A New Approach to Empathy: Fantasies

March 25th, 2012

Years ago, I worked with a young woman who struggled with the concept of empathy. A trademark symptom of narcissists and sociopaths, she was actually neither, but was in fact compromised in her ability to “walk in another’s shoes” (a phrase you are familiar with if you’ve read this post or ‘Crazy’). Part of this was certainly due to her upbringing, which consisted of a predominantly “pull up your bootstraps” philosophy. And research continues to accumulate that suggests empathy has a physiological component as well, which means it’s entirely possible my client could have been physically compromised in this area.

On one particular session she revealed a rather striking discovery.

“In the past week,” she explained, “my friend lost his job, my sister had a miscarriage after only a few weeks of getting pregnant and a co-worker’s cat died.”

Normally I would anticipate a follow-up statement consisting of remarkably rational thinking that would completely bypass the emotional pain that often follows events she just described.

“My first thought was, ‘okay, bummer, but you’ll find another job, you can probably get pregnant again and although your cat was probably nice and cuddly, it’s not a living person and another cat will serve you just as well.’ But I’d recently been thinking about fantasies.”

Fantasies never fail to perk up an analyst’s ears, although it’s worth mentioning that, because of the sexual connotation associated with the term, people assume that all fantasies are positive. This is not required. Fantasies in the truest sense are simply events in the mind that have not come to fruition at the point of their conception.

“When I think about my life, which is almost 30 years old at this point, I don’t reflect much on the past. I look forward. I consider what my plan is for 30, 32, 35 and onward, and I can give you a detailed summary of what I expect life to look like at those times. Good or bad, these are my fantasies. But when I consider a fantasy and then ponder what I’ll feel if they do not come true, I feel an anxiety…here,” and she pointed to her abdomen.

“This got me thinking about my friend, sister and co-worker. I started to consider the notion that, beyond the practicalities of needing money, or the bond a mother has with a child even if he’s not alive, or the companionship of a pet, there’s a fantasy there. There is a distinct, palpable notion of what life will look like going forward with certain factors in play, even if they aren’t completely rational. And even though you can replace most elements in your life, that definitive mental picture must be altered when the life script changes. It simply has to, it can no longer exist in the way you want. And when I envision people struggling not because of people or jobs or animals, but rather because of the life they cannot ever possibly lead in the exact fashion they’ve constructed, I feel something. There’s a hurt at that moment.”

This was a method of self-inducing empathy that I had never considered, essentially using the future as a gauge of another’s pain rather than his present, as well as considering a life script of sorts rather than the tangible loss in front of him.

Our work together ended prematurely, as the woman left the city to pursue a new career, but I do wonder from time to time if her experience was a passing, “eureka!” moment or a more permanent realization. I’ve tried her method myself and, for the most part, it has increased my empathy with both friends and clients.

Here’s an exercise for you: the next time you struggle with empathy, try my former client’s approach. See if helps with your understanding of another’s pain, his experience, see if it’s easier to “walk in his shoes.” And then let me know how it goes.

Let’s Learn About Defense Mechanisms (Reposted because I’m a Bad Person)

February 16th, 2012

A little over a year ago I entered a comedy writing contest. The required material needed to be previously unpublished, but I was so focused on finishing ‘Crazy’ that I couldn’t generate any new ideas. So in accordance with what bad people do, I removed my post on defense mechanisms from the internet and submitted that instead. Of course, as Karma would have it, my piece wasn’t selected, and I was left with nothing but a guilty conscience.

Fortunately, last week my mother forgot my birthday yet again, making this piece now relevant for a second time. It’s interesting how someone else’s transgressions can make you forget about your own. So I’ve forgiven myself for my error and am reposting it here. Enjoy and perhaps you’ll learn something about our unconscious.

When mothers forget their sons’ birthday for the 3rd time in four years they engage in numerous defense mechanisms to deal with the inevitable guilt that follows. Defense mechanisms are psychological maneuvers that allow us to distort reality which in turn protect us from emotional pain. Although we should generally steer clear of overanalyzing others, let’s learn some common defense mechanisms through the use of a recent telephone call transcript.

Mother: Robert, I was calling to tell you that my therapist says I’m just about ready to stop therapy, that I’m quite emotionally healthy.

Robert: You forgot my birthday again.

Mother: What? I did no such thing. (Denial: rejecting a fact despite evidence to the contrary)

Robert: Yes you did.

Mother: When was it?

Robert: Yesterday.

Mother: But yesterday was the Super Bowl.

Robert: I know, every seven years the Super Bowl and my birthday are the same day.

Mother: Did you enjoy the game? (Suppression: intentionally avoiding thoughts that are uncomfortable)

Robert: Are you going to apologize?

Mother: It’s not like it was a landmark birthday like your 21st or 30th. (Intellectualization: focusing on objective details in an emotional situation).

Robert: You forgot both of those too. It really hurts my feelings when you do this. The mother and son bond is one that is too precious to be…

Mother: Don’t be so dramatic. I didn’t break your arm in an act of child abuse, I just forgot your birthday. What do you want me to do, say I’m the worst mother in the world? Shout it from the tree tops? “I’m the worst mother in the world!!!!!” Like that? (Regression: returning to a younger or more immature stage of life).

Robert: Just an apology would be fine.

Mother: Did anyone else forget?

Robert: No, just you. Everyone else remembered.

Mother: If anyone should feel guilty it’s you, giving me such a hard time about this. (Projection: attributing your own emotion to another person)

Robert: I think you are the one who feels guilty.

Mother: Alright, maybe a little.

Robert: Well I accept your apology if there is one.

Mother: Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? (Compensation: working harder to overcome real or imagined weaknesses).

Robert: Other than an apology? How about a Wii?

Mother: I don’t know what that is but it sounds expensive so how about a gift card? Your cousin gave me one for some store. Best Buy I think.

Robert: That’s how you’re making this up to me? Re-gifting?

Mother: I’ll mail it out whenever I get around to it. Oh and Happy Belated. Bye.

I assumed that the apology would never come. I got an email the next day, however:

‘Robert, you are a bright, special boy, and I will get that Wee [sic] game for your birthday because good children deserve good things like fudge and games and Pokemon. Please don’t be mad at me. Someday you will be successful.’

Her verbal skills have always surpassed her writing abilities. If I were eleven years old that email would have made my day. At 36 I think I’ll still take it, as I’m pretty sure I know what she means.

Three Tips on Psychologically Healthy Eating

February 13th, 2012

I’ve been reading some of my Yahoo posts and, quite frankly, I’m a little embarrassed. There’s no narrative arc, the text is peppered with anemic jokes and everything is spoon fed to the reader. Part of that was due to contractual demands but, as the writer, I still am ultimately responsible for delivering quality content. I often failed at that mission.

That said, I did find a post that, while not necessarily what I liked to do here at ShrinkTalk, does have some useful information on healthy eating from a psychological standpoint. I thought the tips below were obvious to most, but after receiving a significant number of questions and comments about them, I realize now that I assumed too much. So, take a look. I hope it helps you:

As part of two surgical weight loss teams, I’ve been fortunate to work with various experts in the fields of nutrition and healthy eating. But while there has a been a colossal increase in the medical issues related to eating and losing weight, not nearly as much has been paid to the psychology of eating. That said, we do know certain important, guiding principles that allow us to have a healthy relationship with food. This, in turn, often leads to weight loss, better nutrition and improved overall health.

Mindful Eating

This is the hot topic in weight loss, for a reason. Never forget that there is a delay between the time it takes to consume your food and your brain’s ability to recognize satiety. In other words, you’re able to take in much more food than your body needs before your mind even realizes it. This is why so many doctors, dieticians and other health experts are emphasizing eating “mindfully.” In many ways, this simply means slowing down and chewing your food very thoroughly. More importantly, however, mindful eating means focusing on your meal. Savor the flavors and textures. Treat eating as a complete experience, not simply a way to pour nutrients and fuel into the body.

Americans are notorious for eating as a secondary activity. We do it while we talk, watch television, read the newspaper/book/articles on the internet, not paying close attention to what and how much we are consuming. This behavior must be curbed to have a better relationship with food. In fact, I often tell my clients who struggle with weight to sometimes eat alone, doing absolutely nothing except eat with long pauses in between bites. And when they mindfully eat, with a focus on taste, texture and proper chewing, everything slows down. This helps the body take in only what it truly needs as opposed to what we think it does.

Food Logs

For one week, keep track of everything you eat. But, more importantly, note why you are eating it. If you’re like most of us, you’ll probably have good reasons for eating (e.g., hungry, needing certain nutrients) as well as bad ones (e.g., bored, anxious, celebrating, depressed, stressed out). Emotional eating is a colossal problem and most of us are unaware of both when we do it and what emotions cause it. Identify the patterns so you know your risk factors. And before you say “I already know my risk factors,” heed this warning: over 95% of people I’ve asked about their completed food log acknowledged that they recorded something on there that surprised them. Do not assume, do the research on yourself.

Know That Your Mind Plays Tricks on You

Research has shown that when people have more food in front of them, they’ll eat it. This isn’t surprising, but consider this research finding: when people are tricked into eating from a bowl of soup that never empties, they not only continue to eat, but believe that they are simply eating slowly and enjoying the food. They don’t notice that they are simply consuming more and more as the bowl is rigged to fill up from the bottom. People believe that they just eat more slowly than other people, which is why their bowl doesn’t empty. This is where the cliché, “our eyes are bigger than our stomachs” comes into play. Humans are visually stimulated when it comes to food, and this is why the outdated parenting technique of getting children to eat everything on their plate is a horrible one. Eat only until satisfied and never based on visual cues.

So if you know your mind can mess with you, fight back. Use small plates so your portions don’t appear too small. Put your knife and fork down between bites as a cue to accurately assess how much you’ve eaten, and drink plenty of water throughout your meals. It not only helps you to feel full more quickly, but helps the brain play catch up during the delay between consumption and satiety.