Sunday, October 30, 2011

Empathy comes in different flavours

Empathy and Evolution, a blogpost spotted today. It discusses various flavours of empathy, its expression during development and outward into the social sphere.

The sorting into various flavours interested me most.
Psychologists distinguish two main components of empathy: cognitive empathy (knowing another person’s thoughts and beliefs) and affective empathy (knowing another person’s feelings and emotions).
The degree of empathy we have for others can be found on a spectrum. At lower ends, empathy only requires that we are aware of other people’s thoughts and feelings. But at higher ends of the spectrum, empathy may include actually experiencing one’s situation as if it was our own.
Some experts on empathy, such as emotion researcher Paul Ekman, say that these higher levels of empathy lead to a third kind of empathy: compassionate empathy, where we are so attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others that we are driven to alleviate their pain and suffering through kindness and charity.

 My bold. What if one has off the chart extreme empathy in one flavour, and not much in another? I feel other peoples' pain all the time. I've had to build strong boundaries in myself, around my insular cortex, in order to do what I have to do in life, which is to treat it in other people.

When I say, "have to", I don't mean that someone held a gun to my head and forced me into this line of work; rather, I mean, I was driven into it for completely self-contained reasons, chief among them to learn as much as I could about pain in order to be ready for when and if I ever needed to combat it in myself. (A situation in which I eventually found myself, and successfully won, so it all paid off.)

This coming week, I'll fly to Winnipeg to attend a workshop by Michael Sullivan, on progressive goal attainment. This involves careful attention to the "cognitive empathy" side of the scale, learning the thoughts and beliefs of another, helping them separate those from their feelings and emotions. It's for sure outside manual therapy kinds of "helping", but I think I'm ready to learn more about it and weave it in. Some might wonder what took me so long. To that, all I'd be able to answer would be, "better late than never" and, "I'm a late bloomer".

Monday, October 10, 2011


Crude graph made in photoshop.
Happy-ness has more chance to develop/exist if red and blue lines are deliberately kept separated.

I'm pretty sure "happiness" isn't a feeling, or a mood or even solely a personality trait; I think it might just be a measure of the gap one can create between something called "stress" and something else called "capacity to regulate stress response".  So, happiness is an achievement, perhaps, for anyone prone to depression. Here's the reasoning, broken into sections:

Stress is not a fixed thing. It's a relationship one's nervous system has with existence.
Some stress is necessary or the brain will just sit there and do nothing - it won't learn. It won't remain flexible and adaptive.
Too much stress will make it adapt badly. It will impair the brain sooner or later.
Stress is described as an upside-down "U" function - an optimal amount helps one navigate life, if not with pleasure, at least with a sense of success rather than defeat. (I've read and learned much from all the articles in  Nature Reviews Neuroscience: Focus on Stress [2009])

One can manipulate, if not stress itself, stress-ors.. mostly by avoiding them or reducing them or eliminating them. What might be some stressors easily eliminated? Oh, most TV shows, smoking, drinking alcohol, etc.
Likewise, hanging around people who belittle you in any other way, or do not enhance your mental or physical life, is counterproductive, best avoided I find, at least for me.

E.g., I find boredom very stressful.

Freedom from the stress of boredom
If left to myself, I'm not bored. I can find things to do and read and think about. I can watch my brain machinate its way through perceived conundrums. I can plan (although I don't really like to be attached to plans, because plans have to fight a lot of external resistance and get changed as a result, much of the time) and organize (something else I'm not all that attached to) and learn (something I never get tired of) and think (about anything, everything) and write (about anything, everything). Or just breathe and not have to do anything with my brain. Unencumbered.

Social stress, boredom
I find it immensely stressful to be around people I consider boring, and I find most 'socializing for the sake of socializing', boring, so I am mostly a solitary hermit. I've never married or had children, because I find routine (outside my own easily changeable personal routines) extremely boring; the very thought of harnessing myself into a small group of other human primates forever dependent on my personal involvement with them, freaked me out completely as a young woman, so I just never went there or did that.
Now as I look back on life from the ripe old age of 60, I appreciate the instinct that kept me unattached, and the way I chose to combat and navigate but not give into competing instincts, such as wanting to belong somewhere or find 'lasting romance': I did live with someone for three years (ran a simulation of what marriage might be like); nice man, satisfying relationship in most of the important ways (from the perspective of a 22-year-old healthy female), but in the end found it boring and therefore stressful.
Having to continuously adapt to other peoples' needs and wants in exchange for 'belonging' to a domestic arrangement was something I knew intrinsically that I'd never ever be able to pull off successfully. It never looked like it would be a good bargain. I had instinctive fear of the avalanche of expectation that surrounds ordinary social domesticity. My nervous system's threat detectors have been allergic to social norms, and have therefore sounded pretty much continuously, all my life.

It's Thanksgiving here in Canada; it seems appropriate to include the fact that every day of my life I'm grateful that since I had to come into existence in the first place, with such strong personal proclivities in the second place, it was into a culture and era that permitted me, a woman, to retain control of my own physicality, in particular that physicality residing below the waist (...and enjoy it too, when/if I wanted..).
Most important has been social autonomy. I was born at a time when I learned I had the right to bodily autonomy, enjoyment of physicality, to wear whatever was/is comfortable, sensible shoes, no make-up. Or, on the other hand, the right to dress like a female caricature if I felt like it. Which I did sometimes, mostly in order to escape notice, to blend in, feel more invisible and be able to 'compete' successfully. Not that I ever won any prizes for looks, or captured any trophies of any other kind (a vision comes to mind of a marriage partner mounted like a deer head over the mantle, but more likely a spouse would be sitting on the couch, quite alive, watching sports no doubt..)
In most cultures on the planet, girls are groomed from birth to adapt to the fact that they are destined to become someone else's reproductive livestock, uteruses with arms and legs, that their humanantigravitysuits are not strictly their own - that instead, they do not have any right to enjoy ownership of their bodies, specifically from the waist down, ever, and usually not the space between their ears/above their eyes, either.
My family gently hinted at this, but never did I feel coerced toward enacting such a role. My life was mine to live however I chose - my body, all of it, was mine to do with as I wished, and the culture of the 1960's and 70's that surrounded me as an emerging biological woman made it real.
For this freedom, which I realize now is a true happiness, I'll be forever grateful to my mother. I think my dad probably had more restrictive, more male-biased, protestant-tent-religion-based, traditional views on the matter, but my mother, a lapsed catholic who never displayed any ambition beyond keeping a home and raising a family, somehow still managed to keep enough space open for me to run away through, out to 'freedom from family'. She has probably never really reflected on why she did that. I certainly have disappointed her in almost every way imaginable from an interpersonal or social point of view; I'm pretty sure she likely expected her oldest daughter to heave to eventually and contribute my share to the planet's overpopulation problem; but I never did - instead I took total advantage of the opening out into the brave new feminist-hardfought-and-won world of female autonomy, and sailed away.
On the other hand, it may have been that she just didn't care; I think the fact her first-born happened to be female, not male, disappointed her, and so it didn't really matter to her what I turned out like, as long as I didn't do anything too egregious like end up an unwed mother or in jail. Still, I remain grateful that she wasn't as overbearing as she could have been.
I did not copy her life, only half her genome. During all the years she spent on care and feeding and cajoling and 'training' (as she called it), and encouraging me at schoolwork, I also absorbed years of watching her be content with cooking/baking/cleaning/laundry/hanging clothes out on a clothesline/enjoying herself in the evening by knitting/crocheting/sewing/doing petit point/etc., reading "ladies'" lifestyle magazines (the only reading material that ever made its way into our family home, beside my dad's Commonwealth newspapers), and.. found it utterly boring. I repaid her maternal investment by not reenacting her existence.
Some judgey little part of myself, some mirror neuron biological part, no doubt, feels (weirdly to me) bereft, and despises me for what it considers selfish ingratitude, based on my having not replicated family life. But the rest of me forgives myself and moves along, knowing full well it would never have had a chance to surface at all, had things not gone the way they did. Plus, I spared all my unborn children the fate of having a mother who would have found child-rearing utterly boring and probably intolerable. I spared them the chore of existence itself. I spared them having to put up with someone as capricious and depressive as I, from being their mother. I saved myself (and them) a lot of stress. Furthermore, I made a colossal forward payment on my own carbon footprint by not replicating any more people.

Learning how to increase this has also been found to help to widen the proposed happy-gap.
It's something I'm finally getting around to, now that I know how crappy (opposite of happy) life can feel when this capacity diminishes. The single biggest ingredient of maintaining this capacity is regular exercise, so I'm led to believe.
Now, I haven't been exercising on a regular basis long enough to find out how I and me and myself will adapt to it - for now, it's still a stressor and therefore has not widened any discernible gap. But  I do have faith it can, and will, based on a bunch of stuff I read about the endless benefits of exercise on physiology and brain health, and that it's never too late.
For the moment, I'm content that I finally discovered a place in which I can exercise with minimal psychosocial stress from exercise itself. I mean, there's still the issue of having to be in the same room as a bunch of other women, and having to put up with music I don't enjoy (this is Weyburn; country music about neon signs and green tractors etc. is mixed up with Katy Perry and Lady Gaga; on the plus side, it's a women's gym, so I have not noticed any loud head-banger music).  In spite of minor distractions (music which I could avoid if I wanted by using an iPod or something) it feels like this is some sort of turning point for me, that someday soon I could actually enjoy exercise (i.e., not find it boring, or nociceptive), and instead of going through life just reducing stress at one end, I could increase the happy-gap from the other end too.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Fixing up my own humanantigravitysuit

After two years and two winters of bracing winter air and sun,  I have been feeling much better, ready to resume the overhaul on my own physicality I started 4 years ago. I lost a bunch of weight, then plateaued out for the last couple years, seemingly unable to overcome the inertia that would be involved in increasing daily aerobic exercise. The diet has been fairly good, weight maintained, but no more coming off. But I think I found the solution. Very conveniently located, a few blocks from where I live, a place for women like me opened up just a year ago, a nice clean, fresh-smelling place, a franchise called Inches A-Weigh. So, I joined last month, and so far, it's perfect.

The deal is, you pay a bunch of money, go into a program of cognitive behavioural therapy around food choice, follow a restricted calorie plan, be strictly accountable, hand in your food diary and be "counselled",  regularly weighed (twice/week) and measured (every two weeks) for several months, eat their protein snacks (included), and work out on their equipment for 20 minutes, at least 3x/week, or as often/long as you want. There are elliptical machines, treadmills, and stationary bikes, all good quality and smoothly operating. There are TVs in front of the bank of machines, with DVDs of movies with subtitles looping all day long. No mirrors. None. Except in the bathroom over the sink.

OK, no big whup so far.. but there is another thing they offer, which I instantly became addicted to - along the other wall are a bank of beds that move you around, bend you, shake you, pummel the body. They feel fantastic. You do plenty of "exercise" on them, i.e., keep the abs tight, keep certain muscles contracted, arms overhead, etc. Sort of Pilates Lite. For the first several weeks that's the program. Then they increase the stuff you do on the beds, make it more complicated, adding heavy balls and light hand weights.

What I like is the feeling of being tossed around, 6 minutes per bed, 7 beds, a total of about 45 minutes. After that I feel good enough physically that putting out a 30-minute effort on the cardio equipment is no longer a daunting prospect. I think all the jiggling likely stimulates endogenous opioid systems or something.

What I know for sure is this: exercise never ever ever felt good to me before. I have a nervous system that always has found exercise painful, daunting, boring, an exercise in futility, incapable of dredging up the will power after a couple weeks, no intrinsic motivation to do any regularly, ever. In other words, exercise has never ever been a source of joy or pleasure or intrinsic motivation, the way it seems to be for people who seem to be comprised only of large bungee cords, and whose surface layer does not feel heavy or sensitive to them. So, the under-exercised corner of life was the one I found I had painted myself into, trapped by paint that refused to dry. 

I think I (and many many others, mainly female) have more "feeling" (interoception) than bungee cord people do. I think the beds must anesthetize me/my interoception or something. Then, sure, I can go on some cardio thingy and spend a half hour keeping my heart rate up - I have even started liking the elliptical; never in my life before have I managed more than a couple minutes on one of those things. But one day, I found I had Achilles tendons that could recoil all by themselves! Nice thing to finally be able to feel, at my advanced middle age. I've been going every day. Moi! Maybe by spring I'll be thinner-looking and have a much more fit CV system.