The Power of Empathy: Pracl GT crtng Intimacy Self undrstdg Lasting Love your Life

The Power of Empathy: Pracl GT crtng Intimacy Self undrstdg Lasting Love your Life

by Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Katherine Ketcham


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525945116
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/03/2000
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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Chapter One

Empathy's Paradox

Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. Empathy's paradox is that this innate ability can be used for both helpful and hurtful purposes.

I look at the ocean, and I think about empathy. Sitting on the beach watching the breakers crash against the rocky shore, I know that from one moment to the next this massive body of water is reshaping and transforming itself. As the tides change and the currents shift, everything is in flux, moving, tumbling, rearranging itself. The waves break and recede, eroding the high cliffs, smoothing the sharp edges of 350-million-year-old rocks. Clouds create their shadow places on the water's surface, while the sun's bright shafts create turquoise patches of shifting light. At night, from a distance, the water looks like glass on which the moon etches a silver pathway.

    Looking at the ocean from my place on the beach, I can be lulled into thinking that I know and understand its depths. Yet the truth is that for every bit of knowledge I have acquired there remain manifold mysteries to be explored. And so it is with human beings. Looking at the exterior we can convince ourselves that we understand the depths. How often do we observe the people in our world and imagine that we know them from the inside out? How often are we surprised by a shifting current of opinion or a tidal wave of emotion that brings new insight and understanding?

    As the tides direct the ebb and flow of the ocean, so does the powerof empathy surge within us. Empathy is an innate force, part of our biological inheritance, giving us energy, direction, and purpose in life. Empathy is not a feeling or sensation that suddenly washes over and engulfs us, but an intelligent, deeply respectful exploration of what lies beneath the surface of our world. Helping us maintain a sense of balance and perspective in an ever-changing landscape, empathy teaches us how to flex and bend, letting go of our preconceptions and entering into our relationships with open hearts and open minds.

    I define empathy as the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. Empathy's paradox is that this innate ability can be used for both helpful and hurtful purposes. Like the ocean's currents, empathy can be gently soothing at one moment and fiercely destructive in the next. I always think of Lisa's story when I am trying to convey the healing, nurturing power of empathy.

    A tall, attractive woman in her mid-thirties, Lisa was clearly in a hurry the first time I met her. She shook my hand and introduced herself, then sat down, placing her large leather briefcase on the floor next to the chair. Her movements were crisp and efficient. Every few minutes she would glance at her watch.

    "In a first meeting I usually take a few notes," I said. "Is that okay with you?"

    She frowned slightly. "I'm not sure you need to do that," she said. "I know you're a psychologist, but I'm not looking for long-term therapy. I heard you have an expertise in alternative medicine, and I need something like a vitamin or herb to calm me down and help me sleep. Maybe when I'm not so busy, I can think about a stress reduction course, but right now I just need something to help me get through the day."

    Lisa's desire for a quick solution and her obvious discomfort with the idea of exploring anything deeper than her surface symptoms led me to slow things down a bit. Something was driving her, and if I was going to help her, I needed to understand what it was. "I would be happy to answer your questions about vitamins and herbs and their potential to reduce stress," I said. "But first I need to understand more about you. I can hear that you want something right now, but I don't think it would be very responsible of me to give you advice without understanding more about your situation. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"

    Lisa's frown lines deepened and her mouth tightened in a This is not what I expected expression. "Well, okay, if you think it's absolutely necessary," she said, pointedly gazing out the window and shifting uncomfortably in her chair.

    I thanked her for her patience and began to ask her the standard questions. Was she married? Yes. Children? Two young daughters, six and eight years old. Occupation? A mid-level executive with a Boston technology firm, just received a big promotion, travels frequently, works ten-hour days. Parents' ages?

    "My mother is 65," she said. "I have two sisters and a brother, all older. I'm the baby of the family."

    "You didn't mention your father," I said.

    "My father is deceased," she said. I noticed that the skin around Lisa's eyes was suddenly soft and moist.

    "I'm sorry," I said. "Would you mind telling me when he died?"

    "Three years ago," she said, biting her lip. "He died in April."

    "He died three years ago this month," I said.

    Lisa nodded her head and then abruptly leaned down to look for something in her purse. That quick, involuntary action told me that we had arrived at a place of deep emotional importance. I watched as she continued to rummage around in her purse, keeping her eyes downcast; all I could see was the top of her head. After a moment, she straightened up and offered me a weak smile. "Sorry," she said, holding a wad of Kleenex in her hand.

    "That's okay," I said. "I think I understand."

    "You do?" she asked, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with the tissue.

    "You only get one," I said.

    "One? One what?"

    "One father," I said.

    She looked at me for a moment, and it was as if something inside her suddenly gave way. She sighed deeply, and her eyes filled with tears. "I start crying whenever I talk about him," she said apologetically. "My sisters tell me I should get over it. They say I'm acting like a baby."

    "I may not fully understand your situation," I said, "but I have a hard time thinking that because you have tears for your father, you're a baby."

    The tears began to fall down her cheeks, and she made only a halfhearted attempt to stop them.

    "Your tears tell me that you have very deep, very powerful feelings about your father," I continued.

    "Yes," she said. "I loved him very much. I miss him terribly."

    "I think your reaction to his death is very understandable," I said.

    "Even after three years?"

    "Definitely," I said.

    "So you understand what I'm going through?" she said, her eyes searching mine.

    "I think I do," I said, "but I'm sure there is much more to learn."

    A moment passed and then Lisa eased back in her chair and gave me a very sad, very weary smile. She began to talk about her husband, who had been laid off from his job a year earlier and was suffering from a serious depression. She said she didn't know how they would be able to make the mortgage payments for their expensive home, and she expressed concern about how her young children were coping with her long workdays and her husband's depression.

    "I feel like the dam burst," she said at the end of the session. "I've been putting all this energy into pretending that everything is okay. Admitting that it's not okay is a huge relief."

    This was a moment of empathic understanding, in which Lisa's self-awareness suddenly broadened and deepened. With empathy directing the interaction, her world gradually expanded, and she could see what she had not been able to see before. With new insight into her grief and her fears, she had a better understanding of herself and her sometimes difficult relationships with her sisters, her husband, and her children. With this expanded perspective, she resolved to take the time to explore her emotions and work on strengthening her relationships with her family members. Empathy, which always involves honest self-appraisal, offered her a new direction and revealed the possibilities for self-transformation.

    It would have been so easy at the beginning of that session to comply with Lisa's wishes, talking about the stress in her life and offering her some helpful advice on herbs and vitamins. She would have taken the herbs and perhaps, in the short run, they would have made a difference. But her pain would not have gone away.

    With empathy guiding my way, I knew that giving Lisa what she wanted was not necessarily the same as giving her what she needed. Looking beneath the surface led me to a deeper respect for her struggles and her pain. Together we slowed things down, a process that was calming to both of us because we were able to enter into a meaningful relationship, talking about the issues that really mattered to her and committing ourselves to a deeper, broader understanding of her unique experiences and the depth of the emotions connected to them.

    Lisa's story reveals the constructive, beneficial aspects of empathy, a driving force within us that seeks to understand others, not in a superficial way but in depth. But empathy also has a dark side that can be used for destructive purposes. Kindhearted people do not have an exclusive right to empathy. I will never forget the moment, twenty years ago, when I first began to understand empathy's dark side. I was sitting in my home office reading a collection of scholarly articles titled Advances in Self Psychology. Skimming through the chapters, slightly bored by all the theoretical jargon, I started reading an article by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut.

    Empathy, Kohut was saying, can be used not only for benevolent, constructive purposes but also for destructive ends. When the Nazis attached loud sirens to their dive-bombers, for example, they knew that this strange noise coming from the sky would create panic in people on the ground below. Using empathy—the ability to look into other people's hearts and souls, knowing their thoughts and feeling their emotions—the Nazis could play on their victims' fears in a calculated attempt to destroy them.

    Reading Kohut's analysis of the Nazis' sadistic empathy, I was suddenly, passionately excited, for at that moment I understood that empathy is much more powerful than I ever imagined. Kohut's insights into the dark side of empathy revealed both the paradox and the unrealized potential of this innate human capacity. An experience I practiced every day in my interactions with troubled men and women was suddenly revealed as a mystery, with a depth and breadth I could only begin to comprehend. Here was an enigma to be teased apart, for at one moment empathy can guide us to the most noble and uplifting experiences of life—altruism, mercy, self-sacrifice, love—and in the next instant the same capacity reveals the deceptions and betrayals lurking in the darkest recesses of the human soul.

    Sadists are not the only people who use empathy to manipulate others. Salespeople use empathy, Kohut continued, when they alternate between a stern, authoritarian voice and a soft, coaxing strategy designed to break down the customer's resistance. This is akin to the way many parents discipline their children, alternating between a commanding "you will do this or else" approach and a tender, loving appeal to the child's emotions. The salesperson, as Kohut put it, "is in the empathic contact with the child in the customer who was once made to obey by similar means, i.e., through near-simultaneous command and seduction."

    I had watched salespeople at work, and I knew how the most deceitful among them corner their prey, quietly assessing the most vulnerable targets and moving in quickly and decisively for "the kill." "Look, ma'am," I once heard a car salesman say to an elderly woman, "you need a car, you can't keep driving that old thing around, it's not safe!"

    In the next moment his stern, parental tone shifted to a warm, coaxing inflection. "Isn't this the softest leather you've ever touched, and the ride is so smooth, you don't even feel the bumps." Then, just a moment later, "I have an appointment in"—looking at his watch—"fifteen minutes, but I can reach my manager right now and get you the best deal you could get anywhere, okay?"

    Growing up I was always getting advice from my father, who owned a furniture store and was a gifted salesman himself, about how to deal with con men. My father sold only high-quality furniture, and he knew how to convince customers to choose his superior, if slightly more expensive, products rather than some cheaper imitation. He truly believed in his products, and he was an ethical man, so customers grew to trust him. But my father knew better than most how easy it is to manipulate people's emotions and thoughts. Over the years he learned how to determine if others were truly interested in your welfare or if their primary motive was to win you over in order to get something they wanted.

    Of all the skills he taught me, my father placed the highest value on this ability to assess other people's characters and motives. After returning home from a twelve-hour workday, my father would sit down with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, and ask me about my day. I would tell him my stories, and he would offer me his counsel, teaching me in his incomparable way how to look into other people's hearts and souls to discern their intentions. "Always remember, Arthur," he would tell me, holding on to my wrist for emphasis, "that someone who seems like a friend may be using you, and someone who seems like an enemy may only be afraid of you. Look into the other person's eyes. Does he look right at you, or does he avoid looking at you? What is he doing with his hands? Does he shift his weight from one foot to the other? Does he put his arm around your shoulder to convince you that you're his best friend? Always ask yourself, 'What is this guy trying to sell me?' And always, always"—and here he would squeeze my wrist harder—"consider the source."

    My father taught me how to calmly and thoughtfully assess other people's character in order to align myself with those who truly cared about my welfare and protect myself against those who wanted only to take advantage of me. I will never forget the time he visited me at work one day and I introduced him to a colleague I admired. Later my father said, "Arthur, Arthur, this is the man you look up to? Have you lost your self? I watched this man when you were talking, and he wouldn't look into your eyes! He didn't listen when you talked, he just waited until you were done so he could get his words in. Then he talked as if he were preaching to the masses." My father raised the pitch of his voice to emphasize his last point. "And did you look at his pants? Arthur, they were three inches too short!"

    I burst out laughing, but my father was dead serious. "His pants are three inches too short, Arthur," he said, emphasizing each word, "because he never looks down. He's too high up there, he doesn't care about you or me or anyone else, he only cares about himself and maintaining his lofty position."

    My father used empathy as a sort of X-ray vision to size up people, and he passed that wisdom on, hoping to teach me how to see into other people's minds and hearts in order to discern their intentions. Like the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, my father understood the power—both constructive and destructive—of empathy. I never associated my father's careful analysis of facial expressions and body movements with empathy, but after reading Kohut's analysis of the ways the Nazis and salespeople used empathy to manipulate their intended victims, the connection suddenly seemed strong and valid.

    I was hooked. I wanted to know more about empathy, how it works, how it can be used to influence others, and how people can use it to protect themselves. For it seemed to me that if empathy can be used to manipulate others for destructive purposes—as a would-be rapist might target a vulnerable young woman, gently coaxing her into his car—it can also be used by the potential victim to discern malicious intent. If empathy can be used to exploit people's emotions and direct their behavior in order to take advantage of them, it can also be used to protect and defend oneself. Empathy's sword is also its shield.

    As the years have passed I have become even more passionate about empathy. I am not a research scientist, so if you are looking for a scholarly treatise on empathy, this is not the book for you. I'm a clinician—I work with people who are hurting and need help—and my interest lies in the connections between empathy and intimacy. I want to know how empathy can be used to strengthen the bonds between us, offering hope and solace when someone is in despair, stitching together a relationship that has been torn apart by misunderstanding, building confidence, trust, and faith in those who have lost their sense of self. I teach women and men of all ages how to use empathy as an assessment tool, helping them recognize when people are well intentioned and good-hearted and when others may be using empathy in an attempt to deceive or inflict harm.

    Although I am not a researcher myself, I will describe the work of various researchers and their fascinating laboratory analyses of empathy. In the last decade empathy has come into its own as a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry. Research psychologists are exploring the different ways men and women express empathy in their relationships, distinctions between automatic (spontaneous) and controlled (intentional) empathy, how our emotions influence our behavior, and, even more fascinating, how facial expressions or body movements can involuntarily elicit specific emotions, like anger, fear, or joy.

    Scientists are careful to remain objective, but they can also be passionate about empathy. The University of Texas psychologist William Ickes, one of the most prolific and respected researchers in the field of empathy, makes this astonishing statement in his book Empathic Accuracy:

Empathic inference is everyday mind reading.... It may be the second greatest achievement of which the mind is capable, consciousness itself being the first.

    First, we are conscious—awake and aware of ourselves as thinking, feeling beings. Then we are empathic, meaning that we are capable of understanding each other on a deep level, actually feeling the emotions and understanding the thoughts, ideas, motives, and judgments of others. Empathy is the bond that connects us, helping us to think before we act, motivating us to reach out to someone in pain, teaching us to use our reasoning powers to balance our emotions, and inspiring us to the most lofty ideals to which human beings can aspire. Without empathy we would roam this planet like so many disconnected bits of protoplasm, bumping into each other and bouncing off without so much as a how-do-you-do, awake but unfeeling, aware but uncaring, filled with emotions but having no means of understanding or influencing them.

    By increasing our awareness of other people's thoughts and feelings, empathy shows us how to live life fully and wholeheartedly. Empathy is primarily interested in that process of becoming, enlarging, and expanding, for in truth that's what empathy is—an expansion of your life into the lives of others, the act of putting your ear to another person's soul and listening intently to its urgent whisperings. Who are you? What do you feel? What do you think? What means the most to you? These are the questions empathy seeks to explore. Playful and curious, always interested in the moment-to-moment interaction, empathy has the soul of a poet, the heart of a child, and the wisdom of a seer.

    At least when it is used constructively, for friendly purposes. For empathy's dark side is an equally important part of the story I will tell. Every day people use empathy to influence you. Your boss convinces you to work overtime by appealing to your work ethic or playing on your fears of losing your job. Your lover coaxes and flatters you, hoping to make you forget an insensitive remark. A child's eyes fill with tears when she does not get her way, in part from frustration but also in an undisguised attempt to change your mind. "Daddy, you work so hard, I feel like I never get to spend time alone with you anymore," my sixteen-year-old daughter Alaina says, her voice filled with compassion. Then she flashes me a winning smile. "So, do you think you could take me and Erica to the mall this afternoon?"

    I find my daughter's enticements endearing, even though I know I am being manipulated. That's the point—as long as you know what is happening, you can decide whether or not you want to be a willing participant. Empathy teaches you when it is safe to say yes and when it is better, in the short or the long run, to say no. Empathy knows how to set limits and draw boundaries. Empathy protects you at the same time it teaches you how to open up to life's experiences.

    When empathy is used constructively for benevolent purposes, it can mend relationships and heal deep, long-standing rifts between people. In interactions with hundreds of patients I have witnessed the power of empathy to build bridges of understanding. I have watched empathy in action, marveling at the way it can soothe tensions and, at the same time, lead to a deeper understanding of the self. I have come to believe that empathy, more than any other human faculty, is the key to loving relationships and the antidote to the loneliness, fear, anxiety, and despair that affect the lives of so many of us.

    Empathy is the bridge spanning the chasm that separates us from each other. With empathy as our guide we can extend our boundaries, reaching into unexplored territory to create deep, heartfelt relationships. Through extending the self, we give our inner lives a dynamic energy and sense of purpose. Reaching out to others, we participate in the most meaningful experiences of life—gratitude, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, and love.

    I believe that empathy can make this world a kinder, safer place to live. When people lose touch with each other, when they focus only on their needs and are quick to judge or slow to forgive, life becomes more difficult for everyone. When relationships with others and with oneself are strengthened with empathy, the sorrows and pains of life are easier to bear. Empathy doesn't cost anything, and it isn't just for the rich, the highly educated, or the well-read—it is for everyone. And empathy is contagious—if you give it away, it comes back to you tenfold.

    My fascination with empathy is rooted in the way I was raised. I grew up in a world where people looked out for each other. Neighbor watched out for neighbor. Aunts, uncles, and cousins dropped by for Saturday afternoon visits. Families sat on their porches or front steps after dinner and chatted with passersby. The funeral director knew the furniture store owner, who knew the bank officer, who knew the daughters and sons of the high school football coach. Words like tolerance, forgiveness, faith, and hope were not just ideals but real experiences, put into practice every day.

    In this book I will tell you many stories about the people I have known and the experiences I have had. I will tell you about a conversation my father had with my high school guidance counselor, who suggested I join the Army because my only talent was playing football. I will tell you about a German spy who betrayed my father in World War II and the lessons my father learned from that experience about friendship and deception. I will tell you about my final conversations with my mother in the hospital, when she was dying of breast cancer. And I will relate many stories about my interactions with professors, colleagues, and patients. I believe these personal stories show how empathy works in real life.

    Before we begin, however, I need to tell you the story of how this book came to be. A few years ago I wrote a scholarly book about the process of therapy and my philosophy of human relationships. Like most academic books, it didn't reach a large audience. "I found it very interesting," one of my patients told me, "but I'm not sure I understood what you were talking about."

    I knew I needed to write a brook to reach a wider audience. I also knew that I'd have to include some very personal stories to do this honestly and effectively. I was not sure I wanted to do that. I drove to my best friend Richard Tessissini's house. Richard grew up with me in Milford, Massachusetts, and over the years he has participated in all the joys and sorrows of my life. He loved my parents as if they were his own, and years later he continues to grieve their deaths.

    "So what do you think, Richard?" I asked. "Should I write about David?"

    Richard was silent for a moment, watching me. Then he smiled, and in that smile I felt all the sorrow and joy that we had shared. "It all begins with David," he said. "He is the heart of it all."

    I nodded my head, knowing he was right. David, my greatest teacher, showed me that empathy is more than a philosophical construct or psychological theory. David taught me about the power of empathy to lead us through the darkness back into the light.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Empathy's Paradox3
Chapter 2: David14
Chapter 3: Wired for Empathy23
Chapter 4: Expressing Empathy38
Chapter 5: Empathic Listening64
Chapter 6: Sex, Intimacy, and Empathy86
Chapter 7: The Dark Side of Empathy113
Empathy in Action151
Chapter 8: Honesty155
Chapter 9: Humility167
Chapter 10: Acceptance178
Chapter 11: Tolerance188
Chapter 12: Gratitude200
Chapter 13: Faith209
Chapter 14: Hope219
Chapter 15: Forgiveness230
Final Thoughts241
Recommended Readings261

What People are Saying About This

Mira Kirshenbaum

This is a wonderful book. Once I began reading it I couldn't put it down until I finished. Dr. Ciaramicoli is a very wise man who comes across as a real human being. I can't imagine a simpler, more beautiful, or more powerful guide to relationships and to navigating the complex world of human interaction. Every reader should find this book deeply meaningful.

Bernie Siegel

The Power of Empathy can help you understand the nature of human behavior and assist you in developing a second nature if you desire to.

Perle Besserman

The Power of Empathy truly makes me see that empathy is one of the blessings of being human. The theme is threaded beautifully throughout, like shot silk. A flawless blend of the intuitive and the scientific, of paradise lost and rediscovered right here in the middle of our muddled world.

Larry Dossey

This is a terrific book. Empathy is an underrated factor in our lives, and Dr. Ciaramicoli reveals its power and complexity with penetrating insight. The Power of Empathy is lucid, wise, and compassionate. Highly recommended!

Edward Hallowell

The Power of Empathy explores the remarkable power of one human being to know and help another human being simply through understanding. One of the most useful, yet misunderstood faculties, empathy can help and heal us all. This excellent book shows you how.

David Wolpe

From Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author of Making Loss Matter

The Power of Empathy is a clear, fluent, and helpful guide to some of the most confounding questions of life. Building from both personal experience and professional expertise, the authors offer us a promising path through the thickets of relationships, and the mysteries of our own souls.

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