Dreams From My Father, I was struck by the power of anger as a force for change, Obama’s capacity to learn and grow out of adversity and the intertwining of the personal and the political. Barack’s experiences as a community organiser in the South Side of Chicago in the mid-1980s provide a few hints of the powerful political figure to come but the lasting impression for me was how an accumulation of small changes can make a big difference.

I was impressed with Obama’s honesty, his determination, his willingness to learn from people and his ability to integrate the diverse strands of his experience (Hawaiian, Indonesian, white, black, African, American) into a meaningful whole. For a start, there’s the interconnectedness of education, health, crime, the economy, identity. One moving scene towards the end sees a solitary Barack sitting in a packed Chicago church listening to the charismatic African-American preacher Jeremiah Wright give a sermon on the “audacity of hope”. The boy next to him nudges his arm and hands him a tissue, at which point Barack realises that he has tears running down his cheeks. In the context of his Chicago community work it makes a lot of sense and seems to mark a moment of emotional homecoming and integration.

On a personal level, the young Barack reminded me a lot of my friend Kevin R. A young American volunteer from Washington DC, Kevin came out to South Africa in the mid-90s to volunteer for a year at a black school in Limpopo province. He was tall, good-looking, confident, had a way with languages (he was half-Italian) and full of ideas. Like Barack, he grew up with his mother who encouraged him and his sister to travel back to Italy once a year to keep his ties with his father’s family alive. Kevin was smooth like Barack and had a way with women which I envied.

Kevin and I finished up our work in Limpopo at the same time and he came to stay with me in Cape Town before boarding a yacht to sail across to South America. Like the young Barack, Kevin had a yearning for his dad, who now lived in Brazil, and this was a good way of making his way back to America. I lost contact with him but I’m sure he made good. Probably not quite as good as Barack but he was headed for a good grad school and then a job with the UN, the World Food Programme or the EU.

Like Kevin, the young Barack had drive, curiosity, empathy, a sharp intellect, and a dissatisfaction which drove him on. Obama also has a great way of telling stories — you’re right there with him in the South Side of Chicago, noticing the sweat on the necks of the old men playing cards, breathing in the polluted air and feeling the cold wind blow about your ears.

One phrase that stood out for me was “a capacity for outrage”. He describes community workers worn down by the system who’ve lost the capacity for harnessing the anger that you need to make things happen.

There are many lessons to be learned in this autobiography. For a start I’m wondering about anger as a positive force for change, and the delicate balance between anger, empathy and hope. A few quotes to finish off with:

On community: “… communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens”.
On anger: “… anger’s a requirement for the job” (his first boss giving him advice)
On community work: “… getting to the centre of people’s lives”.
On black identity: “… are you surprised black people still hate themselves?”

Empathy and the Novel

September 22, 2008

This is a huge topic and I feel quite over-awed just approaching it. There’s so much to say and quite a few people have given excellent suggestions to me already (see previous posts). Perhaps a good place to start is with a quote from Joyce Carol Oates (courtesy of pages turned’s blog): “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

Since reading involves an active imagining of someone else’s world, the links and parallels with empathy are many. Interestingly, in “Empathy and the Novel” (2007), Suzanne Keen argues that while novelists use empathy both as a narrative strategy and a subject of their novels, and clearly engage strong affective responses in their readers, this does not necessarily translate into altruistic behaviour.

Empathy robustly enters into affective responses to fiction, but its proper role in shaping the behaviour of emotional readers has been debated for three centuries. Keen surveys these debates and offers a series of hypotheses about literary empathy, including narrative techniques inviting empathetic response. She argues that above all readers’ perception of a text’s fictiveness increases the likelihood of readers’ empathy, by releasing readers from their guarded responses to the demands of real others. She confirms the centrality of narrative empathy as a strategy, as well as a subject, of contemporary novelists. (book blurb, my emphasis)

This echoes other research findings on empathy and the movies, that (low empathy) men are far more likely to enjoy a movie (and empathise with the characters) if they perceive the characters as fictional rather than based on real life. I think real life brings a lot more anxiety into play, such as fears that people will make real-life demands on you for time and attention / affection / money. Fiction allows us to relax and engage “softer” (less guarded) emotions.

I also wanted to quote from Litlove’s post on Josipovici the other day:

…. once again the notion of being in the same place as a fundamental prerequisite for sympathy is raised. We might need to be in the same geographical space to coincide with an event in a different historical time, or we might need to make the imaginative leap to the same mindset as another person, to understand an enigmatic point of view, but true sympathy demands that we change places, that we move ourselves either physically or mentally into another realm altogether, so that the same perspective might be shared. And the point of doing this, Josipovici seems to suggest (to me at least) is that this whole awkward business of moving and mental shape-shifting is one of the basic and most admirable building blocks of love.

I like the way that empathy (or sympathy here) is a building-block of love. From a purely psychological perspective, that links up to the point that empathy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for therapeutic change. Being able to enter into the thoughts and feelings of another doesn’t mean that you will be acting compassionately towards them. Hunters will tell you that they try to think like their prey, much like a good detective will try and imagine herself into the mind of the criminal. (What did they think or feel when they were standing there under that tree, looking up at the house?) Stalkers are particularly creepy because they get into your mind and you have no idea what their intentions might be. This has relevance to therapy because sometimes, if the therapist is not sensitive to how they are being perceived, the client might see the therapist as hunting them and trying to exploit their vulnerability.

So perhaps (in agreement with openpalm) I’m saying that empathy is not enough. There needs to be compassion (or love) as well. Valerie Stone (an Australian psychologist) writes about how humans use their well-developed intellectual abilities for compassion or cruelty, and how language is used to construct (or symbolise) the world in such a way that provides an outlet for kind or cruel feelings.

Cruelty is what happens when we use our symbolic capacity to define another person as ‘the enemy’, and use theory of mind and executive function to plan an outlet for our ancient instincts for aggression. Compassion is what happens when we use our symbolic capacity to define another person as part of our in-group, and use our theory of mind and executive function to plan ways to benefit them, using ancient instincts for empathy.

I’ll have to develop these ideas a bit more during the course of the week, if patient admin allows. I’d be interested to read (online at Google books) more of what Keen has to say. She quotes Little Women for a start (which I’ve never read) and then readers’ responses to Middlemarch (which I have). I liked the reference to Cassaubon coming up with a theory that tries to link everything together. Sometimes I feel that way about empathy.

What the world needs now … is empathy

September 16, 2008

Empathy symbol
Here’s what they have to say over at http://www.empathysymbol.com:

“Heinz Kohut defined empathy as “the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.” We think that’s what the world needs today. As the cultural wars rage — Judeo/Christians vs. Muslims, immigrants vs. native-borns, Red States vs. Blue States — what we all need is to walk in each others’ shoes, to empathize with the other’s position, situation, upbringing, life experiences and feelings. Empathy leads to respect and caring for each other, and that is the sure path to peace.”

Reading that paragraph again, my brain catches on to the words “we think that’s what the world needs today”. Does anyone feel a song coming on? As in Burt Bacharach and the Posies? Check out Jackie Deshannon singing the Bach’s cheesy song (with really schmaltzy visuals) on You Tube.

And while you’re smiling, you may as well have a look at some of the Smiles over at the Smile group at Flickr:

I also really liked the connection that Marshall Rosenberg (of Non-violent communication fame) makes between empathy and surfing:

Question: “What is the Definition for Empathy?”
Rosenberg: “Empathy, I would say is presence. Pure presence to what is alive in a person at this moment, bringing nothing in from the past. The more you know a person, the harder empathy is. The more you have studied psychology, the harder empathy really is. Because you can bring no thinking in from the past. If you surf, you’d be better at empathy because you will have built into your body what it is about. Being present and getting in with the energy that is coming through you in the present. It is not a mental understanding.”

Question: “Is it speaking from the heart?”
Rosenberg: “What? Empathy? In empathy, you don’t speak at all. You speak with the eyes. You speak with the body. If you say any words at all, it’s because you are not sure you are with the person. So you may say some words. But the words are not empathy. Empathy is when the other person feels the connection to with what’s alive in you.”

Isn’t that great? Thanks to Duen Hsi Yen for that transcription. Check out his surfing links here.

On a slightly more thinking level, I also liked this:

Empathy is the ability to understand the situation of others and imagine how they feel. It’s at the heart of our closest personal ties and a key element in the relationship between clinicians and patients, especially in psychotherapy. […] researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston are monitoring physiological responses and emotional interactions during psychotherapy sessions. Results … show that when positive emotions are running high, patients and therapists are in sync physiologically, and the more in sync they are, the higher the level of empathy. (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, July 2007)