Entries in empathy (5)



Suicide continues to increase in the United States. I have no doubt that this is directly related to increased stress in the lives of those who have died by suicide. I also believe that a major factor in their decision to harm themselves was feeling alone and isolated. So, they felt disconnected from others and yet afterwards a lot of people are left distraught as they grieve for the who is tragically gone. So, how come they didn't feel this? 

Well, sadly, people often withhold their caring and affection for a variety of reasons: it is too painful to care for someone who is talking about hurting themselves; not wanting to enable or unwittingly encourage negative behaviors [make the person more suicidal]; cope with their sadness about the person's hopelessness by giving advice over and over which only serves to make the person feel more isolated and lonely.

What can we do to help those who we love and who are suicidal or at risk to become suicidal so they are more likely to feel our caring about them? 

  • We can listen! Listening is an effective way to demonstrate caring for someone...especially if we are able to listen without having our own reactions. When we listen without reacting we are being present with that person and they can feel that. Their own feelings and thoughts will be clearer and if we need to say anything to them our brains will provide this for us [really!].
  • We can tell them that we are worried about their safety and remove any lethal means of suicide that are available to the person.
  • We can encourage them to talk with someone about how they are feeling and even suggest specific people that the person can call, as this is one way to help a person who is feeling depressed and it is estimated that 90% of people who attempt suicide are depressed.
  • We can call 911 if we feel that the person is still at risk to attempt suicide and tell the 911 dispatcher that we have a mental health emergency and give details of what is happening. 
  • We could also offer to take them to the emergency department of a hospital so that they can be evaluated and have a chance to talk about how they are feeling. 

Taking the steps outlined above can help us to maintain a feeling of connection to the person who we are worried about. This can help us to feel that we are with them, as we are encouraging and supporting them. This way of supporting others can help the person we are worried about to feel connected to us and cared for even if we have to call 911.  

If the person that we are worried about [and likely love] dies by suicide, we are less likely to feel as overwhelmed and less likely to have a prolonged recovery period. I did not call this a prolonged period of grief because I believe that grief gets blamed for stressful emotional states that are not part of grief. These emotional states can actually delay the opportunity to grieve for the lost loved one and for us to realize that we they are part of us and we can then give ourselves permission to participate in our own lives again. 




I have recently been thinking about the idea that wisdom is connected to knowing that we don't know anything. I was aware of this idea from reading that after Socrates was called the wisest person in ancient Greece he at first doubted this until he realized that his wisdom was because he knew that he didn't know anything. The socalled Socratic method involves asking quesions and listening to the answers until an understanding happens. The person asking is not reacting to what is being said or correcting, giving advice, but merely asking questions to clarify the responses that are being given. There are no conclusions drawn based on previous experience nor any judgement made about what is being said. So, it is like knowing that you don't know anything as you are listening to learn about someone and refusing to think you know them. Thinking you know them allows you to judge or criticize them. 

So, if you listen to someone without your own reactions, judgments or criticisms, isn't this being empathic? Isn't this like being with someone and sharing their experience without substituting your own experience. Isn't it hard or even impossible to do this and also judge them or compete with them or reject them. So if we all listen to each other without judging or criticizing then we will all feel and be connected to each other and will all get along.

What do you think?



I have wondered for awhile if it is possible to communicate with other living things through electromagnetic waves that are emitted by our brains.  This could explain how caring about someone can be felt by that person or how prayer works or how empathy works or how intuition works, etc.  Of course it is not clear that our brains emit electromagnetic waves that can influence anything, although our brains are influenced by external electromagnetic waves being applied during transcranial magnetic stimulation [TMS]  

There are theories and research findings suggesting that electromagnetic waves in our brains are generated by the firing of neurons being synchronized to give us the experience of seeing things as unified so that we see faces instead of millions of parts of faces, etc. This gets into theories of how we are conscious and see things in unified patterns not as masses of separate pieces of information from millions of neurons firing.

Susan Pockett [The Nature of Consciousness] and Johnjoe McFadden [(2002). "The Conscious Electromagnetic Information [CEMI] Field Theory, The Hard Problem Made Easy?"Journal of Consciousness Studies.9(8)45-60.] have proposed that electromagnetic fields [EM Field Theory] are activated when neurons are activated and that this causes there to be a representation of the information in the neuron.  McFadden also believes that the firing of neurons is synchronized to allow digital information to form a conscious electromagnetic information [CEMI] field in the brain that represents our experiencing consciousness.

So, we are still trying to understand through research into specific brain functions what consciousness is and the role of electromagnetic waves and how any of this is related to the ability to be empathic or intuitive or communicate by feeling love for another or by sending them a prayer.  What is clear to me is that living things have an ability to communicate with other living things other than through vocalizations or gestures. It seems that these other forms of communication are powerful and are important to our feeling connected to one another.  And, this connectedness is fundamental to who we are as living creatures and to what is important in our lives.

Therefore, keep sending those positive [electromagnetic] waves to the others in our wonderful universe and be open to receiving them from others.  This is another reason to avoid being stressed as stress seems to interfere with the sending of these positive somethings and receiving them as well. I have to stop now as I am sounding less scientifically grounded.





Empathy is good and shame is bad.  So why is this a big deal?  It may be because shame is so destructive and empathy is so helpful. What makes shame so destructive? If you have ever experienced shame [and it is possible that everyone has experienced shame] then you know how bad it feels.  Shame makes people feel alone and separated from others.  We have our unique ways of responding when we feel shame and yet certain patterns of response have been identified by Linda Hartling,Ph.D. Director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, that she calls "strategies of disconnection" [from the pain associated with feeling shame] that include: 1. moving away from people by disappearing into ourselves; 2. moving toward others by people pleasing behaviors; and 3. moving against others by anger and fighting back.

What causes shame?  Some people connect shame with traumatic experiences.  So when we feel overwhelmed we feel shame?  Being overwhelmed does seem to separate us from others and likely from ourselves.  This makes being empathic or responding to empathy from others difficult, if not impossible.  What can we do?  Brene' Brown in a TED Talk about shame indicated the importance of being able to identify things that will cause each of us to feel shame.  These triggers, when we are aware of them, can be avoided at times and our awareness can allow us to cut short the shame response before it becomes powerful.  Our awareness can allow us to stop ourselves from responding in our usual and negative way, substituting a self-affirming response.  Sounds good but how do we break a pattern that often has been established over years? 

Dean Smith [long time coach of the North Carolina Chapel Hill basketball] is quoted as saying that if you make a mistake you should "recognize it, admit it, learn from it and forget it." Maybe this could help us deal with feelings of shame.  It also may be related to recommendations for how people who have been traumatized can help themselves [with the support of a therapist] by choosing to think about the past trauma and tell themselves that they don't need to be stressed by the event anymore and why, then move on and let it go [forget it?]. It also helps if we are able to calm ourselves and clear our minds and then choose to think about past traumas.  So, as I have blogged about previously, to help people recover from traumatic experiences research indicates that it is good to combine mindfulness practices [calming ourselves and clearing our  minds]; Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [like what I described above] and interpersonal therapy [working with someone that you trust so you are willing to risk trying out new skills to let go of worries about past stresses].

So, what about empathy?  According to Brene' Brown, shame can't survive empathy. So, why is that?  Well, empathy connects people and shame disconnects people.  To respond empathically we need to listen to others nonjudgementally and communicate our understanding of what others are feeling. This invites responses from others and creates a sense of connection and support.  To be empathic we need to be present with others and not be reactive or judgemental.  This seems like a good way to relate to others all the time.  




Over and over recently I have seen how listening can reduce stress in our lives and help us to be more confident.  So, how can listening help reduce stress and improve our confidence?  My initial awareness of the significance of listening came when some of my patients talked about trying to help their friends deal with grief.  My patients felt bad that all they could do was listen to their friends. When we discussed their friends response to being listened to, it seemed to be positive. Another patient indicated that when she responded emotionally to her friend who was experiencing grief and said that she knew what her friend was experiencing, her friend became angry.  We then wondered if listening was really being empathic and saying how you feel or that you understand, is not empathic but really being sympathetic.  So sympathy seems to be more about the person who is trying to console the other and actually may separate themselves from the one they are trying to console.

Maybe listening is really like meditation, like being present with ourselves and the person we are listening to. if listening is a way to be empathic then does that mean that being empathic is like being present with someone [and with ourselves]?

Another benefit associated with listening without our own agenda is that when we do this our brains seem to be working optimally as we realize that we remember everything that we are hearing and then we are able to respond without worrying or feelling stressed.  

So, does that mean that listening to others and ourselves is like being present with others [and ourselves] and is a very good way to us our brains?