Empathy Articles

Celebrating the Essence of Thanksgiving

Monday, November 24th, 2014

file9021344553210“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”   -Tecumseh, Shawnee leader

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if every day had a little bit more of the essence of Thanksgiving? Although it may seem at first glance that the holiday is all about turkeys, yams and other scrumptious food and flowers that adorn our tables, these things are but the outer trappings.

The deep inner essence of Thanksgiving is the presence of family and friends coming together for a time-honored tradition of joyful celebration with the deliberate practice of gratitude as the central focus. The ritual is there to remind us to be grateful that we are alive and have food on our table, since not everyone on our planet is so lucky.
UnknownA Holiday with Ancient Roots
Although Thanksgiving as a national holiday is a specifically American and Canadian tradition, it is actually celebrated all over the globe by many different names and types of rituals. Thanksgiving is the North American version of ancient harvest celebrations that have taken place for thousands of years wherever crops were reaped and sowed.

Think of the Festival of the Harvest Moon in China or the yam festival in Ghana, Africa, or the Chu Suk in Korea. Expressing thanks is a universal urge and a human strength that can be cultivated, not just at Thanksgiving but on any day.

All of the world’s religious teachers, ancient philosophers, and indigenous people have spoken about the importance of gratitude for over a thousand years, seeing it as an important virtue to be cultivated and practiced. In religious traditions, the saying of grace before each meal is a way of thanking God for the food on your table.

Most parents teach their children the “magic words” of saying “please” and “thank you”. We have always known intuitively that grateful people seem to be happier with their lives …


The Hard Truth About Happiness

Monday, November 10th, 2014

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“I just want to be happy!”

Young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we utter these six simple words. If you ask parents what they most want for their kids, they say the same thing—“I just want them to be happy.” Why is this precious human emotion so available to some and so elusive to others?

Although happiness has been the subject of thought and writings going as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, it has only been the subject of serious study by psychologists for the past forty years.

What social scientists have figured out so far is that the source of our happiness comes from three distinct arenas—our genetic make-up, from life events that occur, and from the values and beliefs we carry. This helps explain why happiness is indeed more difficult for some people to experience than for others.

file4671348049272Some Happiness Is Hard-wired

In studies of identical twins brought up in different family settings and environments, researchers found that almost half (48%) of our subjective sense of happiness is determined by our genes. That’s big but not all of it.

Psychologists have been long debating about what parts of our personality are due to “nature” vs. “nurture”. We currently know that there are nine aspects of temperament that are inborn. One of the nine aspects that differ from birth is mood. The hard truth is that some babies are happier than others from the start. Ask any parents with several babies and they will tell you the difference in temperament from one to the next.file6511234090560

No wonder Winnie the Pooh is so loved and so timeless. The world really is populated with Piglets (the shy, sensitive types), Eeyores (the often depressed, serious, gloomier types), Tiggers (the hyperactive, funny, easily distractible types), and Pooh Bears (the calm, optimistic, adaptable types). Here is a perfect example:

“There now. Did I get your tail back on properly, Eeyore?” says Christopher Robin. “No matter. Most likely lose it …


How to Eliminate Envy & Practice Empathy

Monday, May 5th, 2014

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The White family overwhelms my office with noise and activity from the first moment they arrive for family therapy. The three boys, aged 6, 10, and 13, immediately begin to argue over who sits where.

Pouncing on one another’s laps, they push and poke. The youngest one screams as though he has been mortally wounded. Mom and Dad make a feeble attempt to create order out of chaos but they are clearly outnumbered.

Is this normal sibling rivalry? (After all, boys will be boys). Almost anyone who grew up with siblings, particularly those fairly close in age, will not have trouble imagining this scene or one like it.

Didn’t you fight over who got to sit in the front seat of the car (before the laws changed), who decided what channel the TV would be on, or who got first dibs at the dinner table? Or was it about who mom loved best?
Sibling Rivalry is Normal–and Annoyingimages-1
I’ve listened to so many couples arguing about whether or not their kids are normal…

“It’s way too much!” insists Sylvia. “They might kill each other.” Her husband Sam rolls his eyes. “You never had brothers–girls are different!”

The parents sounded like two kids fighting over the rules of a game. The truth is–no one knows just how much is normal since it depends on the “rules” that silently govern each family.

Depending on your culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your age, the size of your family, and the rules of the family you grew up in, what seems inappropriate or out of control to one family can seem funny or like normal bickering to another.

That being said, one of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is about the incessant fighting between the kids. If the conflict in your family is driving you crazy, perhaps it’s time to turn the volume down to the extent that you can. The first step is to understand what all the fighting is for.
imagesThe Roots of …


6 Tips for Breaking the Blame Barrier

Monday, March 31st, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHardly a day ever goes by when I don’t hear someone blaming someone for something. It is one of the most common–and one of the most frustrating patterns that confront couples and families. Blame can destroy a good marriage, wreak havoc on our friendships, and put innocent kids in the middle of their parents’ arguments.

Not only are families besieged by this destructive pattern, the whole culture is mired in it. We blame the President; the Democrats blame the Republicans and vice versa; women blame men; consumers blame companies; patients blame their doctors. The dance goes on and on all around us. Is there any way to break through the blame barrier and why should we even attempt to do so?

file0001915505944Here’s what it sounds like? Sound familiar?

  • “You never listen to me. If you had just listened, you would have remembered what time we were meeting.”
  • “You started that whole thing with your brother. One of you always gets hurt when you rough house like that.”
  • “If you stopped nagging me all the time, I would want to ask you for a date night.”

So Why Do We Blame Others?
file000390505026If blaming is so universal, there must be some reason for it. In fact, there are loads of reasons to blame someone else for things that go wrong.

We actually believe that we are right. Since the time human beings lived together in tribes and villages, there had to be laws to govern our behavior. Rules and laws are typically black and white with a right and a wrong answer. You are guilty or not guilty of a crime. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, we simply apply this black and white reasoning (whether or not it is helpful or endearing) to our partner or child’s behavior.

We are blind to our side of an interaction. Most all of us are trained to see the world in a linear sequence: A causes B. In …


NEWSFLASH! Free Technique for Healing Pain Described

Monday, January 13th, 2014

file000912201749What if you turned on the news to the following headline…FREE new technique–with no known side effects–is found to improve the mood of 88.8% of users!!! Would you be curious or do you already know what it is?

Touted throughout history, described by Aristotle, Freud, and modern day psychotherapists of many theoretical backgrounds–the answer is allowing yourself a good cry. Weeping helps almost everyone, young and old, male and female.
Not All Tears Are the Same
Our eyes produce three kinds of tears–each of which serves a different function. Every time we blink, our eyelids produce continuous or basal tears to keep the surface of our eyes protected and moist and also necessary to help protect us from getting infections of the eyes.

file0001186408096Reflex tears, like basal tears, are 98% water. Their production is triggered when a foreign object or something irritating gets into the eye by accident, acting like a natural eye shower to keep our eyes clean.

Emotional tears are composed differently and include an endorphin and natural painkiller called enkephalin. “Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,” says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas. This difference explains why “crocodile tears” (the type used for manipulation and trickery) are not the same as real ones.
Crying Helps Us Heal
sunday 015Dr. William Frey from the University of Minnesota is a biochemist who has been studying crying for over thirty years. He found that emotional catharsis helps shed both stress hormones and toxins. Simultaneously, crying stimulates the body to produce endorphins which not only help reduce our experience of pain but also help turn up the volume of our immune system.

Tears can make us feel better and physically stimulate healing at the same time, which is a pretty powerful combination. If you find this subject fascinating, check out Frey’s book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Frey is a believer in what is dubbed “the recovery theory” which hypothesizes that we literally cry things out as a way …


If Your Emotions are Boiling Over or Buried Deep…

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Image 11“There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”  – Carl Jung

As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. Dealing with emotions-our own and those of our kids and partners-can be one of the more painful, frustrating, and ultimately fulfilling parts of being in a family.

After the groundbreaking classic bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, by clinical psychologist Daniel Goleman came out in 1995, the world came to the shocking realization that just being smart (having a high IQ) did not necessarily lead to success in work or in relationships. In fact, being intellectually gifted is very different from being emotionally mature. Don’t you constantly see glaring examples of smart people doing stupid things? I certainly do.

Our emotions, if denied and repressed (buried deep) OR if given free rein (boiling over) can lead us down some dark and dusty paths. On the other hand, if we learn to be more aware of what we are feeling and learn how to express our emotions in constructive ways, these very same emotions can help us build deeper intimacy and empathy. Feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and once understood, we can begin to work with them so they don’t get the best of us.

Why Are Emotions So Important Anyway?file6271273137854

The emotional mind is like a radar system that tries to protect us from harm and aims us in the right direction. When we sense danger, our emotions allow us to react before we have time to think. When we sense something we need (food, comfort) our feelings tell us which way to go forward. This is why they are a necessary part (not all) of making good decisions.

As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are …


When Cognitive Techniques Aren’t Enough: 5 Practices To Fight Stress

Monday, September 30th, 2013

file0001956356954“To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves. We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here–with its gift of energy and heightened awareness–so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation.” ~Peter Williams

Barely a week goes by these days without some mention of the skyrocketing rates of anxiety in our culture. Drugs are offered as a quick fix but they come with a price. As discussed in a previous blog, most psychotropic medications like Xanax and Valium are highly addictive, and can be very difficult to withdraw from.

In the psychotherapy research, the use and benefits of various cognitive behavioral therapies have been widely proclaimed as the answer. New research from a team led by Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, now demonstrates how there can be a bit of a slipped cog in cognitive methods. Published last month by Raio et al. with the provocative title, “Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test,this new research got my attention.file9841279612478
What Is Cognitive Emotion Regulation Anyway?
Cognitive emotion regulation is a fancy term to describe managing one’s feelings by deliberately thinking about them in more helpful ways. For example, millions of people override their fear of flying by reminding themselves that travel by plane is far safer than travel by car. Cognitive therapy teaches consumers to question their fear-inducing beliefs and to substitute them with more accurate appraisals, and these tools have been widely shown in the laboratory to be effective in altering the nature of our negative emotional responses.

However, what this newly published study demonstrates is that even mild stress can derail the ability of someone to use these otherwise effective weapons when they most need them–in real life. “In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you’re stressed….Our results …


How Words Can Heal–What Is Your Story?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

photo copy“There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.”                                                                                            -Author Philip K. Dick

It will probably come as no surprise that I have been writing since I could put pen to paper–that’s my bias. That being said, I’m not sure what I would have done without it. In my teen years and early adulthood when I would never (and did never) set foot in a therapy office, I created a safe space in my journals to express everything I couldn’t talk about. Years later, when I began my journey of self-exploration and healing in early adulthood, I was able to reflect with new eyes on everything I had written. What had I learned, if anything, and what was I supposed to learn from the lessons life was giving me?

If you are not in therapy because you don’t believe in it, can’t afford it, or it’s against your religion, writing may help you. If you are in therapy, writing may help you deepen your experience and make yourself the hero of your journey. If you are a parent, and want to know how to help your child deal with the recent traumas from Boston or Newtown, here are some ideas. What is the story you tell yourself about your life and what do you want it to be?

The Health Benefits of Writingfile0001498656167

There is now a considerable body of research showing how powerful it can be to …


5 Lessons Heroes Teach Us About Resilience

Monday, February 4th, 2013

“You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined.”                                             -Elizabeth Edwards

Life isn’t always easy. It’s not a bed of roses. The journey inevitably includes suffering, for some far more than for others. Most of us have known good people who have not been able to withstand the pain of existence and have succumbed to drugs and alcohol, acts of violence, and even deep despair and suicide.

But, at the same time, there have always been heroes–strong men and women who have overcome hardship and risen to greatness. There are examples of strength and resilience in every walk of life–athletes, artists, politicians, whistle-blowers, game-changers. There are also the unacknowledged heroes among us–people who will never be rich or famous but who were there as role models, facing life with grace and courage.

One important way to teach our kids how to be resilient is by studying and celebrating our heroes. What can they teach us?

1. Reach out to others.

At times of loss and trauma, most people feel alone. Just knowing that others have gone through whatever hardship we are currently facing can provide hope and comfort. This is why support groups are so effective. In 2010, researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined every research paper on the relationship of social relationships and health, involving more than 300,000 men and women. They found that those with poor social connections had on average 50% higher odds of death in the study’s follow-up period (an average of 7.5 years) than people with more social ties.

2. Notice and celebrate the gifts that you are receiving.

A crucial …


Are Your Feelings Getting the Best of You?

Monday, January 21st, 2013

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” -Daniel Goleman

As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. It seems as though half of humanity wishes they could do without them–and they try very hard to avoid or suppress any painful feeling that comes along. The emotion-avoiding types say things like, “I don’t want to talk about it because then I’d  feel sad,” or “It won’t change anything to get angry, so why bother…”

The other half, the emotionally dramatic as-if-on-a-roller-coaster type, seems to honor their emotions, giving them not just a voice but the whole driver’s seat. These folks say things like, “I can’t do that when I don’t feel like it,” or “I can’t possibly change the way that I feel since it is who I am.” If given too much weight, feelings can be used to blame or shame others or to justify inappropriate behavior.

As clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner Daniel Goleman so aptly reminds us, feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and we need to learn how to work with them so they don’t get the best of us. As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are essential in order for us to be able to empathize and have compassion for ourself and others. The trick is how to find the balance between too much expression and too little. For most of us, this is a lifelong process. Here is a way to begin.

First, ask yourself which one of these two tendencies are you most likely to exhibit? Are you able to express your emotions? When was …


How's Your Family Really Doing?
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra Machester MacMannis, MSW are the author of How's Your Family Really Doing?.

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Recent Comments
  • Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW: I am not sure what you mean by “mentality”– are you referring to...
  • Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW: There are several different twin studies including Timothy Bates from the...
  • Cam66: I agree that we are born with it and life events contribute to it as well. I’ve struggled with this my...
  • Cetalia: Wouldn’t mentality play a role in happiness as well as what was mentioned in the article?
  • Miss T: May we get a link or reference to the study on the twins?
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