Oct 27

Empathy Deficit Disorder: Can You Retrain Your Brain?

There are those of us with enough empathy and those of us without enough empathy, the latter of which psychologist Douglas LaBier would say suffer from Empathy Deficit Disorder—a diagnosis he made up.

But first, what is empathy? According to Psychology Today, “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors.”

Now, what can you do if you have empathy deficit disorder? LaBier explains how neuroplasticity is involved.

You can ‘grow’ specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What’s more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you’re making in your thoughts and emotions. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity.

See his Psychology Today post in its entirety for examples of appropriate exercises for increasing empathy for your intimate partner, for someone you dislike, for strangers you encounter, and for people from other cultures.

In his post titled “How to Test Your Empathy” another expert, psychologist Guy Winch, explains that trying to imagine oneself in another’s shoes “involves directing our awareness to a place our mind does not go of its own accord–to what it feels like to be another person–lingering there for a moment so we register the emotional and cognitive landscape, and then returning to our own reality.”

Below is a video produced by The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio that movingly illustrates the need for empathy and the benefit of cultivating this within a helping setting, in this case a medical one:

Aug 19

“Permission to Feel”: Marc Brackett’s RULER Approach

New to paperback is last year’s Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett, PhD, founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

On his website, Brackett notes that emotions influence the following:

  • Attention, memory, and learning
  • Decision making
  • Creativity
  • Mental and physical wellbeing
  • Ability to form and maintain positive relationships
  • Academic and workplace performance

The architect of the RULER approach to social and emotional learning in schools across the country,  Brackett believes emotional intelligence is as important as academic intelligence. And, “Think about it: how many of us had a comprehensive emotion education?” asks Bracket (Maria Shriver website).

RULER stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions. And it’s not just for kids; it’s for all of us.

Tara Well, PhD explains RULER in a Psychology Today post. Excerpts are featured below:

  • Recognizing emotions in oneself and others. This is not just in the things we think, feel, and say, but our facial expressions, body language, vocal tones, and other nonverbal signals…
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotionhelps us make better predictions about our own thoughts and more informed choices about our behaviors.
  • Labeling emotions with precise wordsPeople with a more developed feelings vocabulary can differentiate among related emotions such as pleased, happy, elated, and ecstatic. Labeling emotions accurately increases self-awareness, helps us to communicate emotion more effectively, and reduce misunderstandings in social interactions.
  • Expressing emotions, taking context and culture into consideration. By expressing our feelings in accordance with cultural norms and social contexts, we can inform and invite empathy from listeners…
  • Regulating emotions effectively to achieve goals and well-being…(I)nvolves monitoring, tempering, and modifying emotional reactions in helpful ways, in order to reach personal and professional goals…

Selected Quotes from Permission to Feel:

My message for everyone is the same: that if we can learn to identify, express, and harness our feelings, even the most challenging ones, we can use those emotions to help us create positive, satisfying lives.

Most of us are unaware of how important vocabulary is to emotion skills. As we’ve seen, using many different words implies valuable distinctions—that we’re not always simply angry but are sometimes annoyed, irritated, frustrated, disgusted, aggravated, and so on. If we can’t discern the difference, it suggests that we can’t understand it either. It’s the difference between a rich emotional life and an impoverished one. Your child will inherit the one you provide.

In one study, sixth graders who went five days without glancing at a smartphone or other digital screen were better at reading emotions than their peers from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their phones, tablets, computers, and so on.

Emotionally intelligent individuals had an intuitive understanding of one of the central conclusions of happiness research: Well-being depends less on objective events than on how those events are perceived, dealt with, and shared with others.

…(T)he necessary skills: The first step is to recognize what we’re feeling. The second step is to understand what we’ve discovered—what we’re feeling and why. The next step is to properly label our emotions, meaning not just to call ourselves “happy” or “sad” but to dig deeper and identify the nuances and intricacies of what we feel. The fourth step is to express our feelings, to ourselves first and then, when right, to others. The final step is to regulate—as we’ve said, not to suppress or ignore our emotions but to use them wisely to achieve desired goals.

Dec 11

5 Messages in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a tear-jerking documentary about Mr. Rogers (see previous post). This year’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fictional, showcasing Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) through a based-on-a-true-story tale about his relationship with cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a guy with significant father issues.

As you can see in the trailer, some bonding occurs:

Five of the messages that stand out in this movie:

  1. The need for empathy and listening
  2. Feelings are meant to be addressed
  3. The importance of silences
  4. Mistakes happen
  5. Human sainthood isn’t a thing

Empathy

As reported by Ethan Sacks, NBC, the film’s director Marielle Heller was drawn to the idea of portraying the power of empathy:

“It feels like everyone is saying to me, ‘Oh my gosh, it feels like we need Mr. Rogers more than ever.’ We’re living in scary times and I think we all have that feeling that we’re losing touch with each other and we’re losing touch with the ability to listen to each other and empathize with each other.”

Feelings

As articulated by the subheading of an article by Mariana Alessandri, New York Times: “Fred Rogers’s belief that we should validate emotions, not suppress them, is wisdom for all ages.”

Through words and actions, Rogers demonstrates to both kids and adults that all feelings can be faced and that everyone can find his or her own outlets for dealing with the tougher ones.

Silences

Rogers not only listens in a way that allows meaningful silences in conversations, he also directs Lloyd at one pivotal point to share a moment of purposeful quietude. Joey Nolfi, ew.com, describes a scene that takes place in a busy diner:

…Rogers asks Vogel to take a minute of silence to consider the people who’ve loved him into being. For the next 60 seconds, Vogel and Rogers sit in quietude while the camera pans around the restaurant…before training on Hanks’ face as he shifts his gaze from Vogel to the audience in the theater, asking us to consider the most important people in our lives as well.

Mistakes

Richard Brody, New Yorker, on the filming of an awkward “Mr. Rogers” TV segment:

When a scene of Mr. Rogers assembling a tent comes to nought, Rogers, rather than retaking it or seeking another character’s help, completes the scene as is and makes his failure to assemble it the crucial theme, later explaining his decision to Vogel: ‘It’s important for children to know that adults’ plans don’t always work out.’

Sainthood (Is For Non-Humans)

Fred’s wife Joanne, now 91, was consulted before each of the aforementioned Mr. Rogers flicks. “’Just don’t make Fred into a saint.’ That has become Joanne’s refrain,” states Jeanne Marie Laskas, New York Times Magazine.

Joanne’s refrain has been adopted by people who spent their careers working with Fred in Studio A. ‘If you make him out to be a saint, nobody can get there,‘ said Hedda Sharapan, the person who worked with Fred the longest in various creative capacities over the years. ‘They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature.’

‘If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked,’ Joanne said. Disciplined, focused, a perfectionist — an artist. That was the Fred she and the cast and crew knew.

Jun 22

Mr. Rogers: Good People, Good Actions Matter

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. Fred Rogers, The World According to Mr. Rogers

Conversely, if you go looking for a negative review of Morgan Neville‘s new documentary about TV icon Fred Rogers (1928-2003), lotsa luck.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is about “TV’s Friend for Children,” a good person doing mostly good things, a good person who believed most people could also do good—an important message to help offset the currently ultra-negative tone and actions of Trumpism.

In Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Mr. Rogers conveys attitudes and behavior that may bring tears to your eyes. Watch the trailer:

What Rogers understood is that good people/bad people is not necessarily a binary concept. He would more likely emphasize behavior, i.e., there being more good actions than bad actions, by people who sometimes do good things, sometimes not.

An unrelated post by Glenn Geher, PhD, Psychology Today, may serve to clarify this point:

Many people divide the world into the good people and the bad people. Friend or foe – that kind of thing. But you know, five years in a PhD program in social psychology will knock that kind of thinking right out of a person. One of the most fundamental lessons of social psychology (see Milgram, 1963) is the fact that bad or antisocial behavior is much more likely to be the result of situations that facilitate antisocial behavior – rather than by some internal qualities that are somehow uniquely held by ‘the bad people.’

Or, as stated succinctly by Steve Taylor, PhD, Psychology Today, “In human beings, ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are fluid. People can be a combination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities.”

Taylor’s definitions of “good” versus “evil” also seem pertinent and seem to take into account, though, that some people not only do evil things but are evil:

‘Good’ means a lack of self-centredness. It means the ability to empathise with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own. It means, if necessary, sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others’. It means benevolence, altruism and selflessness, and self-sacrifice towards a greater cause – all qualities which stem from a sense of empathy. It means being able to see beyond the superficial difference of race, gender or nationality and relate to a common human essence beneath them…

‘Evil’ people are those who are unable to empathise with others. As a result, their own needs and desires are of paramount importance. They are selfish, self-absorbed and narcissistic. In fact, other people only have value for them to the extent that they can help them satisfy their own desires, or to which they can exploit them…

On the other hand, as empathy can be a learned trait, good actions sometimes come from unexpected sources.

Lara Zarum, Village Voice, on the particular relevance today of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?:

In the face of unnerving political turmoil like we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s tempting to throw up our hands and declare that there’s just nothing we can do. But Rogers might insist that there is something we can do (besides vote, which I’m certain he would’ve advocated): We can treat the people around us with dignity and respect. We can be good neighbors.

Feb 26

Shame Story: Something We All Have, According to Brene Brown

If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

In 2008 noted shame researcher Brené Brown wrote, “There are three things I know about shame:

1. Everyone has it.
2. Everyone is scared to talk about it.
3. The less we talk about it; the more we have it.

But who should be on the listening end of our shame story? Brown cautions that there are six types of folks who don’t deserve to be. Watch her tell Oprah in this classic interview (of about five minutes) or skip to below:

In an article corresponding to this interview, Brown lists the six types to avoid:

1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.

2. The friend who responds with sympathy (‘I feel so sorry for you’) rather than empathy (‘I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there’). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: ‘Oh, you poor thing.’ Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive Southern version of sympathy, ‘Bless your heart.’

3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can’t help because she’s too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let her down.

4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: ‘How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?’ Or she looks for someone to blame: ‘Who was that guy? We’ll kick his ass.’

5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: ‘You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.’

6. The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you: ‘That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!’

Unfortunately, all of us, says Brown, can also fall into this at times—the undesirable position of not being able to receive someone else’s shame story in a helpful way. This is most likely to happen when the shame-teller’s issues are too closely connected to our own.

So, all the more reason that choosing one’s listener needs to be context-specific. “When we’re looking for compassion, it’s about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.”

Furthermore, ideally we’d all have at least one of what a friend of Brown’s has called a “move-a-body friend.” Its history and coinage:

[Brown’s friend] said that one of her sister’s close friends had called her sister and asked her to help her move her mom. The friend’s mother, who was apparently only invited to visit once a year, struggled with alcoholism. When my friend’s sister’s friend came home from work, her mother was passed out drunk on the sofa. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and the kids would be busting through the front door any minute. She called because she physically needed help moving her mother.

Brown felt highly complimented when she heard exactly why this same person perceives her as such a friend:

I’d call you because you would come right away, give me a hug, never look judgmental or disapproving or disgusted. And then you’d say, ‘Let’s do this.’

The next day, when you saw my mom at the park or the soccer game, you’d be kind and respectful.

And most of all, it would never cross my mind to say something to you like ‘Please don’t tell anyone.’ You don’t do that.

Afraid you don’t have enough of these friends? Just having one makes you a lucky person, says Brown. Just one MABF is indeed a precious thing.