Yourself from the Perils of Empathy
Michael A. Harvey, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
I will never forget when my 5 year daughter
was first stung by a bee. I swear it hurt me more than her. This
experience of vicarious pain is not only felt by parents, but haunts
anyone who feels compassion for another human being in anguish. In the
words of Czech author, Milan Kundera,
"There is nothing heavier than
compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as a pain with
someone and for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and
prolonged by a hundred echoes."
Interpreters are typically highly
compassionate people who are besieged by a hundred echoes of Deaf
pain. As Donna – the interpreter who we met in chapter one - put it,
"we have a built in over-sensitivity to oppression of Deaf persons
installed into our psyches before or during our interpreter
training." While the components of this "installation"
are quite intricate and often elusive, I will artificially demarcate
some of them for clarification.
A glimpse into another’s soul. Compassion
invites empathy: the desire to imagine the inner workings of
another person’s psyche; to "put your ear to another person’s
soul and listen intently to its urgent whisperings. Who are you? What
do you feel? What do you think? What means the most to you?"
When we feel the pain, in Kundera’s words, "with someone and for
someone," the ripples of their pain permeate our psyche, just as
the ripples of a stone permeate a body of water.
With empathy we not only deeply connect with
another human being, but we are simultaneously, ever so subtly, changed
ourselves. Empathy necessarily catalyzes self-transformation. In my
case, I imagined that my daughter thought that the bee sting would kill
her; "Daddy, daddy! What’s happening to me? This hurts! I don’t
wanna die! Daddy, why won’t you help me? Help! Help!" Perhaps she
didn’t think and feel any of these things – it happened so quickly.
Perhaps I was oversensitive. But I’ll never forget how I felt
as a witness, even though Emily got stung over ten years ago. (She
doesn’t even have any memory of the event!). My empathic pain
permanently changed me somehow, ever so subtly.
"That’s all very interesting,"
one interpreter politely interjects, "but we’re supposed to be
neutral. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs."
"Do you have a character
disorder?" I ask.
"Excuse me!" she responds, this
time markedly less politely.
"I didn’t mean any disrespect,"
I’m quick to clarify. "In fact, it was a clumsily phrased
compliment. People who have so-called ‘character or personality
disorders’ may not have the capacity for compassion. But most of us
are psychologically healthy and therefore inevitably feel another’s
pain and joy. For most of us, thank God, it’s impossible to be
"But I’m an interpreter, not a
counselor," the interpreter persists.
"Right. So there’s a paradox here:
you’re supposed to be neutral but this is impossible. When in the
close presence of someone in pain, you cannot not have some
degree of empathy; it is an involuntary psychological reflex. There’s
a tension of boundaries: machine verses ally model. But that’s your
department, not mine. From a psychological perspective, however, I think
the issue is more how you manage your non-neutrality: what you do
with the inevitable fact that you care."
As interpreters – at least from a
psychological perspective – you not only inevitably have to
care, but I’ve been told that you purposely empathize with a deaf
consumer(s) as a routine part of your job. Again, in Donna’s words,
"competent interpreting necessarily depends on your ability to
sense how a deaf consumer feels during a particular linguistic
exchange." Accordingly, it is no surprise that when I ask
interpreters to "think back to a situation in which a hearing
person somehow oppressed a deaf consumer," they - like my
recalling Emily getting stung - have no difficulty coming up with a slew
of oppressive situations that have stayed with them even after several
years have elapsed. A few examples:
Deaf consumer is left out of a conversation or decision-making.
Deaf consumer is talked down to and demeaned.
Deaf consumer is treated unfairly/unjustly.
hearing consumer is uncomfortable with an interpreter and ignored
him/her to the detriment of the deaf person.
hearing parent makes fun of a deaf child’s signing.
Deaf consumer being falsely labeled as mentally retarded.
Deaf consumer being physically and/or emotionally abused in a
treatment or correctional facility.
asked to unethically expand my interpreting role to the detriment of
the deaf consumer.
by hearing officials; misuse of power
"It’s difficult to pinpoint how
observing oppression has affected me, but it has," one interpreter
began. "I can only begin to imagine Deaf peoples’ helplessness
and squelched rage against the onslaught of hearing dehumanization,
devaluation, and degradation. It leaves me with chronic
That interpreter’s metaphor of
"chronic indigestion" is quite fitting, as the psychological
literature on trauma often refers to un-integrated affect as "undigested
material"; and as a result, subsequent material (life experiences)
cannot get properly digested (integrated). In other words, following the
witnessing of oppression, one may then be oversensitive and over-react
to subsequent similar experiences. A constant state of red alert.
Contrasting extremes. Your
"over-sensitivity" may also be intensified by its
juxtaposition to the Deaf person’s
apparent under-sensitivity, much like a bright, iridescent color
stands out against a gray background. Recall Donna’s
intense emotional reaction to Dick, the deaf consumer who was ignored
during a company meeting. In her own words, "I’m
sweating, but Dick’s
sitting there patiently!"
This theme is echoed in the following
dialogue between another interpreter and a Deaf colleague:
Interpreter: "I can’t
believe that you weren’t promoted at your job. You couldn’t
get more training because they didn’t
have an interpreter!"
Deaf colleague: "Surprise,
surprise" (with resigned sarcasm).
infuriating!" (with aggressive outrage).
Deaf colleague: "I’m
used to it."
Interpreter: "Well, I’m
The interpreter’s heightened pain was
triggered by his anger upon observing the Deaf colleague’s apparent
numbed resignation. That deaf person’s reaction of "being used to
it" - also known as affective constriction or numbing out - is a
common adaptation to prolonged stress or trauma, e.g., to cultural
insensitivity, discrimination, disrespect, disregard, etc.
Unfortunately, for many deaf people, these adversities have become a
staple of their lives. Continually blinded by the "bright,
iridescent colors" of oppression, their world is reduced to shades
Not so for hearing people, which includes
most interpreters. At least when we first enter the field, we are not
"used to it." We are appalled and outraged about our "audist"
subtle and not so subtle denigration of deaf people. In my own case as a
psychologist, I was shocked to learn about many deaf persons'
experiences of communicative isolation within their hearing families of
origin; these images haunted me, angered me and pained me. They intruded
into my leisure "off work time" and into my dreams. Many years
later, I understood these symptoms as indicative of Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder: the cost of my caring. I discovered that trauma is
Projective identification. You may also feel
intensified pain because - in a psychological sense - the deaf person
gives it to you to "hold." I am reminded of a cartoon
depicting a couple on an airplane. One spouse asks the other, "Do
you want to be scared on this trip or should I?" The
cognitive-emotional sequence may go as follows: First, the husband feels
overwhelming fear that the plane will crash. Too proud to internally or
publicly acknowledge his feeling, he projects it on to his wife: "She
is afraid, not me!" In this manner, he can identify with the fear
that he imagines resides "in" his wife. He then may
unconsciously elicit such fear responses in his wife - i.e., by making
anxious body movements. And, in turn, the wife finds herself feeling
increasingly uncomfortable. In a psychological sense, she
"holds" her husband’s
This psychological phenomenon, called
"projective identification," happens quite frequently between
any two people who are emotionally connected to each other. Stated most
technically by Melanie Klein, projective identification is when a
subject displaces a part of the self - e.g., one’s
unacknowledged, unwanted feelings - onto another person and then
identifies with that person or elicits a response in the person that
corresponds to the original feeling.
What part of the self might a deaf
consumer displace on to an interpreter? Consider the case of Mattie, a
middle aged deaf woman who had a long history of rejection and painful
ordeals: her parents were emotionally unavailable, her husband had
multiple affairs and divorced her; and most of her previous employment
settings had failed to provide even minimal work accommodations. On the
surface, however, she looked remarkably unscathed: she seemed very
confident, remained socially active, was ambitious and enjoyed high self
esteem. She did not surrender to her pain-engendering hardships.
So was it a coincidence that many competent
interpreters found themselves feeling grossly inadequate while
interpreting for Mattie? As one interpreter observed, "I don’t
know why but I just feel awful about myself when I’m
with her. It’s
nothing she really says or does - or at least I can’t
pinpoint it. But I feel her critical eye on me; and it’s
like she makes me feel inept!"
resiliency was impressive, it is difficult to imagine that she was
pain-free. And given that she felt a level of pain, the question becomes
what did she do with it? (Pain doesn’t
just evaporate). I don’t
think it was coincidental that many highly competent interpreters felt
"grossly inadequate" in Mattie’s
presence. Like the wife on the airplane, it seemed that an interpreter(s)
became a "container" of sorts for Mattie’s unwanted or
disavowed affect. Via projective identification, Mattie displaced those
pained, incompetent parts of her self on to the interpreter and then
acted in certain ways to elicit that response in the interpreter.
Projective identification happens without
malice; Mattie did not consciously wish for the interpreter to feel her
own pain, nor did the interpreter conscious agree to accept it. Shared
pain occurs unconsciously for both parties, without informed consent. In
this manner, an interpreter is likely to get "sucked in"
before s/he knows what’s
happening. And its effects are profound, particularly as the pain is
"intensified by one’s imagination."
Again to return to my memory of my daughter
getting stung, part of what I’ll never forget is her eyes fixated on
me as she writhed in pain. In retrospect, I sensed Emily pleading,
"Please, please share it with me! I can’t endure this
alone!" I’m quite sure she didn’t know about projective
identification back then; but she probably did it anyway. Somehow we
humans seem "hard wired" to share pain in this way. Shared
pain is always better, at least for the one who is the original holder
The dual nature of empathy. By now
you should imagine big red warning signs saying "Empathy
prohibited. No trespassing." Indeed we can ask "Aren’t we
better off protecting ourselves in our own well-defined turf?"
"Who needs the weight of compassion or empathy, particularly if we
end up ‘holding’ some of it for another person?"
The story of Medusa from Greek mythology
offers guidance. Medusa was a beautiful maiden who attracted many
suitors. In one version of this myth, she was raped by Poseidon, ruler
god of the sea. And from then on, because of Medusa’s burning rage
pouring from her eyes, those who looked directly at her would turn to
stone. Proper precautions needed to be taken, such viewing a reflection
of her off a shield. Interestingly, Medusa was also worshipped as a
great serpent goddess who had intense wisdom and an ability to see
through one’s illusions to the truths which rest behind. In this
tradition, her face was hidden since to look upon it was to see one’s
death, as Medusa saw into your future.
Although my referencing this myth may seem
like a non-sequitor to the reader, its relevance to understanding the
hazards and benefits of empathy should soon become clear. A preview:
Unless you are aware of the vicarious trauma risks and take proper
precautions, empathy with someone in anguish can metaphorically turn you
to stone. However, with the proper tools - a metaphorical shield - one
can gain intense wisdom and access to profound truths. Perhaps the most
basic tool/shield is to balance the emotional and cognitive
components of empathy. How you balance the dual nature of empathy will
largely determine whether you reap benefits (gain wisdom) or incur
danger (turn to stone). This is illustrated in Figure 1.
Admittedly oversimplified, there are three possible consequences of
empathy, depending on how one balances the empathic components of
cognition and emotion:
1) an imbalance with too much emotion, leading to a loss of boundaries.
2) an imbalance with too
much cognition, leading to affective
constriction (numbing out)
healthy balance, leading to psychological integration and better interpreting.
First, let me clarify the emotional
component of empathy. Pure, unbridled emotional empathy, without any
cognitive constraints, is akin to achieving a state of psychological
fusion with another: the mystical experience of two separate
bodies/minds melding together as one. Many people achieve a transitory,
heightened state of fusion during sexual passion when two bodies become
one; others during intimate conversation: i.e., "He thinks my
thoughts, completes my sentences." Others resort to drug use, for
example with hallucinogens, which cause the boundaries of self and other
to temporarily collapse. Although elusive and abstract, pure, emotional
empathy is perhaps the most sought after of all human experiences.
There is more good news. By empathizing with
another person, without restraint, we overturn author Thomas Wolfe’s
verdict that "Loneliness... is the central and inevitable fact of
human existence." On the contrary, we experience that "people
need people"; that empathy is good for your health. In more
technical terms, Object Relations Theory emphasizes that empathy
satisfies two kinds of essential psychological needs; 1) merger
needs: feeling totally at one with another with a complete loss of
boundaries and separateness; and 2) alter-ego needs: a need to
feel an essential alikeness with another significant person.
We have noted that, as interpreters, you
practice empathy as a necessary part of your job. Actors also have such
opportunities and provide an important comparison. The mechanics of how
interpreters achieve empathy with a deaf consumer(s) seem analogous to
the mechanics of how professional actors empathize with their
characters. Perhaps the most concise description of this process was
elucidated by drama coach Lee Strasberg who developed a specific
procedure, called "Method Acting, to teach actors this very skill
– one that also seems quite relevant to interpreters. Method actor
Shelley Winters advices prospective actors to empathize with a character
by "acting with your scars." In other words, when an actor
portrays the multi-dimensions of a respective character - including
those deepest, most frightening or painful experiences written by the
author - the actor has to find similar experiences and relevant memories
in his or her own life, be willing, and then be able to
relive those experiences and memories onstage as the
Method acting may be called a "How to
Empathize" manual, whether it be for actors, interpreters, or
anyone else for that matter. An important query: If competent
interpreting, like acting, demands this kind of affective empathy and if
empathy indeed is "good for your health" why don’t actors,
interpreters, etc., reap only the potential benefits of empathy? Why isn’t
the necessity to empathize with the deaf consumer all good news: a
the deaf consumer benefit by accurate interpretation while the
interpreter benefits by a growth experience?
not that simple. If you experience empathy solely via your emotional
faculties, then you’re
in danger of affectively drowning, of becoming deluged, flooded and
overwhelmed with too many emotions; you lose yourself. Or per the Medusa
myth, it turns you into stone. Total fusion without boundaries is bad
for your health.
Again, to use the analogous case of method
actors using relevant memories to empathize with their characters, it is
significant that Strasberg himself recommended that the actor use
memories that are at least seven years old in order to avoid risking
psychological trauma. Interpreters do not have that luxury. Although
it is certainly possible, and often important, to temporarily put aside
traumatic memories during an interpreting job, it seems difficult at
best to screen out what memories get activated. Whereas actors have many
hours of prep time before going on stage, you interpret
affectively-laden material in "real-time, spontaneous
improvisation." To quote one interpreter, "I have enough to
worry about - transliteration; voicing what he’s
signing; using the right words, inflections and body language; signing
in his style what’s
being said; being an ally, etc., etc. - without even noticing, never
mind worrying about, what personal memories get triggered!"
This is where the cognitive component of
empathy becomes important. Whereas the emotional component of empathy
has to do with merger and symbiosis - "I feel your feelings, think
your thoughts" - the cognitive component has to do with
disengagement, with holding onto your integral sense of self as distinct
from another. The cognitive component is your metaphorical shield
that keeps you safe.
Specifically, while experiencing the
emotional fusion of empathy, it is vital to cognitively remind
yourself who you are. Recall Donna’s
words in chapter 1: "Sometimes when I feel Dick’s
pain so much that I rub my forehead just to remind myself that I’m
still here." Allowing herself to emotionally feel his pain
had to be balanced by her cognitively holding on to her sense of
self. "Even though I feel like him, I know I’m not him."
It was not coincidental that Donna used
touch to ground herself. There is an old saying that one way to know
you're alive is to stick yourself with a pin; or the popular expression
that "I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming."
Similarly, the psychological literature on dissociative disorders
describes many tactile techniques of "waking a person up" from
a trance or dissociative state, essentially in order to "remind
yourself who you really are." When my then 5-year old daughter had
night terrors – a common childhood dissociative state – I would
touch her forehead so she would wake up and "remember" who she
In another context, there is a story told by
Primo Levi about his imprisonment by the Nazis. When he was close to
despair and considering giving in to death, he took care to wash his
face every day. It was the one volitional act which he, and he alone,
could control. And thus, it helped restore his identity, apart from the
oppressive context. It reminded him who he was; that he was still alive.
There are many ways to cognitively remind
yourself who you are in addition to using physical touch. These are
variations of enacting what we can control over our body, mind and soul.
At interpreter workshops, I do an adaptation of the following guided
"Imagine that you’re
interpreting for a deaf person who’s being oppressed in some way:
shafted, cheated, demeaned, ignored. There are many possibilities.
You become overwrought and consumed with that person’s
in danger of being devoured by it, drowning in it. You feel your own
self becoming smaller and smaller and threatened with total
As a trusted safety measure, you recite
to yourself what you’re able to control.
I can control the rate of my breathing.
I can control where I touch my body.
I can control how and when I wiggle my
toes (My fingers are too busy interpreting).
Focusing on what I can control is one
way of reminding myself that I’m
not the deaf person; I am myself!
I may like chocolate or vanilla, maybe
neither. Regardless, I am me.
I have a favorite color. I am me.
I can control what I learn about myself
from this job. About the world. About humanity.
Regardless of how much pain I see, I can
These are the parts of me – and many
more – that I bring to the interpreting situation."
Balancing the dual nature of empathy – the
"I feel your feelings" with "I am still me" - is
often easy-to-say but hard-to-do, particularly in times of stress and
when psychologically traumatic memories get activated. In my view, it is
this challenge that is metaphorically illustrated by the Medusa myth. It
is not surprising that nobody could look directly at Medusa without
turning to stone; that instead, one could look only at her reflection
off, for example, a shiny shield. Imagine the pain and rage that
"pored from Medusa's eyes" following when Poseidon had raped
her! Imagine the pain that she "gave someone to
One of the profound lessons that the Medusa
myth offers is that there are inherent dangers of emotionally
empathizing with another's pain without holding on to our
"shield" of self-affirmation. In other words, we must ensure
that another’s pain reflects off of our psyche; that we
understand and empathize with another's pain as it resonates within
ourselves; as it brings up our own issues, our own life
experiences, our own thoughts and feelings. "I can
differentiate your pain from my own." It is via this delicate
emotional and cognitive balance that we can safely put our ears to
another person’s soul and reap many profound empathic benefits.
What happens when one’s empathic pain is
"intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred
echoes" without being balanced by helpful "self-talk" -
the "shield" of cognition? Figure 2, The Management of
Empathy, illustrates one possibility.
Figure 2: The Management of Empathy
An example of too much emotion: I recall a
conversation with an interpreter who struggled to regain empathic
balance as she felt deluged by emotions while witnessing a deaf patient
getting inadequate care in a psychiatric hospital. In the
interpreter’s words, "Those asshole hearing doctors diagnosing
Mary as paranoid was horrible!" In this case, the interpreter had
appraised the reasons for oppression as driven by evil and malice as
opposed to well-intentioned naiveté.
"And what was that like for you?" I asked.
"I couldn’t stand it! She was so helpless! She had
absolutely no power; she was raped by the system, put in a cage,
imprisoned, labeled... Mary also probably felt..."
"I asked you about your feelings, not Mary's. Please say
more about you not being able to ‘stand it," I interjected.
"Watching her being misdiagnosed and
labeled was horrible" came her persistent but poignant reply.
"Can you step back for a minute and analyze where your feelings
come from? What experiences of yours does Mary's predicament
After a moment of thought, the interpreter discussed in some detail her
own childhood ordeals of being falsely labeled with Attention Deficit
Disorder (A.D.D.) when, in reality, her boredom and inattention were due
to incompetent teachers.
"So your sense of Mary’s pain of being misdiagnosed is reflective
of your own similar experience?"
"Yeah, I know the feelings all too
well," she replied.
"Let’s examine the similarities and
differences between your experience and Mary’s; then you can really
‘step in her shoes’ and interpret as many of her linguistic and
emotional nuances as possible, but not melt into her in the process. It
sounds like up to now you’ve been overwhelmed with her pain."
She nodded her head and sighed.
This interpreter had been in
danger of empathically drowning, one possible negative consequence of
unbridled empathy which we have discussed. Typically in this scenario,
we become depleted of energy; we withdraw from family, friends and
colleagues, perhaps accentuated by the belief that no one could possibly
understand our distress; and, in the case of interpreters, one may also
withdraw because of misinterpreting the RID code of ethics as
prohibiting the discussion of any thoughts and feelings concerning an
anonymous Deaf consumer(s). We experience profound alterations of our
identity, self-esteem, and world view; our ability to manage strong
feelings suffers; and we are vulnerable to intrusive imagery and other
post-traumatic stress symptomatology. In short, we are vicariously
An example of too much cognition:
In chapter one, I described the bystander
position: another common vicarious trauma response of erecting a shell
of protective numbness. It is a safety barrier, a way of hiding, a way
of shutting ones eyes to the blinding empathic pain of witnessing
oppression. We become overwrought with compassion fatigue: a
self-protective shell of isolation behind which we look out for only
number one, caring for nobody else but ourselves. It is a common
response among helpers who regularly deal with peoples’ pain without
adequate self-care. As one seasoned oncologist put it, "I never
thought I’d dehumanize my patients as disease entities, but after
witnessing so many deaths, I’m tired of caring!" An experienced
acute care nurse observed that "The faces of the patients at the ER
become all one big blur." And as one seasoned, highly compassionate
interpreter put it, "When I first learned about oppression and deaf
people, I was appalled and outraged. But after a while – and I’m
ashamed to say this – I sort of got used to it. You ask me about
empathy! What’s that? I have no empathy!"
There is no need for shame. Rather,
"getting used to it" is a human response; overwhelmed with
grief, we become tired of caring so much. Gradually and insidiously, the
stories of Deaf peoples’ isolation and denigration may become a
routinized expectation, the norm. What begins as a contrasting extreme -
and therefore elicits reactions of astonishment, shock, distress,
concern and torment - gradually succumbs to the weight of passive
resignation. After a while, we come to expect such oppression. And in my
case, more often than I, too, can easily admit, I hardly notice its
In marked defiance of Milan Kundera’s
statement that "There is nothing heavier than compassion," we
hide our faces in the sand. We reduce piercing, iridescent vicarious
pain to a gray, dull ache; but, in the process, we become non-feeling
machines. Thoughts replace feelings. We tell ourselves, however, that
it’s a small price to pay, as we revel in never having to ever again
agonize over another’s sorrow.
One interpreter admitted that "I got to
the point that when I saw something too horrible or painful, rather than
have compassion or struggle with my emotions, I would go over my
shopping list! – not just as a coping technique, but, to be honest
with you, it actually felt much more important to me than the deaf
person’s pain or even worrying about the adequacy of my own
"Your shopping list is a hell of a lot
simpler than empathy."
"A lot simpler and a lot less
painful," she agreed.
Typically, our cognitive retreat into our
own versions of "shopping lists" does not last long. For one
reason or the other – most of the time we don’t know exactly what
hit us - the intensity of another’s pain permeates our self-made
fortress, and we again acutely feel the omnipresent malignancy of
oppression. The good news is that we again feel alive; and the bad news
is that we may not have the tools to find a healthy balance between
empathic flooding and empathic drought. That is the challenge.
On achieving a healthy balance: On the one
hand, I have come to be distrustful of simple solutions and
prescriptions; "if only you will do so and so…". On the
other hand – at least as far as I’ve been able to figure out –
many profound solutions, when boiled down to their essence, are
simple-sounding; that is, although their implementation is anything but
simple, they first present themselves as such. With this caveat, I will
conclude with some concrete recommendations which will be elaborated in
Here is one simple-sounding prescription:
talk about your feelings with supportive others; don’t keep them
bottled up. When Donna asked me how to manage vicarious trauma, I shared
with her one of my favorite principles of healing: "Pain has a
size and shape, a beginning and an end. It takes over only when not
allowed its voice." The more words we have for our empathic
pain, the more shape it has, the more it has a beginning and end. The
less words, the less space; the more it takes over; the more we’re
In my opinion, it is a common but serious
error to assume that one can get helpful support only from those who
already understand, who are in "the same (interpreting) boat."
First, as many interpreters have noted, there are many ethical ways of
sharing ones emotional reactions with non-interpreters without violating
the RID Code of Ethics. Secondly, as anyone who has been in a long-term
committed relationship knows, it is often the struggle to help
another dissimilar person to empathize with you that is the healing
medicine; that catalyzes you to verbalize and clarify all the nuances
and complexities of a particular stressful situation. People from Mars
also need people from Venus. We need both supportive others who are
similar – i.e., peers, consultants, supervisors - and those who are
dissimilar – i.e., friends and spouses.
Many interpreters have reported benefiting
greatly by journal writing – another form of dialog, at least with
symbolic-others. For me, writing has become a necessary and healing
labor of love that helps me put into words some of the most important
things I have come to believe as well as what I'm in the process of
trying to figure out. But equally as important - or perhaps more so - I
have long realized my need for another to react to me, whether
positively or negatively - whatever! In some ways it doesn't matter, for
that dialog is an essential part of my balance.
In addition to this simple-sounding advice,
let me suggest an attitude shift which I have found helpful in my own
work while witnessing oppression. When I find myself overwhelmed with
"isn’t this awful, this shouldn’t be," and potentially
debilitating anger/pain - while continuing to empathize with the victim
and asking myself what I can do - I adopt an attitude of a curious
anthropologist. This attitude of curiosity is my "shield";
that which I use to protect myself from unguarded exposure to the
"eyes of Medusa." I nurture a desire to deepen my
understanding of what it means to be human, including the parts of me
that I learn about. Emotionally rough encounters then become data, grist
for the mill. There’s an old sailing expression: "The difference
between an ordeal and a good sail is attitude."
I recall working with a middle-aged man who
suffered from debilitating tinnitus. In his own words, it sounded like
"A ton of bricks falling on a pile of church bells… the shock
waves blast against my skull… it feels like my brain is
gurgling." He was clearly in a lot of pain; and I was drowning in
my empathic pain. Worse yet, his colleagues at work ridiculed him and
accused him of malingering. Both he and I had recurring fantasies
of burning the whole place down with every damn evil person in it: a
modern incantation of Sodom and Gomorra. It was only when some
colleagues and my therapist helped me to articulate my rage, to discover
how it tapped into my issues, and to become more curious about how and
why humans can act so evil toward one and other, that I could help him
1) cope with his tinnitus and 2) cope with insensitivity.
Our empathic pain need not be debilitating,
"intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred
echoes." It need not turn you to stone. By nurturing and giving
voice to our curiosity, we can harness some of the wisdom that can be
gained from bearing witness to oppression. Our publicly voiced
curiosity, even outrage, is not necessarily to change others –
although we try – but is for ourselves; it is in the service of our
quest for truth; it helps us stay balanced. In the words of Elie Wiesel,
"In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today I know I
cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man
from ultimately changing me."
Ciaramicoli, A. P. & Ketcham, K. (2000).
The power of empathy: a practical guide to creating intimacy,
self-understanding and love. New
From website, www.theatrgroup.com/methodM/
Groopman, J. (1997). The
measure of our days: a spiritual exploration of illness.
New York: Penguin Books.
Figley, C.R. (1995). Compassion
fatigue: coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Brener, A., Riemer, J. & Cutter, W. (1993).
Mourning and Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner's
Path Through Grief and Healing. Vermont:
Jewish Lights Pub.
Harvey, M.A. (1999).
Odyssey of hearing loss: tales of triumph.
San Diego: CA: Dawnsign Press.
Brown, R.M. (1983). Elie Wiesel: messenger to all humanity, Notre Dame,
Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 42.