The Path to Managing your Empathy.

“Enlightenment” – Dalai Lama by Mimi Stuart ©

Empathy can be a wonderful trait if you can choose wisely when to be empathetic and to what degree.

When Empathy is Helpful

The ability to sense, imagine, and feel what someone else is feeling allows us to tune into other people’s emotions and to know when someone who is suffering can use some help. That help might involve showing sympathy and warmth, or it might involve making a plan and taking action. Someone whose family member has passed away probably needs warmth, understanding and sympathy, whereas someone who has lost a job or is sick may need help brainstorming job opportunities or help arranging a doctor’s appointment. Communities facing hardship such as hunger or unemployment may need people with money or logistical support.

When practical action or critical thinking is needed, too much empathy can get in the way. (See “Can you have too much empathy?”) If empathy tends to overwhelm you, it is wise to learn how to tune down your empathetic responses in situations where you need to be quick thinking, practical, or ready to take action. People can learn to moderate their immediate responses through awareness and practice.

How People Develop Empathy

We all develop specific traits and response mechanisms as a result of our own specific life experience. Some individuals are the responsible ones, others are funny, accommodating, bossy, or empathetic, etc. People who are very empathetic have often experienced an environment where a keen sensitivity to others’ suffering helped them avoid potential insecurity or danger. Examples include having a volatile or depressed parent that needed appeasing. Empathetic people develop a fine sense in detecting the emotional state of others as well as a strong drive to soothe another’s needs and emotional suffering.

Every personality trait has a good and a bad side. It generally becomes harmful when a person’s tendencies become too strongly ingrained and responses become automatic and impulsive.

Generally in adulthood, we find out how our personality traits may be making life difficult for us or those around us. Someone who is overly empathetic, for instance, may become overwhelmed by sadness or despair for the hardships of others to the point where their life becomes pure anguish. Another danger for the empathetic person is being manipulated by narcissistic or self-serving individuals. Imagine someone who sulks or dramatizes feeling hurt in order to exploit the empathetic person’s desire to ease their suffering. The use of guilt or exaggerated suffering to manipulate another person is a form of emotional fusion, which ultimately leads to misery.

Developing Choice

Often the understanding that empathy can be harmful in certain cases is enough to give you permission to tune down your empathy. When you realize that empathy is not always helpful to others, you will no longer feel driven to dwell on the suffering of others. The goal is not to stop being who you are, but to develop awareness and see all of the choices you have in a given situation.

First, decide whether others will benefit from your empathy, more practical help, or indifference. Sometimes a show of warmth and sympathy is much needed and will be appreciated, but in some situations injecting too much heart-felt emotion can exacerbate the situation, distracting from practical and constructive strategies.

Second, beware of individuals who try to exploit you by calling you “uncaring,” or “cold,” the very labels that are most likely to bother you. They are trying to manipulate you. Beware also of those who want you to suffer when they are suffering. True friends may benefit from your empathy, but they will not want you to suffer.

Third, find a friend who is balanced, that is, not overly empathetic but not unempathetic, to consult when you are unsure of your reactions.

Fourth, when you need to tune down empathetic tendencies, change your focus by using the rational part of your brain. Read, plan, or figure out what specific action you can take. It is difficult to be overwhelmed by emotion when you focus on the specifics, What, Where, When and How. Just try doing a complex math equation to prove the point.

Therapy and Practice

Most people are able to intentionally adapt and adjust their personality depending on any given situation. For example, someone who is generally light-hearted and funny can regulate those traits during a serious business meeting. Military officers can modulate their tendency to use their authority when dealing with family or friends.

Problems only tend to arise when people have trouble tuning down their primary personality traits when it’s appropriate to do so. If you have trouble tuning down your empathy when you want to, “Voice Dialogue” or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” can help you learn and practice controlling the amount of empathy you experience and show.

In Voice Dialogue, you learn to access different parts of yourself at will, and thereby develop a stronger “Aware Ego,” which allows you to have better control over your automatic tendencies and behavior. Any particular “self” or personality trait has a whole conglomeration of thoughts, feelings, and physical and behavioral aspects.

A therapist can guide you to embody different parts of yourself at will, and have you practice turning up and down the volume, so to speak, of any particular personality trait. For example, you would embody your empathetic self to 80% and then tune that down to 20%, and then do the same thing with a contrasting trait, such as the action-oriented rational part of yourself. You also learn to mix different parts of yourself, for example, the moderately firm parent with the mildly empathetic parent—a great mix if you want a child to take you seriously without hating you.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) rarely involves actual embodiment of behavior but rather focuses on learning to become aware of your reactions and behavioral patterns. The therapist helps you find effective strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with your ineffective or harmful behavior and thinking.

In essence, both therapies help you to become more sharply aware of your own tendencies and their impact on yourself and others. Dramatic practice then rewires your brain and provides you with the ability to choose how to respond to the world around you, in order to be truly more helpful and lead a more satisfying life.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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Contempt:
“You’re always scowling at me!”

"Forlorn Heart" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Contempt breaks the heart, because it implies that one person considers the other as undeserving of respect. Studies have shown that people who make sour facial expressions when their spouses talk are likely to be separated within four years. The dissolution of the relationship may take longer, but contempt will steadily and painfully eat away at a relationship, even when there are a few good times in between. In an atmosphere of contempt, partners find it difficult to remember any positive qualities about each other. So the vicious cycle of disdain and hurt gets worse and more irreversible with time.

It is crucial to break this cycle before it gets a stranglehold on the relationship. If your partner talks down to you, express your desire and need to be treated with love and respect. Be firm, but compassionate enough to be listened to. Try saying something like, “You may not be aware of this or mean anything by it, but you look as though you dislike me. Your facial expression makes me feel defensive and bad. I would love it if you could look at me with love and kindness.”

If your partner doesn’t get it, show him or her the research on relationships and contempt. Get any of John Gottman’s books, such as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” that show the mathematical research on the effects of contempt on a relationship. Tell your partner that life is too short to spend time together if both of you are not willing to try to bring the best of yourselves to the relationship.

While you can’t control another person, you do have control over what kind of behavior you are willing to accept, and whom you spend time with. If your partner knows that you have the desire and courage to leave an unsatisfactory relationship you will retain power over your own life. If you’re determined not to let contemptuous behavior slide, your partner will be hard pressed to continue to treat you poorly. If the behavior continues despite your ongoing efforts, the only solution may be to limit or end the relationship before heartache and misery overwhelm you.

A loving relationship based on respect requires a sense of self-respect on your part. People who exude self-respect by stopping or withdrawing from others who talk down to them are more attractive than those who accept contempt. Expecting respect can be a more powerful aphrodisiac than unconditional acceptance. But it has to be backed up by the courage to remove yourself from an unhealthy relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

John Gottman’s website.

Read “Criticism and Contempt.”

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Can you have too much empathy?

“Crescendo” by Mimi Stuart ©

Can you have too much empathy?

Empathy is often considered to be the source of good behavior. The literal meaning of empathy is “the ability to share another person’s feelings.” Our culture highly values empathy and assumes you cannot have too much of it. However, when you experience other people’s feelings too strongly, you can run into big problems. Paul Bloom’s book “Against Empathy” shows how empathy can often prevent a person from making sound decisions in a crisis:

“Unmitigated communion makes you suffer when faced with those who are suffering, which imposes costs on yourself and makes you less effective at helping.”

Compassion, Kindness, Empathy

There is a subtle but important distinction between compassion, kindness, and empathy. Compassion is the concern for the suffering of others, which is different from actually feeling or experiencing the suffering of others. Kindness means being friendly, generous, and considerate of others. Kindness creates positive other-oriented feelings and makes other people feel better, which results in positive health effects all around. Compassion and kindness promote pro-social motivation and behavior, and are not likely to get in the way of good decision-making and helpful action.

Empathy, on the other hand, often comes at a great cost. As Walt Whitman quipped: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Becoming the wounded person creates distress for both the empathetic person and the suffering one, while also causing negative health outcomes for all. Moreover, too much empathy for a distressed person’s feelings often overwhelms the empathetic person and clouds clear thinking.


Do people in distress benefit from empathy?

Would you want a therapist to feel depressed or anxious when dealing with a patient who is depressed or anxious? Therapy would be impossible if therapists couldn’t put aside some of their empathy. Would you want a doctor to be overwhelmed with grief when dealing with the grief-stricken family members of a sick or dying patient? Would you want a pilot to feel the fear of the passengers in an emergency situation while airborne? Would you want a fireman to feel your loss while your life and property are burning or at risk? Clearly not. You want them to do their job calmly, quickly, and rationally, free of distracting emotions.

Empathy causes feelings of distress, which can incapacitate the empathetic person and obstruct objective thinking and effective action. Therefore, you can have more positive impact on others and on your own wellbeing when you do not experience too much empathy, albeit some empathy is helpful in making a person aware that others are suffering. People can be more effective helping distressed people when they are NOT experiencing strong feelings. The suffering person benefits more from people whose strength and decision-making are not hindered by feelings of distress.

A therapist should try to understand a client’s feelings, but without matching or absorbing those feelings. It is more important to be engaged by a client’s challenges and to think creatively about possible tools, options and solutions for improving the client’s life. In a medical emergency, you would want a trauma surgeon to stop the bleeding and assess the situation quickly without pausing to feel the patient’s pain. Pilots should focus on what actions are needed while remaining emotionally separated from their passengers in order to best serve them.

How does empathy affect relationships?

Too much empathy in a relationship leads to emotional fusion, which is quite destructive to the individuals involved. If your partner feels your anger or panic to the extent that you do, that will exacerbate the situation. If, instead, your partner remains emotionally separate, objective, calm and compassionate, then he or she can be a rock for you and help you gain perspective and insight into your situation. You can get better support and advice from someone who does not freak out or become upset when you are suffering and need support. Someone who remains cool and calm in difficult times can better guide and counsel you through emotional turmoil.

Similarly, parents who demonstrate too much empathy will overreact when their children are hurt or upset. A parent’s anxiety is infectious and will only increase the fearfulness and distress of the child. If the parent habitually overreacts to the child’s distress, either by panic or extreme coaxing or placating, the child may very well become an anxious, insecure individual. Children need to sense from their parents’ demeanor that everything will be fine. Often they learn resiliency and faith in the future from the parent’s calm, solution-oriented demeanor in stressful situations.

If you want to be effective at alleviating someone’s suffering, it is best to be compassionate and kind while remaining calm and emotionally separate enough to use your reason.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Reference: “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. 2016.


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The Insidious Triangle: Should you avoid triangulation?

“Mo’ Air” — Jonny Moseley by Mimi Stuart ©

Have you ever felt uneasy when a friend complains about his or her partner? Triangulation involves one person complaining to a third person about a primary relationship in order to vent anxiety. They are not trying to gain insight into how to deal with a problem.

Why do people triangulate?

Triangulating someone into your angst-ridden relationship temporarily relieves anxiety. People who feel helpless to change their relationship patterns sometimes seek to relieve their frustration through criticizing and complaining about their partner (mother, son, friend, etc.) Through the power of secrets, they may also temporarily feel connected to the person they are triangulating — a connection that may be lacking in the primary relationship.

However, the temporary feeling of connection and release of anxiety are like the effect of a drug — short lived and you always need more to get the same relief next time.

Insidious

Triangulation is as insidious as mold growing in the walls. While it’s hard to see the destruction, eventually the structure crumbles. In the end, complaining and listening to complaints is emotionally exhausting and corrosive. Being asked to take sides rather than having a dialogue is draining, futile, and brings everyone down.

The worst is when a parent complains to a child about the other parent, which puts terrible pressure on the child. Children generally want any kind of connection they can get with a parent, even if that entails becoming the parent’s confidant. But they pay for their parent’s emotional venting with growing disrespect for the complaining parent and feelings of guilt for betraying the other parent.

Complaining about family or close friends erodes all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who complains about others behind their backs. Respect also diminishes for someone who listens compliantly to endless fault-finding.

Interlocking triangles

Often, when anxiety overloads the initial triangle, one person deals with the anxiety by triangulating others into the process, thus forming a series of interlocking triangles. For example, a mother complains about her husband to her son, who then complains to his sister, who then complains to her father. Each person’s alliance is dependent on other people’s anxiety and inability to relate directly to the person with whom they are experiencing problems. This is not a good foundation for life-enhancing relationships.

Life-enhancing relationships

The key to sustaining healthy relationships is to learn both to handle anxiety and to speak calmly and rationally directly to people about one’s feelings, needs and expectations within the relationship. Instead of blaming either ourselves or others, it is far more helpful to become aware of our own participation in the relationship dynamic. Awareness of how we perpetuate negative patterns through our tone of voice, behavior, talking too much, not speaking up, etc. is a prerequisite for change, growth, and wise decision-making.

Avoiding triangulation

We should avoid taking sides, but remain in contact with both sides. We can express neutrality and objectivity, or use humor while relating to the mature part of the person venting. Here are some examples:

“I think it would be more helpful if you talked to him about how you feel, rather than to me.”

“Since we can’t change her, let’s figure out how you might have participated in this situation.”

“I value my friendship with both of you. So, I would prefer not being in the middle.”

“I’m sorry you’re suffering so much, but I feel uncomfortable when you tell me such private details of your married life.”

“I don’t feel qualified to give you advice. I think this is something you might bring to a therapist.”

“I think I know how this story is going to go. Do you see a pattern in the situation? Maybe you could do something differently.”

Conclusion

Venting through triangulation diminishes you and those around you. Instead, if you focus on improving yourself and understanding others, everyone will benefit. Asking others for help in how to deal with a situation or to improve a relationship is very different from triangulation, and can be a good way to gain insight into your relationship dynamics. The key is to be open to feedback about your own behavior rather than just venting about someone else.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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Emotional Fusion: “Whenever I’m in a long-term relationship, I lose all of my passions, desires, and goals in life, simply to make the other person happy.”

“Sorcery” by Mimi Stuart ©

“I have always been very, very close with my mom. However, her constant complaining and negative attitude has always taken a huge toll on me. When I was younger I would have violent outbursts and hit objects because I became so frustrated. The concept of emotional fusion might explain my inability to be in real intimate relationships. Whenever I’m in a long-term relationship, I lose all of my passions, desires, and goals in life, simply to make the other person happy. I was wondering if you had any advice going forward regarding intimate relationships as it is something I crave yet am utterly and completely terrified to enter one again.”

Emotional Fusion

Yes, it sounds like emotional fusion may be the issue. When you are a child and dependent on a parent, especially when there is only one primary parent taking care of you or you feel very close to that parent, it is natural to focus excessively on tuning into and accommodating your parent’s needs.

As you grow up from childhood to adolescence and into young adulthood, it is natural and healthy to gain more independence, both in action and thought. A self-centered or unhappy parent is likely to feel threatened by a child’s natural drive for independence, and thus, become volatile and controlling. The child, as a result, will feel constrained or manipulated by the parent, while simultaneously needing the parent. These contrasting emotions create a great deal of inner conflict, which can lead to outbursts, tantrums, or depression.

Both drives are natural: 1) the desire to accommodate and avoid disappointing the parent, and 2) the drive toward independence and attaining your own happiness. But if these two drives are not allowed to coexist, the result will be great tumult and frustration. These drives will conflict when a parent unconsciously or consciously tries to suppress their child’s independence and need for emotional separation. The child senses that independence in emotions, thoughts or actions is risky and dangerous, which leads to feelings of resentment, anger, guilt, or depression.

Ideally, a parent balances rules with freedom, that is, having boundaries and guidelines with compassionately allowing their children to develop emotional and mental separation and autonomy. Of course, there is no such thing as an ideal parent. Some may tend to smother their children in some respects while others tend to neglect them, at least to some degree. The greater the parent’s emotional reactivity is to the child’s emotions and actions, the greater the emotional fusion.

Future relationships

A person who is emotionally fused with their parent while growing up will tend to become emotionally fused with others in future relationships. They tend to assume they are responsible for the other person’s happiness. As a result, they lose sight of their own desires and goals.

It is fine to want your partner to be happy, but when it becomes your primary motivation, you fall into a no-win trap. Your happiness and vitality become dependent on the other person’s happiness, which puts an undue burden on both you and the other person, because you cannot make another person happy. You are aiming for something which you do not control, and actually shouldn’t control. Also, there is often an unspoken expectation that the other person owes you, and should make you happy in return, which leads to further disappointment and resentment.

Advice

My advice is to start imagining specific past situations where you have either submitted to doing something you didn’t want to do, responded with anger, or felt a distinct loss of enthusiasm and vitality. Then think of a new way you could have responded using a calm and considered approach, while honoring your own needs. It is generally not good to dwell on the past. But by considering real examples, which tend to repeat themselves, you can practice and prepare yourself for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

The goal is to learn to speak up for yourself while still respecting the other person, but leaving it up to them how they will feel and respond. Let go of your desire to insure that the other person will be happy and pleased with everything you say and do. Be considerate without becoming responsible for their reactions and emotions.

Examples

Do you put up with ongoing complaints? Then practice your response. For example, “I’m so sorry you are unhappy. Let me know if there’s something specific I can do. But when you keep telling me how unhappy you are, it also brings me down, and it’s not helpful for either of us.” If that person gets angry, repeat yourself once, and then say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and drop it or leave.

Do you spend too much time together, or do you give up doing things you love to do? Then find a way to do what is important to you, and express yourself without feeling guilty. For example, “Thanks for inviting me, but I need to get some exercise,” or “I have a project I’m working on at home,” or “I have been out too much lately.”

Do you focus too much on what the other person wants? Then become hyper aware of your tendency to neglect your own needs while focusing excessively on the other person’s needs. Express and pursue your desires with a matter of fact quality, “Sorry I can’t be there tonight. I need to catch up on sleep,” or “I was looking forward to practicing the guitar,” or “I need to rest and chill.” Anyone who easily disregards your needs is not someone you should lavish your attention on.

Do you feel that you have to fix things when the other person is sad, frustrated, or in pain? Be kind and compassionate, but resist your impulse to be responsible for fixing another person’s problems and moods. Use a firm, kind, calm voice, make no excuses, assign no guilt or blame. Wish them will while respecting your own space and needs. Use words like, “I wish/hope/want you to be happy/feel better/have a good evening,… but I need/would like/want to get some rest/see my old friend/catch up on reading….”

If the other person gets angry or feels hurt when you state your needs, then you may need to disengage from that relationship. A relationship that requires you to suppress your own needs to satisfy another person’s is not reciprocal or ultimately, sustainable. Alternatively, a relationship in which each person is primarily responsible for expressing and pursuing their own desires while being considerate of the other person fosters freedom, vitality, accountability, and long-term sustainability.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


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Feeling rejected by your teenager?
“I was upset at my teenage daughter for not travelling with me to visit family, preferring to catch the bus two days later so she could catch up with her friends.”

Detail from “Sultry Adele” by Mimi Stuart ©

It is normal for a teenager to want to spend more time with friends and less time with family. It may be painful and aggravating as a parent, but you should not take it personally.

It is important to balance your desire for control and closeness with your teen’s desire for autonomy and growth. Too much control and manipulation will cause the child to rebel and resent you and become secretive. Allow your teen to make decisions and grow, while you maintain reasonable boundaries and expectations. As long as teenagers are accountable for their actions and responsible for contributing to the family by doing some chores and spending some time with the family, it is best to allow them to develop increased independence as they grow.

When situations arise in the future where your daughter wants to spend her time with friends instead of with you and the family, try to be understanding, remain self-composed and by all means, avoid acting hurt. Be relaxed and self-assured and say something like the following:

“I understand and am happy that you want to spend time with your friends. But we love seeing you too. Why don’t you pick a night this weekend to have a family dinner with us / a day to join me to visit your grandparents.” Or

“I know you’d really like to see your friends this weekend. But it’s important for me and our family that we have some family time together. Let’s figure out what day would work best for everyone.”

When children grow to be teenagers, then young adults, and finally independent adults, the parent will suffer an unavoidable loss. However, to avoid raising a dependent, incapable grown child, you must embrace this loss. Look at the positive side: you are likely to gain a capable and responsible family member whom you like and respect.

In the meantime, you may want to focus on your interests, friendships, and making your own life more fulfilling. After putting so many years into parenting, it takes time and effort to re-focus your life away from parenting. Once you push yourself to do it for a while, you will feel happier and more vital. Your teenager is likely to notice and respect you more for it too.

In summary, avoid pursuing too much closeness and control over your teenager. Maintain reasonable expectations and mutual respect while your teen is living under your roof. Be understanding, yet focus more on your own life and expand it in new directions.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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