The Empathy Muscle

The fourth muscle needed is the empathy muscle. Empathy is the ability to be bothered if our personal wrongness hurts others. It enables us to understand the effect we have on the other person and to use that understanding to govern our words and actions. “It is impossible to over-emphasize the immense need (people) have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood” (Tournier, 1982).

When a reasonable person uses this muscle, the resulting stance is, “It bothers me when my wrongness hurts you.” He allows that understanding to shape how he behaves toward others. The manipulator is empathy deficient. His stance is, “I’m only bothered when your wrongness hurts me.” He gives little consideration to the impact of his words and actions on others. Reciprocal empathy is a realistic expectation in conflict with reasonable people. With manipulators, however, we should anticipate only self-serving motivations and behaviors. They experience what Nordgren (2011) calls “empathy gaps.”

The following statements may reflect an atrophied empathy muscle:

  • She emphasizes her own concerns and gives little attention or value to yours. Conversations are dominated by her interests.
  • She attacks not only your position but you personally.
  • She knows your buttons and pushes them deliberately when needed.
  • She demonstrates little awareness or concern for the toll that her insistence on rightness takes on the relationship. Rightness is more important than relationship.
  • Truth or exposed wrongness on her part typically leads to relational alienation or termination.
  • She displays discomfort with your feelings or gets mad at you for having them.
  • She rarely, if ever, asks you to explain the reasons for your position.
  • She doesn’t validate your opinions or feelings.
  • She seeks first to be understood but rarely seeks to understand.
  • She demonstrates the ability to be kind and loving toward you—until you cross her. When this occurs, she turns on you.

The Responsibility Muscle

Sometimes referred to as a conscience, the responsibility muscle enables us to be bothered by personal wrongness. Manipulators seem weak in the conscience department. While the reasonable person observes personal faults and cringes, the manipulator shrugs when flaws are pointed out. His stance is, “If I’m wrong, so what?”

In the psychological literature, a distinction is drawn between ego-dystonic and ego-syntonic traits. If a person becomes aware of a personal flaw and cringes at the observation, he’s had an ego-dystonic reaction which then provides the intrinsic motivation needed to alter the undesirable trait. If he sees the flaw and shrugs it off, he’s had an ego-syntonic reaction. He so assimilates the trait that there’s no change motivation. By and large, manipulators have ego-syntonic reactions to the observance of personal flaws.

In effect, the manipulator looks in the mirror, sees the glob of spinach on his teeth, doesn’t like what he sees, and determines, therefore, to quit looking in mirrors. The reasonable person seeks out truth to change for the better. The manipulator runs from truth to avoid discomfort.
The following statements may reflect an atrophied responsibility muscle:

  • He refuses to accept blame or to acknowledge fault for anything.
  • He is adept at shifting blame onto you or others.
  • He seems unbothered when his maturity gaps are revealed.
  • His apologies, if given, seem superficial and/or insincere.
  • He displays very little personal guilt but often lays guilt trips on you.
  • He responds to criticism by saying things like, “Oh, well, that’s just the way I am” or “That’s just me” or “Hey, I’m not perfect, OK?”
  • He frequently accuses you of the very things that characterize him. (The pot calling the kettle black)
  • He skillfully excuses his bad behavior.
  • He denies that his bad behavior is bad.
  • He projects blame so well that you frequently find yourself wondering, “Is it me or is it him? I don’t know, maybe it’s me.”

The Awareness Muscle

The second reason muscle needed is the awareness muscle, which enables us to observe areas of actual personal wrongness. Having this muscle, the reasonable person’s stance is, “I see where I’m wrong.” They see their strengths but also understand their weaknesses. Manipulators have ruled out the possibility of wrongness, so the stance taken is, “I only see where I’m right.” Manipulators are notoriously lacking in self-awareness, not seeing the flaws in themselves that others so clearly see. Therefore, when problems occur, they automatically assume that others caused them.

This part of the personality serves the same function as a press box on a football field. It enables us to make big picture self-observations. For manipulators, the wires connecting the press box to the sideline phone are severed. They don’t have press box conversations and are, therefore, lack the ability to self-monitor and self-correct.

And relationships are like mirrors in which we catch glimpses of the good and bad parts of ourselves. Reasonable people make use of the feedback that relationships provide. But manipulators catch no reflections of their flaws in relational mirrors.
The following statements may reflect an atrophied awareness muscle:

  • She points out your part of the conflict problem but demonstrates little awareness of her own.
  • She’s unaware of her negatives that are observable by you and others.
  • She defensively resists and makes no use of the feedback given to her by you or others.
  • She relishes being the center of attention.
  • She’s convinced that she’s the normal one.
  • She denies having certain emotions (i.e. anger) while clearly displaying them.
  • She shifts the focus to you if one of her negatives is exposed (i.e. “OK, what about the things you do?”).
  • She demonstrates little concern about the negative consequences of her words and actions.
  • She demonstrates little awareness of your buttons, her reactions, or of how she pushes your buttons.
  • She may seem insightful to people who don’t know her well.

The Humility Muscle

We all have what I call “reason muscles”.

These are the abilities we need to handle our own personal flaws that show up in close relationships. I call them “muscles” because they atrophy from disuse but get stronger when we use them.

The first muscle needed to handle wrongness well is the humility muscle, which gives a person the ability to acknowledge potential personal wrongness. When reasonable people use this muscle, the stance is, “I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk”. Reasonable people, who have healthy humility muscles, can handle being wrong if being right requires sacrificing the truth. They believe, though perhaps reluctantly, in the maxim, “Truth is your best ally.” It may be painful to acknowledge wrongness, but they’ll do so because being truthful has a higher value to them than being right.

Unwilling to allow for the possibility of wrongness, unreasonable people (manipulators) will sacrifice truth if being truthful means being wrong.

They’ll even lie to avoid being wrong. In fact, some manipulators revise truth so routinely that they delude themselves and come to believe their own revisions. The stance taken is, “I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.” They can be arrogant, inflexible, and never wrong about anything. That’s why “you can’t reason with an unreasonable person.” Your attempts at reasonableness won’t work because they’re not interested in reason; they’re only interested in winning or in being right.
The following statements may reflect an atrophied humility muscle:

  • He refuses to admit wrongness even when proven wrong.
  • He doesn’t listen to or consider contrary opinions, either from you or from others.
  • He holds his positions rigidly with little flexibility.
  • He’s “often wrong but never in doubt.”
  • He audaciously lies, re-arranges information, or alters history and appears to sincerely believe his own revisions.
  • He skillfully persuades others to believe the revisions.
  • He rarely, if ever, apologizes. And if he does, the apology is qualified (i.e. “I’m sorry, but you . . .” or “I’ve told you I was wrong. Can we now move on?”)
  • He consistently emphasizes your mistakes and errors.
  • He wrongly ascribes to you dishonorable intentions and then attacks you for having them.
  • He distorts the meaning of your words and won’t allow you to correct the misinterpretation. In other words, “he hears what he wants to hear.”

If Mom Ain’t Happy . . .

A woman came to see me about the declining warmth in her marriage—not an unusual occurrence, I might add.

She said, “We get along OK, I suppose. We don’t fight and argue but there’s just not much there. I think I was closer to my roommate in college than I am to my husband.” I asked if her roommate spouse might be willing to come in and she said, “He might but good luck getting him to talk. He thinks my coming here is a colossal waste of time.”

Long story short, he did come in and she was exactly right. Talk about pulling teeth. I’m not sure he would have opened up more if I had water-boarded him. I asked him to tell me what happened when they had problems with each other—like differences of opinion, misunderstandings, etc. Here’s what he said: “Hey, I’ve just learned that if Mom ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”

You’ve probably heard the other version of this saying: “Happy wife, happy life.” The cynical assumption behind this clichéd nugget is this: Just figure out what she wants and do it. That way she’ll shut up and stop her griping. And if she’s not griping, we’re all happy.

This way of relating is predicated upon the false notion that the absence of arguing leads to relational harmony. But this husband’s conflict avoidance stance had precisely the opposite effect—it created disharmony and diminished the marital warmth. They never worked anything out. He simply ran up the white flag of surrender every time they hit a snag, figuring it’s better to just go along to get along.

It took a while, but this husband had to learn that avoiding conflict didn’t make it go away, it just went underground. They learned to resolve their inevitable conflicts and found that solving problems instead of avoiding them actually helped them get closer—and made her happy. And him, too. He had to scrape that “If Mom ain’t happy” bumper sticker off his car and replace it with a different one: “If we don’t resolve our conflicts, nobody’s happy.”