Tag Archives: empathy

“just stop it!” comments on alcoholism

back in august, i wrote a little post about addictions. here are two things commenters had to say:

#1  thanks for sharing this. i believe too much alcohol can’t help you better to stop it, you have to love your health and love your life. do something better, you can do physical activities instead of drinking too much.

#2 taking alcohol occasionally is okay but being addicted to it is not healthy anymore. health is wealth, so better start doing something about it. stop it and enjoy life.

both of these comments illustrate the typical mindsets of people who either know nothing about addiction or who are afraid of addiction (or both).

people who don’t know much about addiction don’t understand that people who are struggling with addiction already know things like “too much alcohol can’t help” or “health is wealth”. in fact, at least half of them beat themselves up with that knowledge a hundred times a day. once you’ve been using for a little while, guess what, you’ve figured out that it’s unhealthy and that it would be a pretty darn good idea to stop or at least decrease it.

it’s the same with advice. let’s take “stop it and enjoy life”. once again, the thought of stopping it has occurred to the person a thousand times.

and enjoying life? what if it feels like enjoying life seems impossible without the alcohol (or drug, or gambling, or whatever the person is dealing with). what if the person couldn’t enjoy life to begin with, and stopping the addiction would just bring her back to an unbearably bleak and painful life?

words such as “you can do physical activities instead of drinking too much” are supremely unhelpful for a number of reasons, e.g.

  • as said before, the person who is addicted already knows that
  • at least at the beginning, you don’t get nearly as much a kick out of the physical activity as the addictive activity (that goes for other activities as well)
  • substitutions only work under certain circumstances. how’d you like it if i said, “you’re boyfriend just died? don’t worry, just get yourself another one – here, take john, he’s got a moustache, too”

the most troublesome part is the attitude, and the unthinkingness (nice word, huh?) if the person offering these comments thought for a moment, they could realize that the person with the addiction already knows that stopping would be a good idea. implicit in truisms like the ones above is the message, “you’re too stupid/naïve to have figured this out on your own, so now i’m telling you something that everyone else but you knows.”

the above and the lack of thoughtfulness portray disregard. the message is “this person i’m talking to is not worth thinking about; what i have to say is more important”.

what comes with all of this is a lack of empathy. “i’m not going to stop and reflect on how i would feel if someone gave me unsolicited advice about something painful in my life.”

and why? most of the time it comes down to fear. fear of having my life entangled with the difficulties of another when my own may already be difficult to bear. and fear that by getting closer to the addiction, i might get “infected”. humans have a deep-seated fear of “catching” diseases not only of the body but also of the mind. the fact that this is irrational drives the fear even more underground, which just makes it more potent because it gets to roam around uncontrolled. (now there’s an interesting thought – the parallel between that suppressed fear and the underground, uncontrolled drug trade).



does this happen to you, too? once in a while you look at an obvious fact for the 1,285th time and all of a sudden, its profound truth hits you like a ton of bricks.

for the last few days, this profound truth was – well, let me say it this way:

humans are 60-70% water and 98-99% emotion.

as you can guess, this post is be mostly about emotion (i’ll leave the water to my good friend raul) although it is interesting to note that in some traditions, water is intimately connected with emotion – in most pagan traditions, for example, as well as in jungian thought.

freud spoke of the thin veneer of civilization, and boy, is it thin. even when we are rational (for example, in science). or maybe even then. how edgy we get when our thoughts/logic/rational arguments/fill-in-the-blanks are challenged! anger and fear arise, the stomach knots up, blood pressure rises, heartbeat increases and wham! we fight back. if we stay “rational”, our arguments will not be physically violent or replete with swearing; they will be well crafted and most likely laced with sarcasm, knowing we are right, an unwillingness (and inability) to hear the other and a frantic scrambling for hitting the other with more facts that prove our superiority.

the funny thing is that a truly rational response would be to reach out, to soften, to be curious. that is, assuming that one has in mind to have a true exchange between equals, which again would be a rational thing to do. we could define rational behaviour according to psychologist albert ellis as

acting, emoting and thinking in ways that are alternative-seeking, realistic, flexible and most importantly self- and social-helping and functional in helping humans in achieving their personal and social goals and desires

and somehow we find this incredibly difficult. currently i’m reading three books (you always have at least five books on the go, too, right?) that show just how deeply important emotion is to us. one is mark goulston’s just listen who keeps driving home the fact that in order to interact with people rationally, we need to make sure that they can actually hear us, without being prey to the “amygdala hijack”. the amygdala is part of our limbic brain (sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain) and initiates the fight or flight response. it compares incoming information (e.g. facial expressions, tone, body language, smells, etc.) with emotional memories. an amygdala hijack occurs when the amygdala decides that the information it has just processed threatens survival and hence any reaction needs to be fight, flight or freeze – and not be directed by the frontal cortex, which is the part that helps us act rationally (i.e. the amygdala “hijacks” decision making power from the frontal cortex). the amygdala will react similarly to the threat of being eaten threatened by the woolly mammoth and a perceived emotional attack.

the other book is daniel ariely’s predictably irrational. from the jacket cover:

not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day but we make the same types of mistakes … we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. we fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own.

fortunately, ariely proposes that

these misguided behaviours are neither random nor senseless. they’re systematic and predictable.

that’s good. it has such a – rational sound to it.

finally, a book i have been gnawing on for months now is made to stick – why some ideas survive and others die, by dan and chip heath. i’m “gnawing” not because it is hard to read – it decidedly is a joy to read – but because there is so much useful information in it. the main idea of the book is that in order to get a message through to an audience – students, for example – the last thing we need to do is inundate them with facts (which is something our rational brain likes to do). ideas that stick are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, contain a story, and appeal to our emotions.

they give an example of an appeal to help starving children in malawi, africa. one appeal provided very informative statistical bullet point to show reasons for giving; the other told of a little girl, and what the money would do to help her educate and provide her with medical care. not only did the story-based appeal result in donations over twice as high but also when potential donors were presented with both the story and the statistics, they still gave significantly less.

as i said, many of the points i made are pretty obvious. but do we really act on them? often, way too often, it seems that some irrational part of our brain tells us to keep hitting people over the head with too much rationality.

does that happen to you? how do you deal with it?

loving kindness for our unknown neighbours

our meditation meetup meeting on wednesday was at the buddhist peace fellowship here in vancouver. a great big thanks to my friend jennifer for arranging this!

at the end, we did a bit of metta practice. metta is a buddhist loving kindness practice directed literally at everyone in this world, starting with oneself.

i was astonished and pleased to hear that something similar to what i have been practicing on and off was also recommended there as metta practice. you see, part of the magic of metta is that one extends good will to people one does not really know. however, there can be a bit of a difficulty with this because opening one’s heart to someone who you don’t know can feel a little flat and academic.

so here’s something that i’ve been doing that helps to overcome that. i usually do it at the end of the day. i go through my day and look for feelings, events and thoughts that catch my attention. the other day i was riveted by an image of chocolate, for example! today i am thinking of the people in gaza whose power has been cut off. and a little while ago i was browsing through some research on shyness, so that’s been on my mind a bit.

chocolate, gaza, shyness: things that have held my attention today, things that are emotionally charged for me today.

for metta, then, i might do something like this:

i might imagine someone in my neighbourhood who is struggling with chocolate addiction. i conjure up an image. perhaps a woman sitting in the kitchen, the table littered with chocolate bar wrappers.

may this neighbour of mine who is struggling with her food addiction be healthy, happy, peaceful and free.

then i think, there’s probably someone not too far from here who has relatives in the gaza strip. they must be worried. i imagine them sitting in front of the TV, sighing.

may this brother of mine who is worried about his relatives, may he and his relatives be happy, healthy, peaceful and free.

i can also imagine that someone not too far from here, probably even somewhere in my block, is painfully shy. i imagine that person – you know what, i’ll even give her a name: cindy – sitting in front of her computer, surfing the net, trying to distract herself from the terrifying thought of the meeting she has to attend tomorrow.

may cindy be happy, healthy, peaceful and free.

weird psychology studies

the end of the year is list time. so here’s a list, filched from jeremy over at PsyBlog – the 10 weirdest psychology studies. if you go to his blog, you can also vote for the weirdest study. guess which one i found the weirdest!

1. don’t stand so close to me – how the speed and flow of men’s urination in a public lavatory was affected by invasions of personal space.

2. empathy causes facial similarity between couples to increase over time people who live with each other for 25 years actually develop similar facial features

3. neuroscientist studies his own stroke on february 2, 2001 distinguished sleep and dream researcher professor j. allan hobson had a stroke in his brain stem. for 10 days hobson could neither sleep nor dream. then he realised the stroke was localised to the exact part of the brain he had been studying experimentally in his sleep research with cats. call it poetic justice, or just sheer bad luck, either way hobson approached the experience like a scientist and decided to document it, just as he had with the cats, but this time from the inside.

4. superstitious pigeon-guided missiles during WWII, in the days before cheap computing, guiding a bomb to its target was a more miss than hit affair. read all about skinner’s pigeon-guided missiles

5. a psychic dog? back in 1994 a television company claimed a dog called ‘jaytee’ could psychically sense when its owner returned home. and they had some evidence to back up their claim.

6. are we programmed to laugh when tickled? do we learn to laugh when tickled or is it an innate response?

7. invasion from mars: the anatomy of panic. on october 28, 1938 many americans believed they were being invaded by martians. this was the result of a halloween stunt orchestrated by orson wells in which he adapted h. g. wells’ ‘war of the worlds’ to the radio and broadcast the play as though it was actually happening. for professor howard cantril of princeton university and colleagues, this provided the perfect opportunity to investigate the anatomy of panic.

8. does semen have antidepressant properties? this study tests the idea that prostaglandins, a component of semen, may actually be useful in treating depression.

9. stop staring at me! here are a couple of studies you can replicate yourself – if you’ve got the nerve. in the first you could be risking bodily harm from enraged motorists, while the second has a twist in the tail. they both show the power of staring at other people and they’re both fantastically simple social psychology experiments.

10. human-dog psychology. cat or dog? jeremy says that he’d choose dog. it seems, if pushed, most academic research psychologists choose dog as well. (well, i’d choose cat!)