Empathy Articles

How to Eliminate Envy & Practice Empathy

Monday, May 5th, 2014


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 …

8 Tips to Improve Your Communication

Monday, January 7th, 2013

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
― George Bernard Shaw

When I see couples or families in therapy, improving communication is often the first goal. Most people, convinced that they are already good communicators, quickly discover that many of their skills need honing. Effective communication can be far more difficult than any of us first imagined. I am constantly shocked and reminded just how easy it is to hurt or be hurt by our loved ones due to correctable misunderstandings. What are some of the most common mistakes all of us make?

One of the most universal communication errors in our relationships with our parents, partners, and children is that we are tempted to speak without thinking first. This is understandable because we are typically less guarded with people we feel close to. The downside of having this increased freedom of expression is that we often blurt things that we would never even dream of saying out loud to a friend or colleague.

Hence, Tip #1Engage your brain before you open your mouth, and ask yourself if anyone will really be served by what you are about to say. The old adage “some things are better left unsaid” happens to be true. Healthy families are lavish when it comes to sharing positive words and more restrained and deliberate when it comes to delivering negative feedback.

The  second most common error is that we assume that the other person actually understands precisely what we have communicated. Unfortunately, this is very often not the case. Tip #2: The more important the information being communicated, the more we need to slow down, taking ample time to make sure that the message we are sending is the same one that our loved one is receiving. The best remedy for this (besides making your communications short and to the point) is to learn how to paraphrase and make a habit of asking the listener what they heard. I know that this may sound incredibly tedious, boring, and unnatural–which it will be until you get better at it. Difficult as this may be at first, the …

Teach Children the Gift of Giving

Monday, December 24th, 2012

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”    -Winston Churchill

“Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy.”      -Gautama Buddha

This is the time, beginning with Thanksgiving and lasting through the arrival of the new year, that most people think not only about themselves but also about how to help others less fortunate. Given the difficult parts of the holiday season–extra things to do, children out of school wanting to be entertained, increased financial burdens, bigger crowds, more traffic, and what often feels like exponentially increased pressure from all directions–the attention turned to serving others can be one of the best parts of the season.

From the time our children were toddlers, we went together as a family to sing at convalescent hospitals for the elderly. We always went on Christmas day because the people left that day were often all alone, without loved ones visiting. Some were silent and looked like they were dead, while others cried and clung to us when we approached their beds. Some spoke gibberish, and many didn’t smell very good.                              

Our children were at times very afraid and hid behind us or begged not to go, and at other ages were more curious, comfortable, and open-hearted. They learned first by watching, singing from a distance as we held people’s hands, stroked their hair, and wiped their tears. Every year our family shared the miracle of watching perfect strangers, fellow human beings, come alive and smile or weep at the touch of a hand, the sight of a child, or the ring of a familiar song.

No matter what the age of your children, there are many wonderful books that can inspire you and your family to find ways to give back in your community. One of the gentle souls who taught children (and adults) about many positive values such …

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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