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Shielding 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 peoples’ 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 that’s 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 neutral."

"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:

· A Deaf consumer is left out of a conversation or decision-making.

· A Deaf consumer is talked down to and demeaned.

· A Deaf consumer is treated unfairly/unjustly.

· A hearing consumer is uncomfortable with an interpreter and ignored him/her to the detriment of the deaf person.

· A hearing parent makes fun of a deaf child’s signing.

· A Deaf consumer being falsely labeled as mentally retarded.

· A Deaf consumer being physically and/or emotionally abused in a treatment or correctional facility.

· Being asked to unethically expand my interpreting role to the detriment of the deaf consumer.

· Discrimination 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 indigestion."

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).

Interpreter: "It’s infuriating!" (with aggressive outrage).

Deaf colleague: "I’m used to it."

Interpreter: "Well, I’m not!"

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 of gray.

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" society’s 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 contagious.

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 disavowed fear.

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!"

Although Mattie’s 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 of it.

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) 

              3) a 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 "character".

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 "win-win!" Doesn’t the deaf consumer benefit by accurate interpretation while the interpreter benefits by a growth experience?

It’s 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 really is.

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 meditation:


"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 pain. You’re in danger of being devoured by it, drowning in it. You feel your own self becoming smaller and smaller and threatened with total annihilation.

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 me; 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 be curious.

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 hold!"

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 activate?"

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 traumatized.

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 existence.

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 interpreting."

"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 chapter x.

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 vicariously traumatized.

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."


Note:  This sequence will be analyzed in more detail in subsequent chapters, particularly the cognitive step of “appraisal of situation as oppressive” which is discussed in the next chapter.  Here, suffice it to say that the interpreter may perceive the reason(s) for an oppressive situation as due to purposeful evil by hearing people, their innocent naiveté and/or simple bad luck, etc.  Your determination/appraisal will influence what you think, feel and do subsequent to the particular event.



1.      Ciaramicoli, A. P. & Ketcham, K. (2000).  The power of empathy: a practical guide to creating intimacy, self-understanding and love.  New York: Dutton. 

2.    From website,

3.      Groopman, J. (1997).  The measure of our days: a spiritual exploration of illness.  New York: Penguin Books.

4.      Figley, C.R. (1995).  Compassion fatigue: coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder.  New York: Brunner/Mazel.

5.      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.

6.         Harvey, M.A. (1999).  Odyssey of hearing loss: tales of triumph.  San Diego: CA: Dawnsign Press.


7.    Brown, R.M.  (1983).  Elie Wiesel: messenger to all humanity, Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 42.