Can Empathy Be Taught? Does It Need to Be Taught?

Have you ever been with someone who is suffering and sharing their pain with you and noticed a part of you that felt like you did not care? Were you ever annoyed or bored or wishing you could be somewhere else during such a situation? Have you ever been in a situation where you imagine ways to hurt some other humans or animals? Have you ever hurt someone and felt good about it? Have you ever had a dream or hallucinatory experience where you did something terrible to someone else? If it’s reversed and you have had dreams where terrible people do terrible things to you, have you considered that you have a part of that terrible person inside you? Someone dies, and you notice you are annoyed that you have to go to the funeral and bored at the funeral and wishing you could be anywhere else and also annoyed that you have to say the right things and be kind to the people surrounding you that are in pain. You’re not a sociopath to feel this way. Even if you find a fake convenient reason to avoid the funeral  and are happy that you don’t have to go, that may hurt others or not, you’re still not a sociopath. If you kill everyone at the funeral or go somewhere else and kill someone, you may be a sociopath, and you definitely have done something everyone agrees is very wrong.

We may not be able to answer yes to all those questions or any of them. I can say that I have had moments of noticing a part of me that feels sadistic and cold, that I was going through the motions of caring. I was glad I knew what to do and the difference between thinking mean things and saying or acting them out. I even derived more satisfaction from figuring out the proper behaviors and saying the proper words than actually consoling the other person, especially if the person felt consoled. Is that sick? Or does it really matter how bored or cold I might have felt or if I had a moment of feeling good about my effectiveness? Maybe what mattered was that I knew how to deal with the situation effectively for the other person and for me not to do or say something I’d feel bad about later. I have noticed being annoyed or distracted and wanting to do something else while another person was sharing very painful experiences with me. I noticed and then turned my attention back to the person. I’m sure there were times years ago that I probably just zoned out or focused on how annoying it is that I’m going to have to deal with this person feeling this way and wishing they would not need anything from me. I have had some cold mean thoughts I probably don’t even want to share here. I even during a stressful time imagined killing babies. I haven’t killed any, but I did enjoy the film mother! especially the scene where the mob does stuff to the newborn baby.

If you still don’t think you are in touch with a bad person inside of you, have you been bored with the news on social media or elsewhere that focused on actual victims of terrible events? Have you noticed yourself turning off and wanting to focus on something else?

My dog used to get sick a lot. When he got sick, it was made worse for me by the co owner of the dog. Something about what she did made me want to escape and made me mad at my dog for being sick and mad at that person for owning the dog with me. The amount of stress generated by trying to take care of my dog with someone else who stressed in opposite ways was often so much that I would dissociate. She’d get mad at me for not doing something I was supposed to do. Sometimes I would realize I can do the things she isn’t doing. I will go buy the cage to put him in when he is having his knee and back illness. Or I would remind myself that it’s ok I’m not great with him sick, as I walk him every day when he is not sick and do seventy five percent of the daily care taking. I remember wishing he would die when he was old and sick and dying and being tired of dealing with his sickness and most of all the long distance person still a co owner of him and her wanting to take him to a cancer expert. I remember feeling relief when he was dead and part of it was that now I do not have to deal with the person I owned this dog with.

These situations happened enough that they made me feel quite sadistic and cold. But the hardest part about it was being really confused as to what I could do to relieve my own pain and stress in order to handle each situation properly instead of getting caught up in a masochistic and sadistic relationship.

Maybe you have never felt a lack of empathy or think you haven’t but if you’ve eaten a dead animal you didn’t kill yourself and didn’t care and ALSO were annoyed by the vegans/vegetarians around you caring, then you know what it’s like to feel no empathy for another living being and what it’s like to be annoyed and bored by the people who do. At Thanksgiving, for example, be aware of that. It may not help you feel any compassion for a bully or for a person who has done terrible things. You don’t need to have empathy for someone who is hurting others but in your own self interest, it would be useful to figure out how to deal with this bully before they turn into a killer or to stop them from killing animals before they kill more animals as well as people.

Why ask theses questions? Because the real way to deal with actual sociopaths and people with sociopathic traits (not having empathy for other living beings, feeling cold and cruel, needing to relieve your boredom with other humans by creating ways to make them suffer or ways to have power over others) starts with finding the sociopath inside you, the bully, the sadistic person, your own evil monster, and being ok with it being inside you but not ok with it taking over your experience or dictating behaviors that are actually bad and sadistic and hurtful. Could this work on yourself do anything to change what’s going on in the bigger world with the President of the US being a very dangerous bully? I don’t know, but at least maybe we can help children who bully so they don’t grown up and turn into that kind of person.

What can be done with the child who doesn’t care is much more than what can be done to help the adult who doesn’t care. The child still has the opportunity to develop empathy or learn how to behave with others so they don’t need to inflict pain on others.

How do you teach someone, child or adult, to care about someone outside of themselves? There are the psychoeducational aspects and the experiential aspects. There is first dealing with your own fears of this person if you are afraid of them. The person I cowoned the dog with was not sociopathic; they had other bad issues, but whatever they were and did, they brought out the person in me who was afraid and felt a need for someone rescuing me by getting rid of her or the fantasy of getting rid of her somehow so I wouldn’t have to deal with the situation. There is nothing like a paranoid person telling you that you are out to get them to trigger unconscious behaviors that are rejecting.

I wish someone had taught me how to extricate myself from such situations. Not teaching me to have compassion or care first, but just, what are some effective things to do that will make me more relaxed and able to handle these situations that were so stressful for me? What can I do to fix this situation in a mutually beneficial way? No empathy needed, just a desire to have a better life right now.  How do you stop feeling helpless and giving this other person so much power. Of course now I see how simple it is. I sometimes think, well people around me tried to help me and told me ways to handle it; why did I not want to be taught how to change the situation to benefit me and make whatever it was more pleasant and easier to handle? Why did I not know how to “get rid” of this person in terms of fixing the situation so I wouldn’t have to cut them out of my life? What was I avoiding out of cowardice?

It might start with talking about contracts and how relationships with others involve contracts. With animals too. You have an un written contract with your cat or dog, that you will take proper care of them until they die and enhance their life while benefitting immensely from owning that animal. I wish I had understood that I needed to make clear what the contract was, what I didn’t like about it, and how I wanted to change the co owning and roommate contract to benefit me and by benefitting myself, do it in a way that was not harmful and hurtful to the other person and might even ultimately be mutually beneficial. I would have had to understand long before that about relationships and contracts. I grew up surrounded by lawyers of course, so I must have had a prejudice against contracts without understanding how useful they are, and avoiding the one thing that would have solved my problems while helping me deal with future similar problems with other people.

The bully needs to know that their contract with others involves not resorting to violent destructive behaviors and finding replacement behaviors. First the bully needs to understand what this contract is and how it benefits them. Then there is motivation to find replacement behaviors. It’s very similar to being self destructive. If you are being self destructive and want it to stop, first you have to redo the contract with yourself about not being destructive to your own personhood because your life will be much more enjoyable and you will feel freer and less bored with your behaviors. You have to agree that your depression, addiction, or whatever else destructive that you are doing no longer serves you. Then you have to do the work of finding replacement behaviors. Not so different from helping a child or adult who seems to not care about anyone learn other behaviors to do when feeling bored and having urges to harm others with their words or behaviors.

Yes you can teach someone how to behave in their own best interest even with empathy or without it. Someone could say, I see what you want to get rid of this person and in a perfect world they would just disappear, I see how boring it is to go through all this crazy annoying sad masochistic drama. Let’s figure out how you can get what you want and do it in a compassionate way. Stop feeling this person’s feelings so much that you feel nothing for them. Here are effective ways to communicate and here is how you look at this from the point of view of being a contract.


Doing this type of thing requires reducing judgment and self judgment to a minimum and seeing things from a very neutral point of view, sometimes maybe devoid of any emotions.

I once had a supervision experience where the therapist had such a person in an art group and the person made some very disturbing art accompanied by bad behaviors or plans to hurt others. We talked in the group about how this is a case where it definitely isn’t safe or useful for the group for this person to be able to share their image with the group, and the image may need to be destroyed, and probably if the artist destroyed it, it would be therapeutic for them. Often people in gangs are told in an art therapy group that there is a rule that you can’t make images that feature gangs. Images are powerful and can be harmful to others. Art can also be used to work out destructive energy. Ripping, tearing, destroying your own art can be a great way to avoid doing that to anyone or anything else. Hitler, after all, was an art student. Too bad it was much more appealing and seemed in his best interest to turn that destructive creative energy towards dictatorship. Perhaps all we artists have a little Hitler inside of us we are carefully using only in our art making.

What we could have investigated further was how to deal with this person who made this art work in a way that they could have learned more from the group about how to behave with others. Asking people in the group if they’ve imagined doing the things this person talks about. Finding out if boredom is part of it. What better tool than boredom? All kids know well about being bored in life. Would this sociopathic adolescent care or benefit from hearing about how other kids get bored and what they do? Could they be taught the difference between a fake gun, an image of a gun, a video game with guns and killing, a film with guns and killing and a real gun that can really kill? I say, yes. Maybe the Stomp Out Bullying campaigns have covered this already, so this post may be redundant and unnecessary.

Mindfulness Series in Progress

These are two examples from a new series I’ve been working on for a few weeks. I started out just writing phrases from the DBT view of mindfulness. I’ve been interested in DBT for about four years, studying from books and a few online classes for therapists. The great thing about DBT is using it for yourself and sharing your experience of it with patients or using the skills as a therapist in a session to be more present with your client and able to be aware of verbal and non verbal communication.

I always tell people there aren’t any side effects to the practice of mindfulness. DBT talks about a formal and informal practice; both are useful. The informal practice means bringing awareness to whatever is going on moment to moment all day, what I’ve heard referred to as meditation in action. The formal practice involves actually dedicating time to engage in an activity mindfully or to sit and observe and describe what is going on with yourself for a certain length of time.

One recent discovery was the idea, “Improve the Moment”, a DBT principle that is greatly useful for me. It is empowering to know that while most of the time, I can’t make huge changes to improve aspects of my life, at any given moment, I have the power to do something active to change something in the moment. Noticing you’re feeling anxious and frustrated, you can just remind yourself to breathe and let go and be aware that you are frustrated and take a time out.

I started making drawings and paintings of phrases that I like from DBT, as well as making drawings of jokes about mindfulness. In my journal I had on one page, improve the moment, and on the bottom it says “Fuck it”.

As with most work in progress, the work started evolving and changing. I put speech bubbles on all the “signs”, which made the drawings/paintings feel like visual art more than just signs with words on them.

I’ve been making Slow Down and Breathe signs for myself and clients for years now; in the Art Therapist Coloring Book, my page is a Slow Down and Breathe to color in and put up in your house or office.

I had recently given someone a grid painting for his therapy office, and he commented that maybe I could market my work as some kind of meditative art. I started thinking about these signs and how I would like to sell them, not particularly as meditative art, but as a painting you would put up in your room or some are of your home or office to playfully remind yourself to “Pause,” “Take a Time Out”, etc. One of the paintings says, “You are not alone now.” I’m letting these signs evolve past just being about mindfulness. There is the “Fuck it” group as well as this new group of drawings/paintings that will be more playful and maybe provocative. I thought of making a bubble that says, “You had me at goodbye.” I’m not sure if that’s too negative. I also might do a “I’m having what she’s having” or something to that effect. Taking some cliche sentences from pop culture, movies, etc. and making them into paintings. “Participate in your life.” “Kindness is magic.” “Mistakes are the portal to discovery.” “Be yourself.” “What do you want now” “Be in the moment.” “Be present.” “be here fucking now.” “Pause.” “Stop, Look Listen…”

I’m trying to think about ways to sell these works and be very intentional about finding people who would want to purchase them. I’m not making them to be trendy, but since I’ve been making them a while, I’m going to take advantage of the zeitgeist out there! Are there signs you would want to put up in your house? Would you like your art to be talking to you directly?