On the Capacity to Feel Unempathic

(with endnotes on “forgiveness”, the implicit assumption that anger is a poisonous emotion, and the shame-rage spiral)

I had lunch with Mona and she was kinda getting on my nerves, as she often does. I expressed an opinion and she went on and on about how that opinion couldn’t possibly—. She went on and on so much that I had this impulse to scream at her. I mean, “Don’t I get to have an opinion?”—you know. I felt I kind of—. Of course screaming at her wouldn’t produce much. Then I thought about how—I began to think about how—the vulnerability in her that requires her to eradicate any opinion that differs from her take. She just went on and on about how her opinion had to be the right one.

And as soon as I thought about her vulnerability, it was almost as if an audible click happened. It was like suddenly the whole situation came into focus and I could sit there and listen to her and kind of see this vulnerable girl just not in touch with her vulnerability at all, and just going on and on, from this way and that. But I could have compassion for her, and I began to enjoy the interaction. Really listen and nod and be able to really take in what she was saying. It was just really almost fun because I knew she had no insight into why—and this is a repeated thing where she just has to have the last word. And I could tell she felt identified with. [unedited]

I think the usual explanation for this shift is that vulnerability pulls for compassion, even empathy. But that does not explain why he suddenly felt, not just compassion, but warmly engaged. He began to enjoy the interaction; it was almost fun. Here’s my explanation.

At first he was pissed: what am I, chopped liver? He felt keenly unempathic. He certainly seemed to feel justified; she disparaged his opinion and went on and on relentlessly. This is like the therapist who would be able to contain his feelings by thinking of her as narcissistic—maybe determined to show him up. But this kind of justification can only go so far; he would feel he had a right to be frustrated, but he would not enjoy the interaction, much less think it fun.

I think we can agree that had he yelled at her he would have felt entirely justified: “She went on and on so much that I had this impulse to scream at her. I mean, ‘Don’t I get to have an opinion?’ But here is the key point and the moral of the story: if he felt fully justified, why would he feel like screaming? Of course, he did feel justified enough to at least imagine acting out his alienation and anger. But after the almost audible click, he no longer felt like screaming. And she was still “going on and on, from this way and that,” still “has to have the last word.”—like when your dentist carries on a conversation with you while immobilizing your jaw.

It must have seemed to him that he had been well aware of how boorish she was being. It also was undoubtedly true that he believed he wanted to scream at her because she was being so incredibly frustrating. But had he done so, he would not have felt relaxed about it; it would not have been fun; he probably would have gone on internally debating it.

What happened next was that “suddenly the whole situation came into focus.” This transcript was, of course, part of a much longer session; in introducing this vignette he declared that: “I was proud of myself for being able to use identification to kind of make sense of a situation.” Instead of trancing out or silently mouthing expletives, he resisted these expectable avoidant reactions and paid even closer attention to her. This enabled him to “use identification,” as he put it.

It wasn’t just that he could see her as vulnerable. What he was able to do was to look extra closely at how she was making him feel. This enabled him to see how feeling unempathic was eminently valid, even more than he had thought—even inevitable. This was a big relief, so much so that he almost ended up feeling fond of Mona.

Why was it such a big relief? Even though he had thought he had a valid complaint—after all, she was egregiously monologuing—we can imagine that there were some termites in the woodwork: maybe he was the self-centered one, begrudging her the stage; maybe he was just being mean spirited; anyway why, in the grand scheme of things, should it matter? Also maybe she seemed needy—her vulnerability coming through as pathos—so why not allow her her moment on the stage, even if it also meant her telling him how stupid his opinions were?

We don’t have any evidence here for how he was suddenly able to see how she made him feel. What we do know is that he could easily have been stuck at the point of zooming out, distancing himself by thinking how clueless, immature, and self-centered she was. But once he saw how he could not have reacted any other way (any more than she could have acted any other way), he instantly and automatically zoomed in. Then there were no more termites in the woodwork; he felt so relieved it was fun.

He got to feel empathic with himself.

He even could enjoy watching himself being bullied and condescended to because his relationship with himself was restored (if that’s too strong a word, “realigned” would work).

Needless to say, he wasn’t looking for a way to see Mona as a poor suffering human being. He wasn’t trying to feel empathic.

It is easy to overlook the real moral of the story, which is that this man had no idea that he had any compunctions about feeling alienated by Mona. He had no idea that partly what made him feel alienated was the way it got him into trouble with himself.

The therapist who is frustrated or bored by a “difficult patient”doesn’t appreciate how he gets in trouble with himself when he feels unempathic. It is tempting to claim that there are no difficult patients only therapists who have trouble feeling unempathic. If there is such a thing as a difficult patient, maybe the best example, ironically, is the kind of person whom a colleague refers, saying “I’m sure you will enjoy working with this patient”—someone who turns out to be an accommodator whose problem is being too respectful.

But wait, aren’t there people who are unusually compassionate and would just automatically not feel alienated? First, it still would not be fun to watch Mona do her thing. They would just be able to have their portable indulgence, perhaps, in their own way, being in a narcissistic bubble. So, as a therapist they would not be paying very close attention to her, to “really listen and nod and be able to really take in what she was saying.”

Here is a related excerpt from “On Entitlement to Feelings” talking about a therapist dealing with a “difficult patient:”

He knows she is depressed and desperate, but not that she is conflicted about expressing it—and so expresses it inadequately, if at all. One could say that his being alienated by Laura’s clinging dependency blocks him from seeing that she is herself even more alienated from it. But that would be imprecise, since what actually blocks him is his not feeling entitled to be alienated.

He does not feel entitled to be condemning, which then erodes his capacity to be able to understand her. Suppose he felt entitled to heartily dislike her. Then he would be open to the recognition that this effect she had on him meant something—in fact that it was the impact on him of her self-hate. Then he might well find himself suddenly feeling warmly empathic toward her, just as did Mona’s boy friend.


The recent work on forgiveness is valuable in that it embodies the insight that we often suffer from our anger without realizing it. You know the examples typically cited: the coal you want to throw burns your own hand; or the two prisoners; when they get out, one tells the other that he is bitter and the other says, then you are still in prison. Or this one offered by Esther Perel in the Networker: “Resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.” For some people that is exactly the way it feels; they can’t tolerate feeling slighted or resentful—certainly can’t enjoy revenge fantasies.

The forgiveness experts want to emphasize that forgiveness is not for the other guy; it’s for you—that it even has demonstrable health benefits. It they took their analysis a step further they would see what can make anger so poisonous, and that forgiveness invariably means forgiving yourself. What makes that clear is what Helen Block Lewis called the shame-rage spiral.

This concept is preeminently ego-analytic. Here is how it goes, as applied to the Narrator: Mona irritated him, which made him feel guilty, which made him angrier at her for making him feel guilty, which made him angrier. In short, he was mad at her for making him mad at her. Hence, when he forgave her, he actually was forgiving himself for being angry at her.

Unfortunately, the implication abroad in the forgiveness literature is that anger is, by its nature, a poisonous emotion. This never is stated as such. So we don’t get to have the necessary discussion.

Another angle: Here we have a man who forgives his tormentor. But he doesn’t do it purely internally, by working on his feelings. He doesn’t do it the Zen way (often mentioned in the forgiveness literature). He does it (or, maybe we should say, it happens) by focusing, not on himself, but on the relationship—with the result that he “forgives” Mona because he suddenly feels richly entitled to having been pissed off. Then he no longer is.

Further, it pushes the forgiveness insight too far to assume that people never can enjoy being angry. The prisoner who was bitter about being imprisoned, could have felt fully entitled to his rage (it’s just that chances are he didn’t), enjoying fantasies of retribution. Also anger often is a midwife for other feelings, themselves constricted by doubt.

The forgiveness ethic risks making people feel less entitled to their anger, but I’m sure its advocates are aware of that. It probably also helps to know, as they point out, that you are railing against a world that doesn’t owe you anything—and also that if you can feel good about yourself, feeling ripped off doesn’t burn as intensely. But here we teeter on the brink of another empty slogan, as if feeling good about yourself is something you can just resolve to do.

It reminds me, perhaps unfairly, of what I think of as the No On Worry campaign, carried out on T shirts as well as word of mouth. We are told that worry doesn’t accomplish anything. I think we should add panic and terror to the list, since it is even harder to see what they accomplish.



  1. the summary is
    “This enabled him to see how feeling unempathic was eminently valid, even more than he had thought—even inevitable. This was a big relief, so much so that he almost ended up feeling fond of Mona.”


  2. Apfelbaum work reminds me of Tao Te Ching specifically this

    If you want to become whole,
    Let yourself be partial.
    If you want to become straight,
    Let yourself be crooked.
    If you want to become full,
    Let yourself be empty.
    If you want to be reborn,
    Let yourself die.
    If you want to be given everything,
    Give everything up.


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