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Forms of Empathy
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Arthur Ciaramicoli

      . . . psychologist. Dr. Ciaramicolia is a faculty member of the Harvard Medical School where he is an instructor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry. He is also Chief Psychologist and Director of Alternative Medical Services at MetroWest Wellness Center. He has a radio program in Boston and is author of The Power of Empathy:  A Practical Guide to Creating Intimacy, Self-Understanding and Lasting Love and Treatment of Abuse and Addiction.

Excerpts3:43 secs

      What‚s the key to a balanced life and healthy relationships? Empathy, according to Dr. Arthur Ciaramicoli. It‚s a powerful, genetically endowed ability to accurately read another person, he says, a characteristic we share with life forms as different from us as single celled organisms and elephants. Not an emotion or feeling, not sympathy, compassion or identifying with someone, empathy is a capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another person.

      Honesty is essential. So is the willingness to listen and to tolerate ambiguity in the interest of understanding and responding. Empathy is objective, willing to be with another to the point where we can understand how his or her experience is unique. It is an attempt to understand another, express the understanding and put it into action.

      Don‚t think empathy provides a quick fix, says Dr. Ciaramicoli. He likens developing our biological capacity for empathy to running a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time and practice. And we all lapse. One of the great opportunities in relationships, he believes, is having many chances.

      People who have experienced empathy can empathize, he assures us. Research shows women and men both are empathetic, though it often is expressed quite differently. Gender stereotypes, or any other kind, are not useful, he reminds us -- empathy always speaks to the specific, not the general.

      Resist blame and the dark side of empathy, he cautions. Evil as well as good can result from being deeply tuned in to other people. Think Adolf Hitler.

      Most of us move too quickly to be able to capitalize on our innate ability to empathize. We judge people by appearances, fail to look inside to see the whole person. Slow down, Dr. Ciaramicoli suggests. Be objective, gather facts, be present and in the moment, tolerate situations and differences which are not comfortable. We don‚t have to be in therapy to learn to expand our capacity for empathy, says this therapist. We learn it by practicing it, daily, in relationships with others. Our teacher may be the bus driver or the person who held the door.

      What is the point of empathy? It‚s a tool for becoming better attuned to another and to ourselves. We all have it, it‚s hard wired into us. But empathy requires we see ourselves and others clearly, that we understand and accept our own personal history, create an environment were we are clear and direct, assert what we feel and think, accept our own and others‚ uniqueness while embracing our profound need for each other.

      Allow empathy to come to fruition, says Dr. Ciaramicoli, and it can be life‚s guard and guardian.  Empathy‚s power?  It can get people back in sync.

Conversation 1

Arthur Ciaramicoli tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about humans‚ genetically endowed capacity for empathy. Dr. Ciaramicoli defines empathy, stressing its action orientation. He explains the process by which empathy works.

Conversation 2

Dr. Ciaramicoli uses the Columbine school killings to distinguish empathy from compassion and sympathy. He stresses the importance of embracing ambiguity. Blaming, he says, is the dark side of empathy, giving examples. Empathy, he believes, makes room for other peoples imperfections. It is widespread in most life forms, he says, citing research stretching from single-cell organisms to elephants. He urges a healthy balance between the emotional and reasoning parts of our brains, where empathy can flourish. He gives examples of extremes, and describes the neurochemistry of what happens when children are not treated with empathy. He describes ways we can "rewire" ourselves.

Conversation 3

Dr. Ciaramicoli advocates an holistic approach to treating addiction, combining emotions, biology, psychology, spiritual and interactional elements. He shows how empathy helps people with addictions, recounting what happens in recovery as people pursue a more balanced life. Mirroring, Dr. Ciaramicoli declares, is profoundly important to us all, offering examples. He urges us to resist blame. It's important to know how we were perceived as we were developing so that we can better understand what we carry forward from our families of origin. He explains: the importance of understanding one‚s own history, the critical role of honesty and the importance of "being in the moment."

Conversation 4

Learning is at the heart of empathy, says Dr. Ciaramicoli, who explains why. Listen without bias, he counsels, with examples from his own family. He explains why empathy is a paradox. He gives a startling range of people who used empathy -- the ability to accurately read another person -- for good and evil. He cites research about health hazards related to living according to strict stereotyped gender roles. He offers "assertive" as an alternative to passive and aggressive, then gives a prescription for healthy, balanced lives. He objects to stereotypes including those about men being from one planet, women from another. Women are not necessarily more empathetic than men, declares Dr. Ciaramicoli, who cites research to support his assertion. People treated with empathy are empathetic, he assures us.

Conversation 5

Men have very real empathetic abilities, says Dr. Ciaramicoli, who gives examples. He cites research which indicates strengths associated with both genders and gives examples of how women and men can effectively function together. He describes people being independent, dependent and interdependent, reminding us of humans‚ fundamental need for each other. He compares what Victorian Era people needed to learn with what we can gain today. Relationships, not inhibitions, are now people's primary concern in therapy, he says, with examples. He suggests when communication is best served by words and when facial expressions can be more telling. He cautions us not to seek perfection.

Conversation 6

Real life experiences, however painful, can help us enhance our empathetic capabilities, says Dr. Ciaramicoli, offering personal examples. He describes his own remedy for forgiving himself for major mistakes in his life. He reminds us of the impasse blame creates, assuring us that we don't have to be in therapy to learn to expand our capacity for empathy. He ends with wisdom gained from his father about being open to all people.


Norma Pomerantz at Jason Aronson Inc. went considerably out of her way to be sure we had a copy of Treatment of Abuse and Addiction: A Holistic Approach, Dr. Ciaramicoli's book directed to professionals. We appreciate Norma's efforts, making it possible for us to more fully prepare for this conversation. Thank you!

Related Links:
The Power of Empathy, co-authored by Arthur Ciaramicoli and Katherine Ketcham, is published by Dutton
Treatment of Abuse and Addiction: A Holistic Approach, by Arthur Ciaramicoli, is published by Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, New Jersey and London.

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