Oct 27

Empathy Deficit Disorder: 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.”

According to Greater Good, “Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: ‘Affective empathy’ refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. ‘Cognitive empathy,’ sometimes called ‘perspective taking,’ refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.”

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.”

Want to show empathy to someone you care about but aren’t sure you can pull it off? Emily McDowell‘s popular line of “Empathy Cards” may be of some help. Some examples of her cards’ captions:

When life gives you lemons I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.

I promise never to refer to your illness as a “journey.”

Unless someone takes you on a cruise.

The Five Stages of Grief:

Crying in public

Crying in the car

Crying alone while watching TV

Crying at work

Crying when you’re a little drunk

Apr 24

Complaining Effectively (Or Not): Guy Winch’s “The Squeaky Wheel”

So many noted individuals have spoken out against complaining. But is this tendency to complain about complaining at all fair to this timeless and widespread practice?

A few of the anti-complainers:

Maya Angelou: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

Randy Pausch: “Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”

Eckhart Tolle: “When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”

Presumably, though, some of this is actually a semantic issue. Therapist (and standup comic) Guy Winch, author of the highly rated The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem (2011)explains this in Psychology Today:

Complaining and whining can be distinguished by the nature of the dissatisfaction and by our motivation for expressing it. Complaining involves voicing fair and legitimate dissatisfactions with the goal of attaining a resolution or remedy. When we voice legitimate dissatisfactions but do so without the goal of attaining a resolution we are merely venting. And when the dissatisfactions we voice are trivial or inconsequential and not worthy of special attention, we are whining.

In this model, then, complaining is good; whining bad. Venting somewhere in between.

On the benefits of complaining, Winch further states, “Speaking up about a complaint and attaining a resolution makes us feel empowered, assertive, effective, and resourceful. It can boost our self-esteem and enhance our feelings of efficacy. It can help us battle depression, improve our relationships, salvage partnerships, and deepen friendships.”

That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that all inner complaints are worth mentioning; so, an important step is figuring out which ones are. For example, in an intimate relationship, which issues can you let go of and/or figure out on your own and which are worth risking the possibility of overt tension and conflict?

Winch proposes asking oneself five questions before proceeding (Psychology Today). (Refer to the post for more details.)

  1. What do I want to achieve? “Knowing the answers will help you express what you actually want more clearly—and make it more likely that you’ll get it.”
  2. To whom should my complaint be voiced? “You might think this one is obvious but in fact we often complain to one person about the behavior or actions of another.”
  3. What is the best venue and method to express my complaint? “While talking in person is generally best, if one member of a couple tends to be explosive or defensive, or if one is much more skilled at expressing their feelings and debating than the other, discussing an issue over email might keep the calm and give both partners a chance to collect their thoughts and think through their responses (read Why Some Couples Should Argue over Email).”
  4. What’s the best time to voice my complaint? “Be aware of the other person’s mood and tendencies and when in doubt, simply ask when they can have a discussion.”
  5. How should I phrase and structure my complaint? “The best way to structure a complaint is to use the complaint sandwich method in which you sandwich your concern between two positive statements. The first positive sentence should make the person less defensive and the second should motivate them by letting them know that if they respond to the complaint positively all will be well (i.e., you won’t carry lingering resentment).”

Below Winch elaborates on the “complaint sandwich“: