Archive for the emotions Category

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.

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.

Blogging Attachment theory

Posted in emotions, John Bowlby, parenting, personality, psychoanalysis on November 18, 2010 by Steve

In studying psychology I have become increasingly aware of attachment theory and its importance as a framework for understanding emotional and personality development. Attachment theory is centred around the relationship between a child and his (or her) primary caregiver (usually the mother), and has gained increasing popularity and scientific validity over the past 30 years. Since attachment theory was first articulated by John Bowlby in his publications in 1969, 1973 and 1980, the literature refining, rephrasing and adding to this approach has amassed and multiplied incredibly. As a crude measure of the popularity of attachment theory, a database search (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts) of the descriptor ‘attachment’ brings up 18,678 articles!

So, now that I’m on a break from hurried study, I have decided to take the time to go back to the original writings of Bowlby and to learn what attachment theory meant in its original presentation. My plan is to read, on average, one chapter per day, and to blog about what I’ve learnt, hopefully with some applications.

Neuroimaging, psychotherapy & emotional change

Posted in counselling, emotions, neuroscience on April 28, 2010 by Steve

Having trained in counselling, I have learnt about the powerful role that emotion plays in the rehabilitation of people who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect in their lives. The recall, expressing, re-experiencing and subsequent processing of positive and negative affective states in the context of a warm, empathic, trusting relationship is often seen as the primary means for change by those trapped by negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Once established, however, emotional states, are deeply-rooted and extremely resistant to change:

“Affect is a prime mover in psychic activity, and affective patterns of experiencing and of response are more resistant to change than cognitive ones.”

– Quoted in Blanck & Blanck, 1979; as quoted in Greenberg & Safran, 1987

The success of interpersonal therapies, therefore, depends on the availability and accessibility of the person’s emotional content. Such access and accessibility can by no means be taken for granted, given that neuroimaging studies have shown that only up to 5% of the neural activity of our brains is available to awareness at any given time (Zhang & Raichle, 2010), meaning that over 95% of our emotional states, fears, anxieties and beliefs could potentially be unconsciously held. Perhaps this calls for despair; maybe the brain is an unknowable “black box” after all!?

Indeed, we may still have a long way to go, but neuroimaging is now being used to reveal the neural bases of both conscious and unconscious affective processing. This technology potentially promises to shed light on some the mysteries of human thoughts, feelings and behaviour. As a mere novice in the area of understanding neuropsychological research, I eagerly anticipate knowing what the neuronal bases are for common experiences such as:

  • being in a bad mood
  • having a “gut  feeling” about someone
  • the sense of relief from getting something off your chest
  • falling in love, or out of love
  • the influences of repressed emotions
  • uncontrollable urges & angry outbursts
  • neurotic impulses

In their article on the cognitive control of emotions, Ochsner & Gross (2005) consider the powerful influence that top-down (cognitive) processing can have on the conscious experience of emotions. Reviewing numerous neuroimaging studies, they outline, for example, how reappraisal techniques prior to viewing aversive images, seeing a sad film or anticipating physical pain can reduce the negative experience of these stimuli as a function of the reduced activation of the amygdala, which is involved in spontaneous, basic emotional reactions, such as fear.

Another article (Liebermanž, 2007) summarises how reduced activation of the amygdala is associated with simply putting one’s emotional experiences into words. This affect labelling is akin to what happens in psychotherapy, or what was coined the “talking cure” in reference to Freud’s patient Anna O.

One last application of neuroimaging in the process of emotional change is outlined by Lutz & Thompson (2003) in their article on neurophenomenology. They describe how “first-person methods” can be used in combination with neuroimaging techniques to help people increase their sensitivity to their own experience. According to this concept of ‘reciprocal restraints’, the reported experience of a participant guides and interprets the corresponding neurological data, while this data is then used to help the participant to revise and refine what they are experiencing. This quote (from page 33) clarifies this application of biofeedback:

“Using [phenomenology, psychotherapy and contemplative meditative traditions], subjects may be able to gain access to aspects of their experience (such as transient affective state or quality of attention) that otherwise would remain unnoticed and unavailable for verbal report.”

So, it seems that some of the mysteries of the brain can be made more accessible with the help of neuroimaging. The applications of this technology to counselling could be powerful and exciting.


Greenberg, L. & Safran, J., D.(1987). Emotion in Psychotherapy.  Guildford Publications: USA.

žLieberman, M. D. (2007). Social cognitive neuroscience: A review of core processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 18.1–18.31.

žLutz, A. & Thompson, E. (2003). Neurophenomenology: Integrating Subjective Experience and Brain Dynamics in the Neuroscience of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, 31–52.

žOchsner K., N., & Gross J., J. (2005). The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Science, 9, 242–249.

Zhang, D & Raichle, M. E. (2010). Disease and the brain’s dark energy. Neurology, 6, 1.