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From Barnes & NobleBetter Living Through Empathy
Empathy. Many have heard of it but few truly understand the depth and breadth of it at work, or understand how to use -- or abuse it. Enlightenment, however, is as simple as reading Dr. Arthur Ciaramicoli's book, The Power of Empathy. Ciaramicoli believes empathy -- the ability to understand other people's thoughts and feelings -- is a force that rules our lives, a force that serves as both guide and guardian to lead us toward greater intimacy and stability in our relationships with others. He believes it is an innate ability and a true survival skill that is fundamental to our social, moral, and intellectual behavior, though its effects often go unrecognized. It can be used to reach out to others and to offer solace and understanding. But empathy is also a double-edged sword, one that can be used against us.
Ciaramicoli divides empathy into two categories: good empathy and bad, the latter referred to in the book as the "dark side" of empathy. This dark side becomes evident when people capitalize on empathetically understood fears in others as a means of exploiting emotions and directing their behaviors to manipulate or take advantage of them. Some manifestations of the dark side are more innocuous than others, as when a talented car salesman uses empathy to prey on a prospective customer's fears or desires. Effective advertising often takes advantage of empathy as well, using it to play on consumer emotions and influence their buying decisions.
Other manifestations of empathy's dark side are far more harmful and may even be deadly. Ciaramicoli includes one riveting story of a woman victimized by a rapist and murderer who manipulates his way into her apartment using his knowledge of empathy. Ironically, it is also empathy that saves the woman's life, but not before a harsh lesson is learned. To provide an example on a far grander scale, Ciaramicoli argues that empathy was partly responsible for empowering the Nazi movement, allowing it to grow in terms of both popularity and numbers. Empathy was also used to motivate German soldiers to oppress and sublimate their death camp prisoners.
Ciaramicoli believes that learning how to recognize and deal with the dark side of empathy is a basic survival skill, one that is critical to good physical and emotional health. To aid readers in this quest, Ciaramicoli provides ten steps designed to protect against empathy's dark side. The goal is to find a sort of empathetic equilibrium where the two types of empathy -- functional and authentic (the definitions of which are explained in the first step) -- are in balance. The steps include some that work toward elevating self-awareness, discussing how we can be in better touch with our own instincts and longings, as well as improving our ability to tune into others.
As a practicing psychologist, Ciaramicoli has counseled hundreds of clients who demonstrate the ups and downs of empathy in action and he includes the stories of several of them in his book. These tales are riveting, enlightening, and touching, though none is as memorable as Ciaramicoli's own story, a personal tragedy with an aftertaste that flavors much of the rest of the book and, most likely, many of Ciaramicoli's beliefs and attitudes.
Watching these clients put their empathy to work with Ciaramicoli's guidance is both inspiring and exciting. After sharing these tales, Ciaramicoli shows his readers how to enhance their own empathic abilities by exploring the eight behaviors through which we experience empathy -- honesty, humility, acceptance, tolerance, gratitude, faith, hope, and forgiveness. For each of these behaviors, he shows how to do it right and do it wrong, providing gentle encouragement and specific activities that will lead to the desired outcome.
Not only will the guidance Ciaramicoli provides improve one's empathic abilities, it is a blueprint for living by the Golden Rule. His suggestions and exercises can be both life-affirming and life-saving. By advocating such measures as walking in another's shoes, learning to accept criticism while not being overly critical of others, and understanding the difference between constructive and destructive honesty, Ciaramicoli is promoting a kinder, gentler world. That endeavor alone is reason enough to buy and read this book. But the book's potential rewards go far deeper than that. Not only will it help you enjoy a fuller life, it might just help you keep it.