Empathy and eros

Posted in emotions, empathy, Eros, intimate relationships, John Powell, Narcissism with tags , on March 10, 2011 by Steve

In a previous blog post, I lingered at some length on why it is so important that finite, vulnerable, and ever-changing individuals care about and esteem those around them with dignity and acceptance. Basically, we need each other because throughout our lives we are interdependent “social selves”, not independently made individuals. We are who we are in relationship to others. In the words of John Powell: “I can only know that much of myself which I have had the courage to confide in you”.

Empathy in this sense of acceptance and maintaining a non-judgmental stance is particularly relevant to the practice of counselling and psychotherapy, and it was client-centred therapist Carl Roger who triumphed this understanding of empathy as the core component of successful therapy. Recently, though, I have been lead to contemplate empathy as a variable central to intimate relationships which are authentic and allow for individual change and growth. In his Eros in a Narcissistic Culture, Ralph Ellis proposes that eros, or the experience of being in love, can occur between two people only where the following three conditions are met:

  1. Both people feel the need for radical existential transformation
  2. There exists between them a ‘space of empathy’
  3. Each of them has decided to be attentive to the other’s sexuality

Thus, in the context of intimate relationships, empathy allows “me to both to be fully who I am in relation to this person, and to become within this space a continually new, changing and non-static person as the conscious progressions unfold and develop.” (p.170) Like the Rogerian therapist, Ellis defines the space of empathy in an eros (erotic) relationship as “an attitude of complete, non-judgmental and non-directive acceptance of all the other’s feelings and attitudes, so that the flow of conscious progressions is never cut off, deflected or forced into inauthenticity.” (p.170)

In contrast to this relationship of authenticity, intimacy, nurturance, and self- and other- exploration, the relationship in which the ‘space of empathy’ has broken down or never existed, the heart-pounding ecstatic thrill of eros is simply no longer possible:

I cannot open myself up to a space of empathy with someone in precisely those cases where I cannot trust the other not to judge me, condemn me, direct me to be different from who I am, and thus require me to pretend to be someone I am not authentically motivated to become – or perhaps even pressure me to deceive myself that I wish to be such a being. (p. 170-171)

Empathy is important not only in this definition based in Rogerian therapy, but also in its more basic meaning as a capacity to understand and appreciate the feelings and experiences of others. Intimate partners need not ‘become one’ in the sense that they renounce any individual differences or non-shared interests and hobbies. Rather, oneness and unity comes from the appreciation and enjoyment of the other’s personhood and uniqueness:

“We want to understand them so that we can see the complete vision of the richness of the being of the other, so that we can contemplate its full beauty and vicariously enjoy the pattern of the flowing of this person’s form of consciousness, and so that we can participate with it and flow together with it.” (p. 91)

Thus, an underlying space of empathy is essential for an ongoing experience of erotic love (not just sexual attraction or companionship) since it allows the verbal and non-verbal communication between the two partners to unfold in an unobstructed, authentic and free-flowing way.

Without empathy, eros is dead.


Ellis, R. D. (1996). Eros in a Narcissistic Culture: An Analysis Anchored in the Life-World. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Powell, S. J. (1969). Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? Argus Communications: Niles, Illinois.

Attachment – Chapter 5

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby, psychoanalysis, psychopathology on January 3, 2011 by Steve

In this dense chapter, Bowlby expands on and describes the nuts and bolts of behavioural systems (see point 2. in Chapter 3 post), provides some important definitions, and introduces the idea of working models of the world and of the self.

First of all, Bowlby distinguishes behavioural systems which do not have set-goals from those which do, with a set-goal defined as long- and short-term goals concerning how an organism’s behaviour should relate to the environment. Thus, behaviour which is highly stereotyped and which follows its course to completion regardless of the environment (e.g. sneezing, yawning) is termed a fixed action pattern.

Fixed Action Pattern

By contrast, goal-corrected (or goal-directed) behaviour is that which is constantly corrected by reference to discrepancies between performance and a set-goal. Such behaviour constitutes the majority of our intentional activities.

Goal-Corrected Behaviour

The two main mechanisms involved in goal-corrected behaviour are: (a) the receiving and storing of instructions regarding a set-goal, and (b) the comparing of discrepancies between performance and set-goal instructions, which is achieved through the use of feedback and cognitive maps. Cognitive maps, also known as working models, are schematic representations of the environment and of the self, will be explained below.

Bowlby then outlines 3 major principles by which behavioural systems can be co-ordinated:

1.  Simple chain-link

Here, each behavioural system involved in a behavioural sequence may be connected in a way that each is contingent on the one previous to it. The example given is a bee collecting honey. The sequential stages of this activity is: (1) Visual identification of a suitable flower, (2) After flying within 1cm of such a flower, smell is assessed for suitability of this flower, (3) Next, the bee assesses from the tactile stimuli of the flower (shape, size) whether or not to begin sucking nectar.

Simple Chain-link

The simple chain-link organisation of behaviour is limited because, if one link fails, then the entire behaviour fails. As a result the environment must conform exactly to the environment of evolutionary adaptedness for the animal to survive and flourish. However, chain-links can be made more flexible by (i) alternate pathways in the chain being available, or (ii) goal-corrected links being added into the chain.

2.  Causal Hierarchy

According to this principle , a number of behavioural systems share a common causal factor, thus allowing for multiple responses to a certain trigger (Tinbergen, 1951; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974). Thus, the activation of any one of multiple behavioural systems may be appropriate when, for example, a particular level of a certain hormone is reached, or when a particular object is sighted.

Causal hierarchy

3. Plan Hiearchy

In this “master plan structure”  for co-ordinating behavioural systems, an overarching goal is reached by executing multiple sub-ordinate behavioural systems. Overall, this plan is goal-corrected since it allows for feedback and variation within its organisation. Furthermore, the Plan Hierarchy principle applies to behaviour which lies anywhere on the continuum of being environmentally stable (instinctive) or labile (sensitive to environmental influences), and which uses a simple or highly sophisticated map of the environment (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974).

Plan Hierarchy

An example of a common hierarchical plan of behaviour is that of “Getting to work”. Each behavioural system can be broken up into its components, which, in turn, can be further broken down into specific actions. In this plan, it becomes clear that the organisation of behavioural systems is not a chain, because the activities could be re-ordered and varied to some extent.

"Getting to work"




Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.


Attachment – Chapter 4

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby on December 17, 2010 by Steve

In this chapter Bowlby builds on the importance of an evolutionary perspective for a scientific understanding of the behavioural system of the mother-child attachment relationship. This is crucial because the environment in which this behavioural system became adapted (the natural environment) was a very different environment to those in which we now live and raise children.

Modern humans are believed to have emerged around 2 million years ago (Tobias, 1965; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), whereas the modification of environments in which we dwell began only 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. Accordingly, the environment which presented the hazards which selected the behavioural systems of humans is likely the natural environment of primeval man. Furthermore, the modification of our environments is not instinctive (such as in the nest building of birds), but is culturally acquired and constantly changing with each generation. Bowlby thus asserts that our instinctive behaviour can be properly understood by reference to the environment in which it evolved, and that for such an understanding we must turn to these three areas of study:
– anthropological studies of primitive human societies (where their environments are still fairly ‘natural’).
– archaeological evidence of how early humans lived
– the study of primates (primatology)

Bowlby then goes on to describe the ways in which humans and primates are similar, affirming that the similarities between humans and primates are equally, if not more, important than their differences for the purposes for which he is writing. Bowlby agrees that the mother-child bond may be the core unit of society, rather than the nuclear family (Fox, 1967; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), making humans very similar to primates in terms of their social group structure. Bowlby then highlights the characteristics of social cooperation and communication which means the whole group can be protected from predators. Other similarities include:
– calls, postures, gestures
– tool use
– a long period of immaturity during which skills can be learnt
– the protection of the ‘home base’
– the practice of sharing food
– the differentiation of roles between males and females
– cooperative hunting

To summarise then, Bowlby proposes that studying the way in which primates interact with their environment provides an approximate understanding of the evolutionary environment of adaptedness of humans. This will therefore provide a means of understanding the behavioural systems which tie the mother to the child (which he will discuss in later chapters).


Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

The Social Network reminds us of our need to feel connected

Posted in emotions, Facebook, loving people, psychopathology, self-acceptance with tags , on November 26, 2010 by Steve

I just saw The Social Network and was blown away by how compelling it was and how it ‘worked’ at so many levels, especially at a psychological level.

I think there are two reasons why this movie is so interesting and engaging. First, the topic of the movie – Facebook’s ascendancy to fame (as well as its founder’s notoriety) – touches everyone who uses or knows about Facebook. We relate to the movie because Facebook pervades our modern lives: ‘Are you on Facebook?’, ‘Facebook me when you get home’, etc. Yet it is baffling to think that this online social connection tool actually had to be thought up, designed and be made popular. Just as we can’t imagine meeting someone without using our mobile phone, so Facebook seems to have become an essential aspect to communication and friendships. So, in a way, all of us who have used Facebook have contributed to its success. We are part of the Facebook story. Thus, we each have an individual connection to the movie.

Second, the themes of the movie reflect common, everyday experiences which we can all relate to. Ultimately, the movie is about what drives us as human beings: ambition, jealousy and the yearning for friendship. The main character, portraying programming nerd and founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is socially awkward and lacks the ability to communicate warmth to those closest to him. Yet his lack of empathy seems to result more from apathy than from a narcissistic intent to hurt others, and so we pity him. However his intellectual brilliance also makes him arrogant. We thus simultaneously marvel at and despise him. He is the typification of the autistic savant whose hyper-intelligence and social awkwardness leave him misunderstood and emotionally vulnerable.

Fittingly, an interesting  sub-theme which develops is that of the powerful influence of the charismatic personality. Played by Justin Timberlake, the extroverted and suave Sean Parker is the embodiment of persuasion by enchantment. Through his crafty story-telling, apt one-liners, and hypnotic authoritativeness, Parker plays on Zuckerberg’s psychological woundedness, to his own advantage. In meeting Parker, Zuckerberg is changed: his aspirations for grandiosity and absurd wealth are activated, and he enters into Parker’s world of pleasure and madness. Yet, at a deeper level, Zuckerberg remains unchanged; he stands outside Parker’s world looking in: a stranger, confused. It isn’t wealth or parties he desires. It’s a deeper sense of connectedness that he desires. He is still lonely.

Most notably, The Social Network captures brilliantly some of the different motives which people have for their behaviour. In Zuckerberg’s case, money and worldwide fame are not the motives, although he does compete vehemently with those who desire the prestige of success and wealth. Rather Zuckerberg seems to be driven by a need for self-validation and the sense of self-worth derived from how significant others think about him. By the end of the movie, it has become clear that Zuckerberg’s deepest desire is to be reassured that he’s not “a bad guy”. In the final scene of the movie, this longing for acceptance and friendship is powerfully brought home. It is a fitting end to a movie which so perceptively mirrors and critiques what drives us.

Tragically, and ironically, the founder of Facebook just wants someone to be his friend.

Attachment – Chapter 3

Posted in attachment on November 25, 2010 by Steve

This chapter begins Part II, titled ‘Instinctive Behaviour’, of Bowlby’s Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (1969/1974). In this chapter, Bowlby introduces a framework for understanding “instinctive” behaviour, and elaborates on some of the key terms in his theory, in particular an organism’s behavioural systems and its environment of adaptedness.

1. Instinctive behaviour

For Bowlby, a behaviour is neither innate nor is it simply acquired by experience. Instead, all behaviours can be placed on a continuum, with “environmentally stable” (e.g. nest building in birds) at one end and “environmentally labile” (influenced by the environment) at the other. Where patterns of behaviour display striking conformity within a species, these behaviours are referred to as instinctive, meaning environmentally stable. Humans, despite obvious individual variability and idiosyncrasy, also follow recognisable patterns and demonstrate  environmentally stability. Examples of heavily patterned behaviours include mating, caring for young children, and attachment of young children to parents.

2. Behavioural systems

Control systems theory explains how instinctive behaviours are activated and deactivated as an organism responds to the environment. The room thermostat provides an analogy for understanding behaviour in terms of purposefulness and feedback from the environment: it is set by the user (turned on/off), has a goal (to keep the room cool) and responds continuously to feedback (temperature change). Thus, behavioural system denotes the integrated set of responses  that an organism develops in order to respond to the constantly changing conditions of the external environment. Bowlby gives the example of  sheep, which “instinctively” flock together, but which will divert from this pattern when hand-raised. Thus Bowlby writes: “Instinctive behaviour is not inherited: what is inherited is a potential to develop certain sorts of system, termed here behavioural systems, both the nature and the forms of which differ in some measure according to the particular environment in which development takes place.” (p. 45).

3. Environment of adaptedness

The behavioural systems of an organism are suited to operate in their evolutionary environment of adaptedness, the environment to which a system has become adapted (adaptedness is preferred over the more ambiguous word adaptation [see Weiss, 1949; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974]).  In line with Darwinian theory, the ultimate outcome of biological adaptedness for any organism is species survival (see Darwin, 1859; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974). It may have as its proximate (more immediate) outcome any other goal, such as gaining adequate nutrition, self-protection, sexual union, etc.

Lastly, Bowlby points out that while adaptedness is a property which applies to a population and not to an individual of the species, this does not make adaptedness irrelevant to the study of instinctive behaviour in a given individual. This is because, just as in psychopathology, individuals cannot be properly understood without reference to the population. I suppose this is one way of understanding what is normal and what is abnormal, a division which will no doubt help frame secure and insecure attachment later in Bowlby’s volumes.


Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Attachment – Chapter 2

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby, personality on November 23, 2010 by Steve

During World War II many children in England were separated from their parents in order to keep them safe from the bombings. In this chapter Bowlby (1969/1974) discusses what impact this sort of separation has on a child, both in terms of the the short term response and the longer term consequences for emotional and personality development.

Bowlby describes the reaction of a securely (happily) attached child who is separated from his (or her) mother (or caregiver) and placed in the care of a stranger (carer, nurse, etc.). The typical response sequence is as follows:

  1. Protest: a vigorous, noisy and teary response which lasts from several hours up to a week or more.
  2. Despair: a withdrawn and lethargic state of mourning and sadness. The child will not be comforted or cheered up by the presence of the carer-stranger.
  3. Detachment: a state of listlessness and apathy, yet also increased compliance with carer-strangers, often mistaken as a form of emotional recovery. Once a child has reached this state, there is typically a striking absence of enthusiastic response to the mother when she does reunite with the child.

This sequence is at the core of attachment theory and will be referred to throughout the three volumes.

Bowlby then describes what happens to a  child who experiences not only the loss of his mother, but also the repeated loss of temporary mother-figures who have cared for him, i.e. carers or nurses who work at the institution for a limited period of time each. Bowlby observes that after a series of upsets at losing several of these carers, to whom the child has given some trust and affection, the child will gradually commit himself less and less to each successive carer. In time, the child will stop attaching himself to anyone at all (i.e. the state of detachment will be reached):


The process of becoming emotionally detached

Bowlby explains that this child will become “increasingly self-centred and, instead of directing his desires and feelings towards people, will become preoccupied with material things such as sweets, toys, and food.” (p. 28).

I wonder to what extent this type of “preoccupation” will result in later addictions to various substances and activities, as the grown up individual seeks to satiate their unmet childhood thirst for interaction with their attachment figures. Bowlby goes on to describe how a child who has reached the state of detachment will no longer show desire for his parents when they visit him. He will appear sociable and cheerful, but “this sociability is superficial: he appears no longer to care for anyone.” (p. 28). What Bowlby is describing here suggests the roots of a depressive personality, a person who will experience emotional numbness and apathy towards other in adulthood.

Bowlby points out (p. 29) that attachment distress is reduced when the child is in the company of a sibling (Heinicke & Westheimer, 1966; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), or when the child is in the care of one, constant mother-figure, especially when the child has met him or her before in the mother’s presence (Robertson & Robertson, 1967; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974).

In the contemporary Australian context we do not face the same situation as English children in the 1940s (WWII), and, thanks to people like Bowlby, we are generally much aware of and responsive to a child’s emotional needs than sixty years ago. Nevertheless, there are situations today which may have similar implications for children’s emotional and mental health, and which Bowlby’s writings can prepare us for. Children living in boarding schools might provide an example of this. Or amongst younger children, children attending day care when their parents returns to work is likely to be a source of distress in the first few weeks of this experience.

From Bowlby’s and others’ findings, then, parents of children going into day care can be equipped with the knowledge that: (a) previous contact with the carer in the presence of the child’s mother, or primary caregiver, can reduce the distress of separation, (b) prior familiarity with the environment in the presence of the mother may also reduce the distress response, and (c) being with a sibling can be of great comfort to a child while in the absence of the mother.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, parents and carers should appreciate that a child’s distress response is not a “problem” to be managed, rather is it the natural, “right” response of a healthy child  (an 18-month-old who doesn’t cry when left with strangers on their first day at day care is more of a concern than the child who does). Bowlby writes: “the more affectionate the relationship has been [with the mother] the greater the child’s manifest upset during separation” (p. 33). Thus parents shouldn’t feel embarrassed by their child’s tears, nor should they try to persuade their children to be “good” by not crying. The “good” (i.e. healthy) child is the one who protests vigorously when mummy leaves him. The “good” / healthy mother is one who tolerates and permits her child to experience and express his sadness. Likewise, those looking after a child who is besides himself and who wants nothing but to be with his mummy or daddy, ought to refrain from dismissing or downplaying his emotions. Carers should respect the fact that the child may not wish to respond enthusiastically towards a replacement carer. They should empathise with his pain and divert his attention towards enjoyable activities, until he is reunited with the eagerly-desired parent. This way, it would seem, the child’s emotional state will hopefully remain one of protest, and not have to advance to that of despair and detachment.

This parent – and replacement carer – side of the attachment relationship will be revisited in later discussions.



Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Attachment – Chapter 1

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby, personality, psychoanalysis on November 22, 2010 by Steve

In the first chapter of Attachment (Volume One of the Attachment and Loss trilogy; Bowlby, 1969/1974), Bowlby sets forth the defining features of his theory, primarily by comparing and contrasting it with the approach of Freudian psychoanalysis. He distinguishes attachment theory by the following:

  1. A forwards-looking (prospective) rather than backwards-looking (retrospective) approach
  2. The study of the specific trigger for abnormal development rather than the symptoms
  3. The use of direct observation of children
  4. The study of animals (ethology) as the basis for informing development, especially of early childhood development

Each of these key aspects are expanded in the following chapters of this volume. But in this chapter Bowlby gives a brief rationale for the first three of these.

Concerning #1, Bowlby proposes that attachment theory seeks to investigate the origins (ontogenesis) of personality, just as Freudian psychoanalysis does. Bowlby asserts that Freud was well aware that one limitation of retrospective interpretation of adult experience is its potential to be misleading. Indeed, Freud was, again and again, lead to the importance of early childhood experience in the ontogenesis of personality and mental health problems (psychopathology). However, Bowlby points out that Freud himself rarely drew on direct observation of children. By contrast, Bowlby puts forward that his theory seeks to understand how patterns of functioning in childhood compound on each other over time, thereby resulting in adult personality characteristics.

Regarding point #2, Bowlby’s theory highlights the importance of the mother-child relationship for personality development: he proposes that how a child behaves in a mother’s presence is important, but more importantly, he says, later personality is predicted by how a child behaves in his mother’s absence:


Separation from mother

Separation from mother


In arguing for the value in observing young children (#3), Bowlby points out that, as a child grows older, the capacity for outward behaviour and inner mental states (e.g. feelings) to be discrepant increases (For example, children develop the capacity to understand that others hold separate beliefs to their own from around age 2 or 3). Thus, observing very young children should provide a very good index of their current mental state. Older children and adults have more “layers” of experience and psychological strategies (deception, defence mechanisms, etc.) which make their behaviour, and even their verbally-reported beliefs and feelings less accurate indications of what is really happening inside them.

Lastly, in this chapter Bowlby acknowledges that his formulations of attachment theory are derived from object relations theory, and references Freud, Klein, Balint, Winniott and Fairbairn in this tradition.


Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.