Showing posts with label empathy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label empathy. Show all posts

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Dearth of Meaning and Escalation of Harm

In my battering intervention classes, I follow the Emerge Model. The curriculum I use includes some from Emerge, but also has several lessons that I have created over the years for various reasons. Emerge tends to use the "Relationship History" with each participant to look at patterns of harm and where things may have gone downhill in a relationship. While I think that is an excellent individual activity, I don't think it works as well for everyone and have a few other options of lessons for those who might benefit from a different sort of introspection.

I will often use an "Empathy Letter" activity for those who are still in their relationship, and want to work to repair and make things better. That activity has places to give feedback on methods of owning up to hurtful behavior, describing motives, understanding impacts, and working on specific repairs. Identifying patterns alone may not help an individual who needs to consider ongoing shifts in how to have conflict and how to identify personal responsibilities to a partner.

For those participants with a very obvious pattern of harm, I use a "Cycle of Harm" that allows an individual to identify a build up of thoughts that promote abusive, violent, and hurtful behavior - and the thinking after that harm that keeps the cycle going. Even though I am not a fan of the Emerge "Role Play" activity, I still do that on occasion to address participants with a "here we go again" sort of conflict history.

However, over the past two weeks I have been working with a man, and for the purposes of this story let's call him Frank. Frank is in his 50s, and his longest relationship was in the early 90s which lasted approximately three and a half years. Most of his relationships last for a few months, and the relationship where he threatened his ex-partner was a total of two months of being together. I knew after hearing his brief description of his relationships that a relationship history wouldn't really work well. Same with an empathy letter as he was not in a relationship to repair. A cycle didn't work because he had different hurtful things he did in different relationships. With all that in mind, I decided to address a thicker topic with him that is hard to encapsulate, but is a powerful activity in its own right: an assignment on boundaries.

Boundaries are an under-addressed topic in battering intervention classes. Sure, we set boundaries as far as class rules, norms, and policies but we don't often take time to look at how participants set their own boundaries or notice them in others. Boundaries are these limits we have in our minds about a variety of things, a multitude of personal rules, thinking on how the world and life in general work. We often address boundaries in fractured ways - discussing masculinity, talking about motives for violence, methods of power and control. Sometimes, we even focus on respectful and healthy boundaries and how to manage conflict without violence or abuse. We just rarely bring it all together to discuss an individual's unique set of ideas that spur their actions in relationships.

I asked Frank to talk briefly about his relationship with his ex-partner where he threatened her. He talked about discovering her cheating on him, and the first time he gave her the benefit of the doubt because they had only been together two weeks, and her contact was with an ex-partner she had children with. The second time he found out, he left her threatening voicemails that he couldn't remember details of but did remember saying something to the effect of "I hope you lose everything you have in life." He also stopped by her house, noticing another man's motorcycle in her driveway. He was charged with stalking and cyberstalking alongside making threats.

His description was a bit vague, but also succinct and with a two month relationship there were more details than I might have thought. In moving the activity forward, I had a brief discussion with the class about what boundaries were. They joined in and provided different angles to the idea of personal rules and limits, which got the ball rolling in the direction I had hoped.

Frank was pretty easy to talk with, and came up with physical boundaries relatively quickly. He knew that he didn't like close talking unless it was something "important" and talked about how one woman he was with would come up and whisper to him and it would irritate him quite a bit. He had some definite dinner rules about not chewing with your mouth open, no smoking or playing with a cell phone at the table. He was fine with chores, and enjoys keeping his house neat, clean, and smelling good, and overall he wants a partner who is independent, works full time, and still is able to keep up with chores. He talked about a woman he never met in person who asked him "would you prefer a woman who worked part-time and kept the house spotless, or a woman who worked full-time but wasn't able to keep up with cleaning." His immediate response was to not consider her as relationship material, but also to shake his head and say that if you can't do both (like he does) then there's something wrong with you.

In the group, this led to some head nodding and agreement with some of the other participants. I don't think this is much more than a declaration of personal preferences. Those sort of boundaries can become problematic if an individual isn't able to notice incompatibility soon into developing a relationship, or holds on to an idea of "training" someone to do what they want. Frank was straightforward of his beliefs, and seemed quite able to keep a relationship from happening if he saw warning signs rising.

His emotional boundaries pointed out a few details that were important for him to know of himself, and know how to communicate in a relationship. He said when he became angry, his "filter turns off." Again, many of the participants nodded, seeing that experience as similar to their own. We discussed briefly how respectful and healthy communication involves the ability to filter negative self-talk, and choose methods of responding to anger without causing pain or fear in another person.

With emotion, however, we also discussed how he felt loved in a relationship. His methods involve giving gifts, helping someone out, and feeling loved when the other person expresses appreciation. Of course, this is a set-up for any number of negative self-talks, and direct as well as indirect harms when another person does not show appreciation just as he might want them to. He categorized his way of showing love as giving gifts, a playful "smack on the ass," giving compliments, and doing "gentlemanly" polite things. In the class we discussed the concept of "love languages" and how we all as human beings have ways we want to be loved, and ways we want to show love to others - and the complexities of interacting with someone who might have different ideas on that topic. How do you negotiate situations where your love language doesn't match?

This is where we got into brain mapping territory, and considerations of selfishness. I asked the group how many thought people, in general, were selfish. Most hands went up quickly. I asked them to identify how they saw selfishness in others. A truck driver said people drive without caring about others, and just being in their own worlds. Another participant said his wife just wanted to go out with her friends and didn't care what he thought about it. Another agreed and said his partner wouldn't do chores but expected him to. They all agreed with the idea of double standards and hypocrisy as selfish.

Then I asked them how they were selfish in their own lives.

They had a harder time with this. I gave some simple examples in my own life, how I ate the last two delicious smoked ribs in the fridge without asking my partner if she wanted them. How I procrastinate and the selfishness behind that. Eventually I got a few examples, but it was harder for some reason. Well, actually it was hard for a very specific reason.

We are all self-oriented. We see the world, hear the world, experience the world through our own minds. We can put ourselves in other's perspectives, sure, but in reality - such empathy is fantasy. I can never inhabit someone else's life, I cannot fully understand other's experiences. I read something recently that discussed how our personal concept of self is unique to us. Every single person we interact with has a concept of us as individuals. Some of those concepts overlap, but by in large, our own self-concept is unique to us and no one outside of yourself will ever fully know what that is. This makes it easy to come up with reasons, excuses, explanations for personal behavior while readily jumping to judge others.

As human beings, we disconnect ourselves from others at the drop of a hat. When our concept of someone conflicts with how another person is acting, we can easily deny their experience, their reasoning, their opinion. We can discount their emotions. We can remove any regard we have for that person in favor of judging what we absolutely know is true because we see it through our perspective.

In relationships, these disconnects can add up. It takes a lot of work to maintain a connection with someone, to actively seek to see and care about their point of view. And when you don't? Controlling behavior, abuse, violence, general harm are easy territories to jump into.

Moving into mental boundaries, Frank talked about how he would get quiet when he was stressed, how he hated it when people assumed he spoke Spanish or thought they knew his heritage. He hated "stupidity," "liars," and "saggy pants." We also discussed boundaries of exciting things, how we express passion for things we love - and for Frank he loves motorcycles, engines and mechanics, and his mom's chocolate pie. How does someone take a subject like "stupidity" and apply it to people and situations? How does someone categorize a "lie" from another person? How does someone communicate how they express stress in their life? We had a discussion about how people responded when hungry. I get loopy, and have a hard time making decisions or engaging in conversation. Others get "hangry" and yet others feel sick. How do you communicate your responses to something as simple as hunger in a relationship, and how do you talk about the PROCESS of your life to explain the CONTENT more accurately? The answer is many people do not, and that is an easy place to again create disconnect and harm.

The real point of this article, however, is on spiritual space and boundaries. But before I get there, a small aside on the other two categories. Discussing sexual boundaries is important - ideas on family planning and children, sexual frequency desires, even overall methods of showing affection beyond sex. All are important to navigate in a relationship in direct and respectful manners. Relational space and boundaries are also very important - how do you see the idea of "partnership" in a relationship? What do you expect of yourself in a relationship, and what do you expect of the person you are with? How could expectations of self and partner lead to that hypocrisy we discussed before? More excellent questions to bring up and have conversations about in battering intervention.

The thing that shocked me the most, but maybe it shouldn't have, is that Frank had no idea what his meaning in life was. Yes, we have as a culture had several things we have popular media over that contemplate the "meaning of life." Monty Python had an entire movie about "The Meaning of Life." Douglas Adams made some hilarious commentary about the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" is 42, but we don't know the proper question. But it's not that much of a mystery, really.

Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of value. What do I hold dear? Why is my life better because my partner is in it? How do I add value to my partner's life? What are my morals, my ethics? Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of purpose, of meaning. What am I working towards? What is my contribution to others close to me, to the world as a whole? What purpose keeps me going and feeds my values?

In some people's lives, that answer can be tied to their religious beliefs. Religions have a multitude of tomes on values to ascribe to, rules to follow, rituals to practice. That is of great importance to many, and they structure their lives to constantly work toward specific goals in their relationships with others and community. For some people, their religion is a ritual, but not a value or a purpose. Going to church, synagogue, temple, whatever it might be - that is just a thing you do, not a thing you care about beyond the ritual itself. Others pick specific messages that support their world view and use those messages to convince or browbeat others into philosophical submission or fear. Others frame their lives through personal focus and try to influence others through their behavior.

But to not be able to identify a purpose? It wasn't just Frank. No one in my group of nine participants had an answer to their meaning in life. No one even mentioned their children or families as their purpose, and I was sure there would be at least one person to do that. In the silence following the question, I talked about where meeting a potential partner at a place you volunteer could be a great way to connect to someone with similar values and meaning in life. I got some scoffing at that - who has time to volunteer? I discussed how we always give time for things that have value. We discussed Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and the control over society through entertainment and I asked them if they were controlled by entertainment. Many of them agreed. Their excitement in life was over "stuff" and over doing things. Frank said he always knew what he was doing each night because of what television show was on. That was important to him.

It struck me as a bit of an epiphany. Are we, perhaps, not going deep enough in working to address domestic violence? Is there more to hurtful behavior than simply discussing violence? Where is self-respect in our discussions? How do we make health, compromise, caring, regard a part of participant's value systems, or even a part of what gives them purpose in their lives?

I'm not sure I have much in the way of answers here, but I certainly know that if you do not care about anything, if you have no purpose in life, there really aren't many barriers to hurting others, or hurting yourself. If your purpose has been compromised by "value slipping*" then what holds true for you? How do you build up family and relationship in a world dominated by personal perspective and justification at all costs? Where your reasoning is all about whether someone agrees with your world view or not.

I say in classes all the time, this work is never about giving answers - they are more individual to the person, and my answers won't fit others' situations. These classes are about asking the right questions. And with that - are we truly asking all the best questions during battering intervention classes?

Write up of the activity with Frank in class. Pardon my messy handwriting!


*"Value slipping" is a concept of violating a small part of your values and beliefs and after doing so, feeling guilty but moving on and then more easily devaluing other rules in your life. I give examples in group about someone who has a religious belief about not having sex before marriage, yet has sex multiple times before marrying someone. How does such an experience sour other religious messages or rules, and what does that slippery slope look like?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Louis CK and Empathy Work for Abusive Men

Chances are if you have been within range of the internet, or even a local newspaper over the past few weeks, you've seen the news of numerous allegations and admissions of sexual inappropriateness, sexual assault, and sexual harassment levied against powerful men. In some ways, this is nothing new - such allegations happen regularly and sometimes they stick, other times they get waved away as rumors or settlements are made behind closed doors. What is interesting about Louis CK's sexual harassment allegations are that they were denied as rumors for years, and with pressure ramping up since Harvey Weinstein's fall from grace due to exposure of his sexually violating behavior (and the #metoo backlash), CK decided to write a letter that validating five women's claims against him as being true.

In the groups I co-facilitate for men who have chosen battering behavior in their intimate partner relationships, occasionally I have an individual complete an "empathy letter" activity. It is made very clear that this letter is not designed to be given directly to that man's victim/partner, but rather is an exercise to work to increase ability to make repairs and amends in that relationship. I tend to choose that activity for men who are still in a relationship with the woman they hurt, who want to perhaps make things better and continue their relationship. It's not necessarily a great idea to force empathy building onto someone who is not interested in doing so, or for someone who is no longer in a relationship and doesn't care about repairing anything directly. It's also an important point to emphasize that empathy is a PROCESS, not a destination - that no one thing will instantly or completely heal damage that often is done as a pattern over a long period of time.

For the sake of explaining this activity, and in analyzing the places where CK's letter is a good start toward repairs and where it falls short, let's read through what he wrote and discuss the four aspects of empathy work we look at during battering intervention class sessions. The goal is always to look at what someone comes up with and add to it, nuance it, make it a living document where the individual might have conversations with his partner in one way when a topic comes up, and in another in a different circumstance. CK has given us all a place to analyze, and some have eaten it up and been happy to see him admitting his wrongs, while others have been disgusted and found his letter to be pure bullshit, disingenuous, and simply a cover-your-ass statement. For the sake of the analysis in this article, let's consider that both perspectives might have some weight (I will be quoting his letter out of order to emphasize these different sections).

The first section to discuss in an empathy letter is does it demonstrate responsibility? Since I believe words hold power, and understanding words helps with clarity, I think it is important to name responsibility as the act of admitting to behavior. Plenty of people avoid ownership of harms they have caused others, and I find that most men entering into battering intervention classes have a hard time doing so at the start. Some might admit to some things, but even in someone who is interested in making repairs it's impossible to admit to full responsibility - particularly in places where the individual is blind to the experience of others. Responsibility, like all the sections is a process, and when the activity is done in the class, I hear someone admit to things and when we offer feedback we ask for more specific detail, for larger patterns, for how things went downhill in a relationship and why. We look at things like poor self-care and how that can damage a relationship, or irritating and alienating behavior that often are dismissed as being too low a threshold to mention (yet can be a huge problem for victims/survivors who experience this irritating and alienating behavior as a foundation to so many other harms).

Louis CK says the following in his letter, which I have put together as a section where he attempts to work toward responsibility:

"I want to address the stories told to The New York Times by five women named Abby, Rebecca, Dana, Julia who felt able to name themselves and one who did not. These stories are true. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly. [I've] run from [my actions]. I also took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community. I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want."
When considered separately from the rest of the letter, when thinking about ways CK could have taken more responsibility, there is a lot that could be added here. In a class session, some feedback and discussion here would be to have him specifically name how he was sexually inappropriate, to be more explicit in how he placed women in impossible predicaments, how he understands his power as a producer and history of that power, and even in naming women he has harassed beyond these five that are bringing the accusations against him currently, perhaps even discussing any sexual aspects that contributed to the end of his marriage years before. He could speak to how in his comedy routines he has made his thinly veiled sexually abusive behavior into a humorous tale. He has long incorporated masturbation gestures in his sets, has discussed sexual behavior very directly, has named the impact and ability of power in different ways. He has the ability to name his responsibilities more directly, and his letter gives him an opportunity to expand on what he has listed and continue a dialog about his behavior - or to leave it where it is at and hope public attention goes away. Responsibility is an ongoing process of reflection, insight, and removing of layers. If he is truly working toward repairs, he will need to consistently name these behavior, and do so without blaming or excusing things by focusing on others. Since he said "I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want," he needs to use that power to do so here and now. Several people have been angered by his letter, and he needs to validate their anger. Several have been willing to let him off the hook due to his letter, and he needs to admit that his initial letter was a start but is not going to be enough. Make this section an process, not an end point.

Next, we discuss how to admit to motives behind hurtful behavior. This section can get ugly, and it should. Abuse doesn't happen because someone feels positive things about the person they hurt, and they don't happen with consideration of other's rights and needs. This is a very difficult section to write, and it is very difficult for men who have been abusive to discuss. Louis CK is no exception here, as his description of his motives is minimal:

"At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. I didn’t think that I was [using other's admiration of me to silence others] because my position allowed me not to think about it."
He has an opportunity here to say why he did not care about boundaries of professionalism, personal space, sexual limitations, power dynamics, or the humanity of those he violated. He did not. He vaguely discusses his power, but also justifies his actions by saying he asked if he could violate these women before doing so. This is probably the most difficult thing that he will need to do if he wants to make repairs, and much of the heavy criticism of his letter seems to be due to him not explaining motives. This makes any attempts at empathy disingenuous. In intimate partner relationships, think of someone working to make repairs. They admit to harms, seem to understand impacts, say what they need to do to change, but never really say WHY they chose to hurt, chose to cause pain, chose to cause fear. This leaves the person victimized to think in their own minds why this happened. It pushes that responsibility onto someone who will never be able to know the answer, because motive is internal to an abuser's own thoughts and self-talk. In classes, I will speak to the need to be vulnerable as a part of a healthy and respectful relationship. Abusers block off vulnerability, and it makes it impossible to connect with another person, and impossible for them to be able to call you on your faults as well as support you when you need it. In this case, admitting to motives creates vulnerability in others knowing what was going through thoughts and values that allowed a choice to abuse. Louie CK, you need to improve this section dramatically, talk to why you waited several years to finally admit to your abusive behavior, speak to why you abused your power when you are so aware of power dynamics as demonstrated by your work. Why you chose that specific violation, and why you thought you had the ability to get away with such behavior.

Detailing an understanding of impact on others is in many ways one of the most direct and "easiest" parts of an empathy letter. The challenge is in deepening understanding, looking beyond the obvious. In some ways it is not a surprise that the bulk of Louis CK's letter is focused on impact. It's what people often expect. Others LOOK for impact, but SENSE when there is a lack of details in motive. Let's look at what he detailed and consider ways he could improve on understanding impact:

But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. Now I’m aware of the extent of the impact of my actions. I learned yesterday the extent to which I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position. [Using other's admiration for me] disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it. [My needing to reconcile my abuse with who I am as a person] is nothing compared to the task I left them with. The hardest regret to live with is what you’ve done to hurt someone else. And I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them. I’d be remiss to exclude the hurt that I’ve brought on people who I work with and have worked with who’s professional and personal lives have been impacted by all of this, including projects currently in production: the cast and crew of Better Things, Baskets, The Cops, One Mississippi, and I Love You, Daddy. I deeply regret that this has brought negative attention to my manager Dave Becky who only tried to mediate a situation that I caused. I’ve brought anguish and hardship to the people at FX who have given me so much The Orchard who took a chance on my movie. and every other entity that has bet on me through the years. I’ve brought pain to my family, my friends, my children and their mother.
I have seen criticisms of his letter which talk about CK trying to garner sympathy, sort of the "pity me" request behind his words. This is where that all comes out. Rather than just naming impacts, he laments that he just learned, is finally aware, that he can't wrap his head around the impacts. Think of how selfish such statements can be in identifying impact on others. If you use your understanding of impacts to validate, any statements that refocus on you and your process of how you understand take away from that validation. To say, "now I'm aware of the extent of the impact of my actions," takes it away from a process and makes it an end point. This is not helpful in any way, and cuts off communication. Empathy and repairs are about establishing and expanding open and transparent communication, not closing it off after an initial discussion. He fully spends half of his understanding impacts by focusing on people he has hurt professionally due to his sexually abusive behavior. This moves away from being able to talk about impacts on individuals into hurts on community. In some ways, this can be important, but if it is not combined with explicit and deep understanding of impacts on those directly violated it can remove the ability of empathy to repair. In fact, his focus on community over individuals almost seems to dismiss the impacts to them. He could speak to how his behavior might have changed their comfort around men in general, impacted their own relationships, caused potential trauma, reminded them of trauma they experienced in the past, made them question themselves, perhaps even blame themselves, how they may have been forced to continue working with him and pretend the abuse did not happen. There is a lot Louis CK needs to add here, and during group sessions, there is often a lot of discussion that broadens the ability to validate harms experienced.

Finally, the empathy letter focuses on accountability. I discuss how responsibility may be owning up and admitting to hurtful behavior, but accountability is about working toward changing it. It's about making goals, and about consistently reaching them. It's about considerations for measurable, realistic, specific, and wanted changes. It's about being vulnerable to others in a way that can allow them to hold you to account for those changes. Here is what Louis CK added in his letter on accountability:

I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. I wish I had reacted to their admiration of me by being a good example to them as a man and given them some guidance as a comedian, including because I admired their work. I will now step back and take a long time to listen. Thank you for reading.
Saying you are remorseful is not enough. Why is what you did not okay? Why do you want to stop doing such abuses to others? Not how you are "trying" to learn, but how you plan on learning more and on an ongoing basis. Empathy has little to nothing to do with forgiveness, and more to do with active change. When adding detail about needing to reconcile, how does he plan on doing so? How, despite his destructive patterns, can he work to BE a good example for others, how can he provide guidance in making up for such atrocities? Stepping back and taking time to listen is perhaps helpful, but how? What is listening going to provide, actively, for his ongoing work on empathy and repair? There are many things he could add in here, and during groups, that is where the discussion goes. Accountability, like every section is a PROCESS not an end point.

Overall, I tend to think Louis CK's letter could potentially be a good starting point. His sincerity is in question, and the only thing that will answer that question is his sincerity to the process, and details of any ongoing work he is willing and able to do. His listening is directly in his letter - but can he listen to criticisms without becoming defensive. Can he listen to the pains caused in others without going into how hard it is for him? Can he be more explicit about his motives to reveal to himself and others how his abusive behavior built as a pattern over time? Can he add to his responsibility by naming more hurtful behavior beyond the things he is being accused of. Ultimately, I have hope, and maybe it is because this is the first time I remember an individual taking accusations of sexual assault and at least simply admitting it is true. Some have called it a low bar, but in some ways, I think it's good to start somewhere. Let's continue to pressure those who choose abusive behavior to raise the bar for themselves and others. Let's keep the dialog going on methods of repairs and work toward health, respect, and amends.