Dear Uncle Dysfunctional

The late A.A. Gill was, among many other things, advice columnist for Esquire magazine. Gill’s answers are simultaneously outrageous, hilarious and insightful. I’m convinced that he wrote both the questions and the answers. Surely no-one would send in questions like this:

*Am I normal?
*Why can’t everyone just be happy?
*My otherwise level-headed girlfriend adamantly believes in fairies. How can I convince her the goblins have eaten them all? My future depends on it.

‘Tim, South Yorkshire’ wrote in about his girlfriend’s constant demands for sex.

“It’s not sexy,” he complains. “It’s boring. It’s like constantly being told to take out the rubbish or go and fill the car with petrol – it’s become a chore. I’ve just told her I’ve got a headache. It’s so humiliating.”

For people who struggle to lose and keep off weight there’s something weirdly familiar about this dynamic, it seems to me. Except, instead, of the tension being being between two people, the conflict is inside one person.

One part of the self is trying hard to encourage the other, but it’s efforts are counter-productive. The more enticing or provoking or nagging it becomes, the more recalcitrant becomes the other part. And of course the more recalcitrant, the more the ‘encourager’ redoubles it’s efforts.

The dictionary definition of recalcitrant perfectly captures the inner opposition I mean, and also points to the source of ‘Tim’s’ problem and that of the person struggling to lose weight as well as a solution:

Recalcitrance = an obstinately uncooperative attitude to authority or discipline.

The key bit here is attitude to authority or discipline. Tim’s problem, and the problem of the weight-loss struggler, is that they’ve taken on the position of ones who are subordinate to another’s wishes and discipline. No wonder they rebel and “don’t feel like it”!

Here’s part of Gill’s response to ‘Tim’ – I think there is something useful for us in it too.

It’s not her demands of you that’s the problem, it’s your low expectations of yourself. It’s not having too much sex, it’s having too much mediocre sex. Mediocre, grudging sex.

The way you get good at sex is the way you get good at everything: practice. Doing more, not less. But only doing the stuff that you really, really like. And tell your girlfriend to do the same.

There’s a key here. Only when we embrace the thing we say we’re determined to do, only when we love it and get enjoyment out of it will we have inner harmony. and unity of purpose. Then the head and the heart work together as a formidable couple rather than a dysfunctional one.

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A slowdown in posting

My posting is going to be a bit slower/haphazard for a while. Real life, wouldn’t you know.

I don’t want to lose my wonderful reader-commentators, but I do understand the vastness of the web-world – there’s a lot of good stuff out there.

If you register via RSS feed you’ll be notified when something new appears.

Be well!

Is an empathic act necessarily an action at all?



An empathic act is a form of reply to the other’s signal, a reply which is experienced as being right. Today I want to consider just how minimal such an act might be.

But before I illustrate empathy, what does an unempathic act look like?

Unempathic acts
Say one picks up the following overt or covert signal from another person: I am depressed.

There are any number of ways to behave unempathically. Indeed, no act is guaranteed to be empathic because it is the recipient’s experience that is the final determination. (It makes no sense to say “I empathised but he didn’t find it empathic.” The fact of the matter is more like this: “I tried to be empathic but wasn’t.”)

Some examples of unempathic responses made to depressed people can be found in a post from HBC Protocols (via Barbara at Abuse sanctuary):

“What’s your problem?”

“Will you stop that constant whining? What makes you think that anyone cares?”

“Have you gotten tired yet of all this me-me-me stuff?”

“You just need to give yourself a kick in the rear.”

“But it’s all in your mind.”

“I thought you were stronger than that.”

“No one ever said life was fair.”

“As you get stronger you won’t have to wallow in it as much.”

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“Do you feel better now?” (Usually said following a five minute conversation in which the speaker has asked me “what’s wrong?” and “would you like to talk about it?” with the best of intentions, but absolutely no understanding of depression as anything but an irrational sadness.)

Worse than useless
The title of the post from which these examples comes is illuminating: ‘The 99 worst things to say to someone who is depressed.’ The word ‘worst,’ I suggest, does not literally mean that this is a list of the worst things one could say; rather, it means that comments like these make things worse.

Something is experienced as unempathic when a person feels that another’s response is ‘wrong’. Wrong meaning misaligned, out of sync, on the wrong wavelength. The statements above, whether or not they emerge from empathy and are intended as empathic, are unempathic because the other person experienced them as mismatched – as worse than useless.

The effect of unempathy is is often one of insult being added to injury. In our example the person now not only still feels depressed, they feel misunderstood. But it can be worse than this. The depressed person now not only feels depressed and misunderstood, they may feel more hopeless about their prospects.

How minimal can an empathic response be?
It might be argued that a depressed person is so pessimistic that they are likely to find fault with anything one says. Less can be more here. Even something as simple as “That’s a tough place to be” might be experienced as empathic. This statement doesn’t capture the scope of the other’s experience, but it has the virtue of capturing something of it.

An empathic act might not involve words at all. Sometimes a physical gesture, a facial expression, a sigh, a nod or shake of the head might work very well (i.e. be experienced as empathic by the recipient).

Each of these is doing something small. One might, though, not say or do anything anything whatsoever. The very fact that one doesn’t mouth expected banalities may be what matters. (There is a book on Zen who’s title is apt here: Don’t just say something, sit there‘)

In this instance the receiver of the message, ‘I am depressed’ may through their silence communicate something along the lines of: “Anything I can think of to say would probably not capture how profound and hopeless this state seems for you; whatever I can think of saying would either trivialise your experience, come across as a criticism of you, or seem as though I was trying to jolly you out of it. I understand that much. Therefore I don’t make a knee-jerk platitude, but rather keep a respectful silence.”

How much more elegant and effective to imply this rather than say it.

Do you also find that sometimes not doing anything can be strong medicine?

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Photo: Sessizlik / Silence, originally uploaded by B@ni

What is it to be empathic?



Empathy is a primal level of interpersonal interaction whereby signals from one person are picked up by another. These may (or may not) become actualised as feelings, and/or thoughts, and/or behaviours.

As readers point out, features of this basic interpersonal signal-detection are authenticity, unthought/unfelt, somatic.

Empathy, then, is but the raw material for being empathic.

What is it to be empathic?
The word ’empathy’ is often often used in common parlance as a shorthand for one of two types of things:

1. Feelings and/or thoughts which (it is assumed) are similar to those of another person (e.g. “I feel sad, perhaps it’s because he feels sad”).

2. Behaviours intended to help the other through correct identification of how things are for the other (e.g. because I believe that he is sad I offer a kind word).

As cumbersome and potentially confusing as it may be, I want to keep these distinct:

empathy as apperception
empathic internal awareness
empathic act

(The former I have been dealing with for a while now and attempt to capture in the metaphor of the internal ham operator.)

Empathic internal awareness
When a signal from the other is detected it can be elaborated into a sensation and then a feeling, or into an awareness and then a thought. One can ping (to use swivelchair’s word) between these to build a complex emotional conception. And one might act upon it.

While this internal response can become increasingly sophisticated, I think that a rather minimal internal awareness can lead to an empathic act.

Empathic act
An empathic behaviour has the following elements:
1. a signal from the other is detected
2. a response is proffered to demonstrate shared experience
3. the response is experienced by the other as right.

I will argue that if any of these is missing it is pseudo-empathy which might well be experienced as unempathic.

Why is this nitpicking necessary?
I trust that it is clear how the collapsing of meanings makes it impossible to follow a statement like this: The psychopath felt no emapthy as he used his empathic detection of another’s signals to behave unempathically in order to hurt the other.

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Photo: Briton Riviere: Sympathy, originally uploaded by freeparking

The internal ham operator



Inside each of us is an amateur radio operator who sends and receives signals on frequencies undetectable by the senses.

The radio operator is many rungs beneath the commanding officer. The general is dimly aware (if at all) of the messages this private sends and receives, there being many inefficient bureaucratic levels.

The equipment is rudimentary and the signals are weak; indeed, the signals only carry a few yards – from one person to another. The operator, a bored and unskilled conscript, emit signals sporadically and listens that way too.

The volume is turned down low so as not to interfere with the work of the senses. Nevertheless, even if the volume dial is turned right down, sensitive dials indicate that intermittent signals are in the ether.

When the volume is turned up it is still difficult to make out what if anything the operator in the field is saying, such is the interference and static.

Of course it is essential to be tuned in to the same frequency as the other radio if he is to pick up any signals. Much confusion happens otherwise. The ham operator, unaware that he is operating on a different frequency to his buddy, hears only feedback from his own equipment and distorted echoes of his voice. He might even misconstrue this noise as a message from his buddy. He thus unwittingly misinforms his commanding officer, sometimes with disasterous effects.

More often than not there is dead air because of a variety of factors: poorly maintained equipment, interference in the atmosphere, a weak signal, mistuned frequency settings. One or both operators may dry up and not be sending.

Even when good contact is made, the lines of communication may be broken between the private’s basement cubicle and the general’s top floor control room.

Sometimes the equipment becomes unplugged and the operator sit fruitlessly twiddling the dials. For some their equipment is permanently unplugged or out of order.

When the reception is good and the volume is turned up the message may be distorted and the senses may be overwhelmed. However, there are times when good alignment between the internal receiver and the senses enhances the flow of communication and actions may then follow.

The name given to this incoming signal when it is detected is empathy.
What should be the name for the emitted signal?

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Photo: Dad’s radio, originally uploaded by nate steiner

Quickpost – A great new site

Guided and challenged by readers’ comments, I have over the course of several posts been honing in on what this thing is we call empathy.

The journey is far from over. (I haven’t yet got to the operationalisation of emapthy – what it means in practice.)

This seems like a good place to consolidate ideas into an overarching metaphor. I’m writing that at present and hope to have it out tomorrow.

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In the meantime, let me draw your attention to new site – Psychoanalyst TV put together by Swivelchair from Neurological correlates.

It’s based on a simple but great idea – aggregating videos on neurology and behaviour. (Although, as the title of the site and the list below indicate, videos are chosen on a much wider and more humorous basis.)

Hopefully the site will attract both comments and recommendations for videos to add. See here for a submission guide.

Some recent posts
Sopranos – Dr. Winer (1:39)
More deposition video Old Lawyer Fight (2:56)
Birth of Baby Orangutan (2:38)
Narcoleptic Dogs (2:53)
TEDtalks: Dan Gilbert (on happiness)(22:01)
Lie Detection – Prof. Paul Eckman (1:46)
The Phone Call (2:00)
Tom Cruise Scientology via Gawker – DIY Microexpression analysis on this (4:41)
Harvard Biovisions – The Inner Life of a Cell (3:10)

Besides providing us with interesting and entertaining videos which we might otherwise miss, it’ll save us a lot of time zooming around Youtube!