In the night

I woke up in the night. I slept early and then woke when other people start going to bed. I woke up for the usual reasons—I was thirsty, I had to pee. Then I realized I was overwhelmed with some feeling I couldn’t name and couldn’t do anything about. Something like confusion.

As I woke up a little, it started to sort itself. I could organize it again some, and I slept.

But in the morning, it’s a mess again. I know what it seems to be about. It’s just the too-muchness of it that’s disorganizing.

It has to do with consent.

I should perhaps say that yesterday was a difficult day. Things kept coming out of boxes. I couldn’t keep them shut. I couldn’t get anything done. I couldn’t feel better about anything.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that one minute after I unbuttoned Natalya’s shirt.

It was unnerving.

I think this particular box is more unnerving because I work at a school, and although I don’t really need to teach these days, there are children running around asking me questions and the girls in my class are around the age of what I am remembering and there is a sense of not the time and place for this thought. As well as not being able to get my head around the idea that such little, little girls can do what I did and feel what I felt and frankly I don’t know if I want to get my head around that. Because the fact is maybe they can’t. I don’t know.

One of the downsides of growing up is we forget what it was like to be young. The longer I teach, the more I am convinced of this. We do not accurately understand our students because we cannot accurately remember being that age ourselves. Everything we remember gets patinaed over with our current, adult perspective and we don’t quite know why they do what they do or how they feel.

But my memories are not processed at all. They are raw and fresh, as if they happened yesterday.


That is not really the point.

The point is I was trying to check notebooks and I could not get Natalya’s half-naked body out of my head. Mostly I could not get the feeling of it out of my head. And this morning is the follow-up of that.

Because a part of what emerges out of my adolescent confusion regarding what was happening then is that what we did involved consent. Not a single instance of consent, but constant consent.

Natalya kissed my neck and then she waited. What would I do? What would I feel? I felt desire. She sat on my lap and looked into my eyes. What she saw there made her kiss me. What would I do? I kissed her back.

I’m trying to break it down, to describe it in a mechanical way, but it wasn’t mechanical. It wasn’t conscious either. It was automatic, assumed, seamless.

We paid attention. Is this comfortable? Do you feel safe? Is this what you want? She paid attention to me, not just to see if I responded, but to see if she still had my permission to do what she did, and the permission came not in words, but in my expression. She saw it looking into my eyes. She felt it in the tension or relaxation of my body.

I had been violated my whole life. No one cared how I felt about what was done to me or what I was expected to do so long as I kept it together enough to comply. That kind of consent—that kind of care—breaks my head.

It seems impossible.

It shouldn’t surprise me, because for years she had been watching me in that way to help me feel less afraid when we had to perform. This was an extension of that. But in the end, what we did in front of the cameras we did not really have a choice about. There were some choices: Will we do this first or that first? Can we slow things down a little? Can we hold hands while we do this so we don’t feel so alone? Can we do this in such a way that we can still keep eye contact?

Those were the kinds of choices we had.

It is not the same as consent.

It does not seem possible that anyone can care. I think it did not seem possible to me then.

And if she can care so much, why doesn’t everyone? Why doesn’t anyone?


A sociopathic approach to life

I don’t know what to think anymore. The old thoughts have sort of been run through. I return to the old grooves, but they are worn out. I’m not interested, and the old thoughts don’t spark anything new.

I woke up in the small hours of the morning again, but not so early. It must have been around 3:30, and I felt happy, thinking, “It’s okay to have my memories.” And I thought of Natalya’s lean arms around me. It isn’t a memory really. I am imagining it, but I am imagining something that happened. It doesn’t hurt me to think it.

But later, when I remember imagining it, it does hurt. The sense of a physical sensation is so strong that it’s painful.

I think all grief feels this way, but I have never had to grieve so deeply for anyone else.

I spend most of my time on one side of the wall. This side doesn’t quite feel like “me.” Nothing does. It both does and doesn’t. I suppose you could say it feels like me, but I don’t believe it. This voice that I am using now as a writer comes from this side. It is a gentle personality, it feels deeply, it tries to be kind.

On the other side of the wall lies an impatience with myself, with the process. I don’t understand why it all has to be so complicated. I ought to just get on with things.

This side has no compassion for me. She lacks empathy. Her whole approach to life is instrumental, unsociable, unemotional, sociopathic

But I am thinking today I have no compassion for it either. It’s hard to have compassion for someone like that. Someone like that is not nice.

Still, it’s hard for this part. It’s so frustrating that I can’t just get on with things, that I have to feel so many emotions, that her approach to life doesn’t actually work.

What I think she needs is some understanding. She lacks empathy because she’s not been given any before. No one has shown her how to do it. So she doesn’t understand about looking at things from someone else’s perspective: no one has ever tried to see things from hers.

And so I try to do that a little. I try to think of her frustration, her bewilderment at having so many feelings thrust upon her, her fear at being forced into a way of life that makes her so very vulnerable

I try.

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.

Sponginess: Affective Empathy, Leaky People, and My Cat

We've both been very relaxed these days.
We’ve both been very relaxed these days. But I think she’s starting to feel boxed in.

I didn’t think I would actually like this article about erecting armor against other people’s emotions, mainly because it frames it in terms of armor. And I don’t think armor would be very effective in the face of a biologically-mediated capacity for affective empathy–feeling other people’s emotions as if they were our own.

But I do like it. I’ll get into that in a bit.

First, I want to explain why I refer to it as a biologically-mediated capacity, because that’s a little unclear. I should probably use a few more words.

What I really mean is that we are wired to do it. Some of us may have a better innate capacity than others. It’s possible that some people don’t have it at all. However, as mammals, and highly social ones at that, nearly all of us do.

Even my cat seems to experience affective empathy. The reason I say this is not because she comes and lies on my chest when I’m sad. She does, but she might just be cold. Or maybe I sit still longer when I’m sad. No, I say that because she very often gets sick when I do. I am sick more often than she is, but she never gets sick when I’m well. If she is sneezy and rubbing her nose, it can only be because I am too.

And I’ve looked this up. Cats and humans share very few infectious agents–basically, it comes down to toxoplasmosis. We are not passing back the same cold. Her cold and my cold are due to completely different viruses.

What we probably have in common is stress and weakened immune systems due to that stress. I am stressed, so I am more vulnerable to developing a respiratory infection. She is stressed because I am stressed, so she is more vulnerable to developing a respiratory infection.

If cats are doing it, I have trouble imagining you can learn to just stop doing it.

But that isn’t what the article recommends. I’m still not quite ready to get into that, but I will.

In most cases, affective empathy doesn’t really cause us any problems. It doesn’t bother us if we feel sad when the main character in a movie is feeling sad. In fact, we sometimes pay good money to do that along with an overpriced popcorn and a soda. It doesn’t bother us when we feel indignant right along with our maltreated spouse who got lousy customer service from the same place that gave us lousy customer service.

It bothers us when we find ourselves around leaky people too much. Then it’s exhausting.

Leaky people seem to have too many emotions too intensely. We leave them feeling unreasonably angry or strangely sad. They seem to feel too much, and we find ourselves feeling too much right along with them.

They are leaky because they are poor self-regulators. They don’t calm themselves down. They hope we will do it for them, or they just ventilate everything they are feeling and then proceed to forget all about it. And meanwhile, we stew for hours afterward.

If you spend a lot of time with leaky people–because they are your boss, or your parent, or your spouse–you need to self-regulate especially well. You have double-duty.

And that’s really what the article I thought I wouldn’t like but did suggests. So I’ll let you read it now. Tell me what you think.

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.

Empathy, Mentalization, and Complex Trauma

Affective (or emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy have been compared to nested Russian dolls, but I prefer to see them as distinct systems that work together to help us interact with and understand our worlds.

It amazes me sometimes what I don’t know, and what I know now that I didn’t know before.

Mados tells me that empathy has two components: an emotional component and a cognitive component. It turns out that she is absolutely right.

The emotional component allows us to literally feel what others are feeling and seems to have something to do with our mirror neuron system. It is what makes histrionic personalities so difficult to be around and can make meditating with others who are also meditating especially calming. Emotional empathy makes affective states contagious.

Cognitive empathy involves mentalization–being able to think about someone else’s thoughts and feelings–and perspective-taking. The Sally-Anne test is really a test of the very first stage of the development of cognitive empathy: recognizing that a different person with access to different information will have a different thought about a situation. Children without Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have a good grasp of this idea by the time they are four years old.

Children with ASD don’t, because they seem to have delayed cognitive empathy skills, although they may have perfectly average emotional empathy. Difficulties with cognitive empathy have all kinds of other implications, including problems with developing social, language, and academic skills, because our ability to understand the minds of others impacts how well we are able to learn from them.

We notice the social aspects of ASD because social interactions are such a high priority for most of us–human beings are among the most social creatures on the planet. But I’m not convinced they are causal. Difficulties with social information processing may result from general difficulties processing sensory information that interfere with taking in and making sense of social cues.

ObstacleCourseTires1However, this post is not actually about ASD. It is about how our empathic skills work together to help us interact with and understand our worlds–or don’t.

Just as with ASD, some of the difficulties associated with complex trauma may have to do with skill gaps in cognitive empathy that also lead to a vast array of other difficulties, including difficulties in mentalization–thinking about our own minds and the minds of others.

I am involved in several online groups for family members of people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and many of the struggles new members have revolve around difficulties with mentalization–perhaps not generally, but in regards to the BPD. Most of their questions boil down to, “How is she thinking? Why is she acting this way? What motivates her?” And, “What can I be doing to help?”


Understanding how someone else’s mind works, what they are thinking and feeling and why, help us to interact with others in successful ways. It is like knowing how to navigate an obstacle course. When we know how high to jump to get over the wall, how fast we can manage to run through the tires without tripping,  and how low to stoop for the tunnel, it is almost fun.

When we know how someone’s mind works, we can navigate them too. We can make ourselves understood, we can repair breaks in communication, we can provide comfort and support when others need it. When the minds of others are incomprehensible, we can’t. And it isn’t fun.

The Sponge People. Click the image to follow link.
The Sponge People. Click the image to follow link.

It is frightening.

It is frightening when we can literally feel the distress of others, but we can’t make sense of it and we don’t know what to do about it.

And it isn’t just a practical problem. We use mentalization to regulate our own affective states. When we “catch” someone else’s emotional distress, we consider their mental state to reframe the distress as nonthreatening. We use it to take action that relieves their distress (and ours). When the distress is incomprehensible, we have one less tool with which to manage it.

When have never learned to properly understand our own minds either, because those around us had disordered minds, then we are doubly disadvantaged. We become sponges, with nothing to dry us out again.