Motor Empathy

We don't copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it's about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.
We don’t copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it’s about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.

There are actually three systems that work together to help us understand how others are thinking and feeling and that allow us to relate to each other as social beings. The third one, which I haven’t really mentioned up until now, is motor empathy.

Motor empathy is the reason you find yourself looking in the same direction a stranger suddenly turns toward. It is the reason you tend to cross your arms if your conversational partner is crossing hers.

It is probably also the reason my cat smiles after more than a decade of my smiling at her.

Motor empathy is also called mirroring. We do it unconsciously for the most part, although life coaches and job interview tips might advocated doing it on purpose. Mirroring the actions of others makes us likable. It is an advertisement of your success as a social human being. It says you are skilled at understanding how others feel. It says you care about other people. It says you share your toys and play nicely in the schoolyard.

To some extent this may really be true, because motor empathy may be the precursor of affective (emotional) empathy. And you need affective empathy to develop real concern for other people. Cognitive empathy alone doesn’t seem to do it.

It works like this. Someone smiles at you. you smile back. The smile makes you feel happy, and consequently you understand that people who are smiling are happy.

The Russian doll model (that I don't totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.
The Russian doll model (that I don’t totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.

So motor empathy may be the mode of transmission for contagious emotions. You mimic the expression and the expression creates the emotion that goes with it.

But it’s not entirely clear. Autistic people have great difficulty with motor empathy. However, we don’t know whether they have difficulty with affective empathy. They may not. The jury on that is still very much out.

Even if it is, good motor empathy as an indicator for other kinds of empathy only works for some people–most people, in fact, but not everyone.

It doesn’t work for people with personality disorders. They all have perfectly fine motor empathy skills and major gaps in others systems. Borderlines feel what you feel, but cannot make sense of it. Narcissists lack affective empathy. Psychopaths do too. They do not feel what you are feeling, even if they are doing what you are doing.

Motor empathy is a part of what makes us feel connected to others. There are other elements involved, but motor empathy is one of them. That is why you can develop the most intense feeling of connection to a narcissist or psychopath–they can seem so absolutely in synch with you–but still be dropped like a hot potato.

They don’t feel what you are feeling, even when they look like they are. The connection is entirely on your side.


Empathic Distress, Guilt and Moral Reasoning

A Chinese vendor selling halal meets. Photo credit:  Aaron D. Feen
A Chinese vendor selling halal meets. Photo credit: Aaron D. Feen

I’m wondering something today.

I’m wondering something that I don’t have any answers to yet. But let’s just play with some ideas for a while, shall we? Let’s just hypothesize today.

And tomorrow, if I have time, I can read like hell and see if I’m right.

What I’m wondering is if empathic distress leads to guilt, or is part of what leads to guilt. Specifically, I’m wondering if the equation for guilt is this: suffering —> empathic distress –> cognition, “I did that,” –> guilt.

There are two kinds of morality, two categories of things we tend to feel guilty about. The first of these involves harming others: Thou shalt not kill; Thou shalt not commit adultery; Thou shalt not steal, and so on.

The other involves following rules that don’t obviously result in harm to anyone else: Remember the Sabbath Day, for example. Many of these are dietary or involve hygiene rules, such as keeping kosher or halal. When I was growing up in the 2×2s, we had a thousand different rules with very strong moral implications: don’t own a TV, don’t watch movies, don’t go to dances, don’t play on organized sports teams, to name a few.

Tharold Sylvester, Eldon Tenniswood, Ernest Nelson, and Howard Mooney, ca. 1970s.
Tharold Sylvester, Eldon Tenniswood, Ernest Nelson, and Howard Mooney, ca. 1970s.

If you really want to know all about them, you might enjoy a sermon I heard as a child from one of our most respected ministers, Eldon Tenniswood. He may have missed a few things, but it’s rather hard slogging anyway.

They seem different, but I’m not sure they are. What will happen if you are an orthodox Jew and fail to keep kosher? Well, bad things, right? God will be angry at you. He may be angry at your family. You will most likely be punished, or at the very least, he’ll turn his back on you when you most need him. People will be hurt in the long run by what you have done. You will be hurt.

And in the short-run, you will wound the hearts of those closest to you, who will take your failure to support your shared traditions as a personal betrayal.

I know I felt that way, leaving the church. My grandmother probably had a heart “episode” over it, as my mother always called them. Like it was TV.

Certainly, I would be hurting those around me in the long term. They were very clear about this. Car accidents came up a lot, as did drug and alcohol use.

Eldon gave this example in his sermon that night in 1982, “There was a young mother in Ohio who was quite angry when I went there for a visit.  She said to me, “When my little girl ( five years old) goes to school, she is going to be like other little girls.”  She told me about her parents, how hard they had made it for her.  Twelve years later it was my privilege to visit the same mother who sat in the same rocking chair.  Tears were streaming down her face when telling me about her 17-year-old girl.  She was just like other very rebellious girls and now the mother wanted her to be different.”

Guilt isn’t just about fear of punishment, even when the cause seems to be a bunch of silly rules. It’s not even about disapproval or rejection. It’s about not wanting to hurt our parents, our siblings, our children, or even God. It’s about feeling we have caused someone harm or will cause someone harm and we regret it.

It’s about empathic distress: seeing someone in distress and feeling it as if it were our feeling. With one additional element: a sense that we are the agent of that distress.

People who feel the most painful guilt are the most confused about their own agency, what power over others they really have, and what others can and should be expected to do for themselves.

Borderlines are famous for this. Individuals with BPD typically have difficulty regulating their own emotions and consequently expect everyone else to do it for them. People who spend a lot of time around them usually end up with the same belief–that we have a control over others we simply don’t have. If the BPD is experiencing distress, someone else must have caused it, or should have acted to prevent it, or should be able to stop it.

No, no, and no. The distress is partly just a normal part of being alive, partly about the deficits in cognitive empathy associated with BPD, and partly the result of difficulty with emotion regulation: the BPD may be no more distressed than anyone else would be in the same situation. It’s just that she can’t calm down.

Alcoholics have similar beliefs.

If you feel an unreasonable amount of guilt, you can deal with it in one of three ways: act to minimize the harm you feel you have caused (make amends), reconsider the extent of the harm you caused or might be causing (maybe it’s not such a big deal), or reevaluate your role as a cause (maybe it’s not your fault).

“It wasn’t your fault,” is necessary and so powerful.

I started thinking about this all a few days ago, watching Longmire. This is just a trailer, but you might like it anyway.

There is an episode in which a young girl with a developmental disorder is gang raped by four boys. One of them, it is later discovered, was not a willing participant, but he is nonetheless racked with guilt and rage. Another boy held a gun to his head. What else could he do?

A deputy tells him, “If someone threatens you with violence and makes you do something you don’t want to do, that’s kidnapping.” In fact, it isn’t. Not unless it’s a felony. But rape is a felony.

It’s not your faultIf someone threatened you, directly or indirectly, into taking off your clothes so that someone could more conveniently rape you, if they told you to go to an isolated area so that no one one would hear your screams, if they made you harm someone else, if someone said hold still or I’ll hit you harder, that’s kidnapping.

And it wasn’t your fault. If you still think it was, it’s because you won’t admit how powerless and terrified you really were.

Empathy in Personality Disorders

Russian dolls.
Russian dolls.

One of the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is “lack of empathy.” But what kind? Affective, cognitive, or both?

So I read a study. Granted, I only read one study. You should probably read more before you decide if their findings are valid.

According to K. Ritter and a bunch of other researchers, narcissists have average cognitive empathy. They can see things from your perspective. They can’t always be bothered though.

However, they have impaired affective empathy. When you are distressed, they aren’t also distressed. Which I think probably explains a lot.

The same study looked at empathy in those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). They found what other studies have found about borderlines and empathy. Individuals with BPD have impaired cognitive empathy but average or above-average affective empathy. They feel distressed when you are distressed–maybe even very distressed–but they don’t know why.

The Skill Gaps, a Follow-Up

There is something I should clarify about my last post, Empathy, Mentalization, and Complex Trauma. Actually, several things.

The first of these is that I made an assumption about complex trauma, which may not be correct, but that I do think was probably reasonable. I assumed that most or nearly individuals with complex trauma have someone in their immediate family with a mental illness which affects that person’s ability to empathize, mentalize, or regulate emotions. I am assuming that complex trauma is not just about having lived through repeated traumas, but about other factors that tend to go along with spending a lot of time around the kinds of people that are more likely to harm themselves or others or risk harm to themselves or others.

In other words, if your parent (like mine) attempted suicide when you were a kid, there was probably a lot more going wrong than just that. And it probably had something to do with empathy, mentalization, or regulating emotions. Because most things that make us really unhappy or really unable to function do.

In my last post, I also talked about skill gaps in mentalization. There are three types of skill gaps that can occur really. One of them has to do with understanding the minds of people you care about and are close to that have a mental illness.

Shared neural circuits for mentalizing about the self and other. a) Activation for mentalizing about self (red voxels) or other (blue voxels). White voxels denote overlap for self- and other-mentalizing. b) Common functional connectivity from shared vMPFC, PCC, and RTPJ seed regions. Red voxels show connectivity for self-mentalizing and blue voxels are for other-mentalizing. White voxels denote the overlap in connectivity for self- and other-mentalizing
Shared neural circuits for mentalizing about the self and other. a) Activation for mentalizing about self (red voxels) or other (blue voxels). White voxels denote overlap for self- and other-mentalizing. b) Common functional connectivity from shared vMPFC, PCC, and RTPJ seed regions. Red voxels show connectivity for self-mentalizing and blue voxels are for other-mentalizing. White voxels denote the overlap in connectivity for self- and other-mentalizing

I’ll put it to you like this. I have a number of skill gaps as an accountant. In fact, I really know almost nothing about accounting. However, I am not an accountant. It really doesn’t matter.

If you have no one close to you who doesn’t, for example, have BPD, then you really don’t need to understand how people with that disorder think. “That’s a whack job if I’ve ever seen one,” is probably as complex as your understanding of their inner emotional lives needs to go.

If that person is your sibling, your parent, your spouse, or your best friend, then that just isn’t going to cut it.

But the other skill gaps affect the rest of your life. They will still be there even if you decide to cut out of your life altogether everyone who is mentally ill, emotional unstable, or neuro-atypical.

One of them is understanding your own mind and how it works, how you think and feel and what motivates you. If you spent a lot of time with someone who had difficulty mentalizing (as BPDs are speculated to have), especially during your growing up years, you are likely to have trouble with it yourself.

It’s a little like learning math from someone who is mixed up about math. You may learn it, but you may also learn it wrong, or you may learn some things but not others. You may be able to do it, but not with any fluency or confidence.

When you spend a lot of time around someone with difficulty mentalizing, you may be told frequently that you think or feel something you do not think or feel, or be told you feel things you don’t feel or that you don’t feel what you do.

Because we are profoundly social creatures, we often believe what people tell us, especially if we are told it repeatedly. Even if we know it can’t be the truth. If you were a kid and just getting a handle on this whole mentalization business in the first place, you are doubly likely to believe this. You will mislabel your own feelings and motives and misunderstand how your own mind works. And that’s going to be a problem for you.

Not difficult.
Not difficult.

The third skill gap has to do with how we learn how to mentalize in the first place. And although there are a several different theories about how mentalization develops, as a completely non-expert observer, it seems to me that mostly we base our models of the mind on our own minds and on the kinds of minds we have the most experience with.

As the child of a psychopath, it’s not really very difficult for me to understand how a psychopath thinks or what motivates him. I spent a lot of time with one and it’s really not very complicated.

It took me a lot longer to understand the minds of people who aren’t disordered. I had very little experience with them.

So it may also be difficult for you to understand the minds of people who aren’t mentally ill, or who are mentally ill in a different way. And that’s going to make a lot of things just hard.

In sum, those with complex trauma can have difficulty with mentalization in three distinct areas. You may have difficulty mentalizing about an important person who is mentally ill, because that person’s mind is so unlike yours. You may have difficulty mentalizing about your own mind, because it was so deeply misunderstood by someone else for so long. And you may have difficulty mentalizing about ordinary people, because their minds are so unlike the minds of people who shaped your view of how minds work.

It’s a problem. Indeed.

Happy Mother’s Day…Maybe

My mother was abusive. She was also mentally ill. Those things seem to go together. Mental illness affects your ability to exercise good judgment, to manage the social aspects of life, and ultimately it affects your ability to raise your children. And sometimes parents who are mentally ill neglect or hurt their children.

I’d like to say that being mentally ill is a disability like any other, and it doesn’t affect your ability to be a good parent. But in at least some cases it does. It does profoundly.

Spirit_ApplePieSaleSo, I’m thinking about Mother’s Day. And I’m thinking about having things thrown at my head.

As far as I can tell, my mother had borderline personality disorder (BPD), with strong elements of narcissism. She sometimes ventured into the realm of out-and-out psychosis. She had comorbid depression and generalized anxiety. She spent a lot of time in bed when I was growing up, attempted suicide on a regular basis, and was murderously angry at least two or three times a week.

She’s a hard person to be around.

Holidays were hard. They often are for borderlines and their families. I’m not sure why, but it’s something all of us KOs (kids of) seem to be able to relate to. Maybe expectations get built up, and are later cruelly smashed–since life is never, ever quite as good as our fantasies. Or maybe the anxiety of needing to remain the center of attention–even if the day is about someone else–becomes too much.

So Mother’s Day was a hard day, a dangerous day. A lot of things were thrown. There were tears and shouting.

Hallmark, you’ve made the day so much harder for all of us. For those of us who were orphaned, motherless, abused, or simply forgotten. It’s so much harder.


teddy.bearTrue story.

I’ve got a lot of those.  I wanted to share one with you.  There isn’t a moral to this at the end or anything.  Don’t look for one.  It’s just a story.

I was always a little worried I was crazy or would become crazy.  I think I’ve mentioned that before.  Less so as I got older, and I seemed to be able to manage life–you know, pay bills, go to work, come home again.  And then I also started to realize that crazy is just another disease, like diabetes or high blood pressure.  You do what you need to do, and you deal with it.  And life goes on.

I was also afraid I would become suicidal.  In my mind, they aren’t that different.  Since I don’t want to die.

Anyway, I told my preschool teacher  I wanted to kill myself.  I was about 3 or 4.  What’s strange about the memory for me is it’s one of the first memories I have where I just know it happened, like knowing my birthday or my name.

I’m also pretty sure I was quoting someone else–I was talking about something specific I had heard, which was my mother’s suicide threats.  I wasn’t really talking about myself, but I was little and it’s hard for a kid to know how to talk about these things.  There are picture books about your first trip to the doctor, and toilet training, and having two dads, but nothing on mommy trying to die.  So it was hard to get the point across, and I guess I didn’t do it as well as I might have liked.

I found myself in a children’s psychiatric ward for observation.  That was easier on my folks than telling the truth–either to themselves or to anyone else.

The worst part is they left me there without my teddy bear.  It tears me up inside just thinking about it.

Narcissism, Codependence, and Sick Organizational Structures

I was raised in a cult, in what might be euphemistically called a “dysfunctional” family, and I work in a school district I’m pretty sure is run by psychopaths.

I have a lot of experience with sick organizational structures.

It’s a topic that’s already been approached–pretty thoroughly, in fact–by other writers and other movements.

The 12-step movements have looked at one manifestation of it–when a group of people are organized around a person with an addiction.  Codependency No More readers have looked at a slightly different part of the same problem: the person involved with the addict.

But addicts are only one part of a sick organizational structure, and they aren’t required.

Instead, what is necessary for this kind of system to develop is a narcissist or someone with a very similar illness that includes high degrees of grandiosity, such as psychopathy or borderline personality disorder.  The addict is sometimes the narcissist in the alcoholic family.  Sometime the addict is simply the person expressing the pain on behalf of the family regarding the harm the narcissist is inflicting on everyone.  The sickness in the family is likely to continue even if the addict comes clean if the narcissist remains a part of the group, because it is the narcissist who is the source of the problem.

And that is something the codependence movement does not and cannot account for.  Because the pain in the family is not the direct result of the addiction.  The addict is the proximate cause, but not the underlying cause.  The pain in the family is the direct result of the narcissist.

Codependence information talks about rules that are used to govern an individual’s behavior.

The Rules (from

1. It’s not ok to talk about problems. This results in learning to avoid problems.

2. Feelings are not expressed openly. The result is coming to believe it is better (safer) not to feel. Eventually we get so cut off from self that we are unsure what we feel.

3. Communication is often indirect, with one person acting as a messenger between two others. Using someone else to communicate for you results in confusion, misdirected feelings, and an inability to directly confront personal problems.

4. Unrealistic expectations: be strong, good, right, perfect, make us proud. Doing well and achieving is the most important thing. Enough is never enough. This results in creating an ideal in our head about what is good or right or best that is far removed from what is realistic or possible. This leads us to punish others and/or ourselves from not
meeting our expectations.

5. Don’t be selfish. We view ourselves as wrong for placing our own needs before the needs of others. We end up trying to feel good by taking care of others.

6. Do as I say … not as I do. This rule teaches us not to trust.

7. It’s ok not to play. We begin to believe that the world is a serious place where life is always difficult and painful.

8. Don’t rock the boat. The system seeks to maintain itself. If you grow and change, you’ll be alone.

These are the rules created by someone who uses others in order to bolster their own fragile egos, who wants endless amounts of attention and adoration, and takes no responsibility for his or her own life, needs, or feelings and expects others to do so instead.

If you get a group of people together who are familiar with these rules, who have internalized these rules, they will continue to live by and enforce them, because the rules are not merely rules any longer–they are a moral compass.  People who have adopted this moral compass feel guilty when they don’t live by them, and because lack of boundaries is an important part of this way of doing and being, they feel guilty when someone else breaks the moral code as well.

In addition, groups organized around these rules are likely to be focused on external structure, rather than authenticity or integrity, because members who can tolerate being in these groups lack internal structure of their own.  They are most often disordered people themselves–who by definition lack a normally developed self–or those who have spent a great deal of time in contact with them, and consequently have been unable to develop a normally functioning self.

The focus on appearance in the cult I grew up is not an accident.

In other words, they are very often attracted to strong ideologies.  They may, on the other hand, be obsessed by detail, paperwork, procedure, and policy.  Either way, sick organizational structures are typically driven by rules rather than goals.

Sick structures share certain other attributes as well.  Open discussion or debate is not allowed.  Differences of opinion will either not be expressed at all, or will be heated, unpleasant, uncivil debates that often end in retaliatory actions by whoever has more power.

Sacrifice is expected and praised.  Balance, sanity, and self-care will typically be cast as some form of selfishness.  Consequently, burn-out is common.  You may see high degrees of turnover in organizations with sick structures.  Families have massive blow-outs–often over frustration at being asked to give more than members can give–that result in factions that won’t speak to each other.  They will later make up.

Lying is not uncommon.  Narcissists and similar personalities do not understand that truth has an objective existence outside themselves.  They genuinely believe that if they want something to be true, it is true.  And because they do not tolerate boundaries, they do not tolerate anyone who contradicts them.  No one else can believe something the narcissist doesn’t.  So the lies will tend to be perpetuated by others.

If you find yourself in a sick structure, it may be you have some work to do yourself and a sick structure at first seemed comfortable and resonant for you.  Or, If it was an accidental placement and you simply did not know, you are in great danger of becoming sick yourself.  If you remain well, you can expect to be shunned, fired, or otherwise cast out of the group.

Remain well.


Babiak, P. and R. Hare.  (2007).  Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.  HarperBusiness: New York.

Beattie, M.  (2006).  Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.  Turtleback: St. Louis, MO.