“This ability arose in human being because it allowed him to quickly understand what was happening to a tribesman”

Tatyana Karyagina about empathy and how to “train” it

In the age of dependence on gadgets and long work with machines, it may seem to us that live communication is not so important and necessary. Money can be earned on the Internet, food can be ordered online, too. Nevertheless, loneliness and lack of understanding of others are still one of the main causes of depression of modern people. To solve these problems, it is necessary to master the techniques of empathy, psychologist Tatyana Karyagina said this in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“Many outstanding psychotherapists, masters of empathy, had difficult parents”

Ms Karyagina, how do we feel and understand the other person correctly?

We learn it out whole life, we receive a lot of the feedback allowing to correct our experience. If we misunderstand the state of the other, there can be all sorts of unpleasant consequences. For example, American psychotherapist Alice Miller noticed that many outstanding psychotherapists, masters of empathy, had difficult, unpredictable parents. Therefore, the ability to feel their state was actually a condition of survival for the child, which led to the development of empathic superpowers and appropriate professional motivation.

As Carl Rogers, without exaggeration great psychotherapist, who first included empathy in the very core of the psychotherapeutic method, said, empathy means to enter into the inner world of another person and be at home in it, not forgetting about it “as”, in the sense of “as if”, that is, remembering that it is still another person, not you. In other words, with empathy, we decentrate (another psychological term, from equally great psychologist Jean Piaget), we depart from our egocentric position.

As Carl Rogers said, empathy means to enter into the inner world of another person and be at home in it, not forgetting about it “as”, in the sense of “as if”, that is, remembering that it is still another person, not you

But it is not enough to say “take the place of another”. How do we do this? Only by drawing on our own experience, including it in our response. That is why I prefer to talk about empathy as an essential empathic process, a kind of separation of feelings and states. It connects our imagination, our knowledge. Empathy is the basis of our participation in the experiences of another — sympathy, as well as co-thinking, assistance, etc.

If we start from the very beginning, from the origins of empathy, we now know that there is a specific brain mechanism that ensures this “correctness”. And it exists not only in us but also in many animals. These are already famous mirror neurons, discovered in the late 1990s by Italian scientists — Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues from the University of Parma. Now we already talk about mirror neural networks. Because of their work in our brain, when we see, hear or even imagine the state of another person, the same parts of the brain are excited, including those that would be excited if we ourselves experienced such state.

In the course of evolution, this ability arose precisely because it allowed people very quickly to understand what was happening with a tribesman. Not to build conclusions, to put forward and check hypotheses, and yourself instantly to feel his or her condition and to act accordingly: to run, prepare for an attack, etc. This same ability allows us to imitate easily another's behaviour and to learn through supervision. The existence of mirror neurons has always seemed to be suspected by coaches, forcing injured players to go to training and look at colleagues.

But, again, this is only the beginning. From the first minutes of life, this mirror ability of the brain, as we say in accordance with the theory of another brilliant psychologist Lev Vygotsky, is “signified” — a word, a gesture, a story from a fairy tale or a cartoon, an action, etc. Adults call child's feelings, including his empathy. He is taught how to apologize, thank, comfort and sympathize. For example, when a child is called to apologize for hurting another, it is most often done through the instruction of decentralization or empathy: you have pushed the boy, imagine how it hurts him, remember how it hurt you once in a similar situation.

From the first minutes of life, mirror ability of brain is “signified” — a word, a gesture, a story from a fairy tale or a cartoon, an action, etc.

“In psychopathy, the ability to involuntary empathy is significantly impaired”

What about the example of parents? Does it greatly affect the behaviour of a child?

Certainly, a child always has before his eyes the example of his own parents who care about him and about his feelings. Our study of children (so far only girls) from 19 to 32 months showed that at this age children are able to express sympathy with a look, gesture, words, and not only to the mother but also to an unfamiliar adult. Although to a stranger, of course, to a lesser extent. If children of this age somehow effectively, through actions, express their empathy to reduce the pain of an adult, to comfort him (at this age it is still relatively rare), then they clearly do what adults usually do in relation to them. And of course, most children show personal distress (in psychology, this means destructive stress): they are disturbed and frightened by the suffering of an adult. But in the age dynamics it is clearly seen how this distress is gradually overcome, replaced by empathic care and sympathy.

We observed one phenomenon that can in some sense be considered such a point of transition between personal distress as a direct, involuntary form of empathy, and its prosocial forms focused of the welfare of the other: at the age of 22-24 months, many children imitate the external manifestations of the mother's experience: repeat her words or moan, posture, actionsю That is, they as if increase their empathy, imitating my mother's condition, “clarify” in this way what is happening to her.

It is clear that this concerns children of “good enough parents” (so they usually say about the normal situation of development), but in other cases adults with their behaviour towards the child or the circumstances of life can almost “turn off’ mirror neurons, regularly inhibiting or negatively reinforcing their work. For example, at least the regular phrase “Do not feel sorry for her, she's a crybaby”. There is a certain degree of heritability of empathic abilities, dependence on the properties of temperament, etc. In psychopathy, the ability to involuntary empathy is significantly impaired, etc. And quite normal, healthy people have one problem, which is most often complained of: “I seem to understand everything, sympathize, but only internally. I don't know how to express it to a person.”

There is a certain degree of heritability of empathic abilities, dependence on temperament, etc.

“The better we understand ourselves, the better we will understand the other”

How can you develop empathy?

Given what I have said about the particular difficulties of expressing empathy, I would divide this question into several parts — the attitude toward empathy itself, empathy as feeling, experiencing, and the expression of empathy.

If a person is concerned with developing his empathic ability, then most likely he has the determination, he wants to be empathic and considers it important. But even for students who have come to study the direction of psychological counseling, in which empathy is given a lot of attention, we try to show by examples why it is important, how it helps a person, that is, to strengthen this attitude. Empathy motivates us to help others effectively, this has been proven in numerous studies. Personal distress inhibits help because the person is focused on their state but other forms of empathy are often directly related to specific helping actions.

But empathy is important in itself, it is already a help. First of all, because a person feels that he is not alone with his trouble, his feelings are shared. In the end, happiness is when you understand, as the hero of the film Till Monday said. Plus understanding from another can lead me to some kind of breakthrough in self-understanding, in solving my problem. The person who empathizes with me relies on his experience, something similar, but still different, and this gives me the opportunity to look at the situation a little bit in a new way.

I will give an example when my friend once helped me a lot with just one phrase. Several very important things fell through in different areas of my life on one and the same day, and by the evening I felt like I was in a deep crisis. Many people sympathized with me, advised me what to do, and it was important and necessary. A friend said, after hearing my complaints, just like this: “Yes, for one day — just too much.” She saw the situation a little differently, from a different angle, and that helped me a lot. I realized that it really is such a “cumulative effect” that I see here some kind of global failure, but if you look separately, these “crises” — no more than difficulties, and they can be safely overcome gradually.

If we talk about our experience, feeling empathy, then here an important consideration will sound a little paradoxical — to develop an understanding of ourselves and our feelings. The better we understand ourselves, the better we will understand the other. Again, empathy is based on our empathy. As my teacher Fyodor Vasilyuk used to say, in empathy we make our experience “the organ of empathy”. For example, psychotherapists usually undergo personal, own therapy, acquire, as it is called, the experience of self-knowledge. The corresponding section of professional training is present as mandatory in 9/10 of all psychotherapeutic approaches — personal experience should be realized, reflected and as accessible as possible. This needs to be done for many reasons, but empathy in a professional situation also helps.

The “rules” of expression of empathy are well described in Julia Borisovna Gippenreiter's book Communicate With The Child. How?. They suit everyone, not just parents

“The first step is to slow down your desire to give advice or an assessment of what a person has done wrong”

Is it true that reading books can develop empathy?

Yes, absolutely. Many studies, including ours, show that high personal distress is associated with what is known as alexithymia (literally: “there are no words for feelings”). This is how psychology and psychiatry call the inability of a person to distinguish between his feelings, to name and describe them, to rely on them in his thoughts and actions. That is why for development empathy it is always recommended to read more. It's really a very good way to develop your inner world, as literature teachers used to say in my childhood. It is also important to include imagination, that is, complicating the task of empathy. Therefore, with all my love for modern TV series, which work very well to create and strengthen the empathic attitude, they will not replace books.

All kinds of programmes for the recognition of emotions for children are popular today. It's important, of course. But I would not exaggerate the importance of just recognizing basic emotions from pictures (this is how it often happens). More important is the subtle nuance, telling and discussing stories about feelings in different situations, how they are experienced, expressed, cope with difficult emotions, etc.

Let's say a person realized the importance of empathy in his life, began to read something on this topic. But one theory is not enough, you need more practice, don’t’ you? What can you do to learn to express empathy?

The ‘rules’ of empathy expression are well described in Julia Borisovna Gippenreiter's book Communicate With The Child. How?. They suit everyone, not just parents. When another person is feeling bad, we really want to help him somehow, to give advice. This, of course, can be useful to him. But, especially first, it is important to let him know that we are with him, that we understand the depth of his experience.

Therefore, the first step, which is usually taught — is to slow down your desire to give advice or assessment of what the person did wrong, and just listen carefully, trying to feel the state of the other (this is called “active listening”) and convey to him your understanding: “You're just terribly upset”, or “I can not even imagine what you felt”, or “How have you survived this?”. We often seek to encourage another person, somehow “enlighten” his feelings, including because we ourselves are not feeling good because of, again, the same personal distress. Here it is important to remember that the other person is feeling worse now, that he needs us, our support, the ability to be with him in the most unbearable situation.

By Matvey Antropov

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