De-Weaponizing Empathy

Karin Jervert
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I am not immune to what I call weaponized empathy, which I see as the pure intention of compassion for another tainted with aggression around eradicating pain, pain that could be a source of growth for the sufferer if allowed to arise and pass away without force. I have shut down the suffering of those I love even as a survivor of the particularly lethal form of weaponized empathy that exists in psychiatry.

Sometimes the stronger my love, the more unmanageable the instinct is to end suffering—for my sake and theirs. Although it is so easy to confuse my own sake for theirs, because the pain that arises in me when seeing a friend, a family member, even a stranger suffering creates such discomfort inside me.

As I try to broaden my perspective on this aspect of human relationships that my life as a psychiatric survivor has offered me as an important lesson to learn, I see so many messages surrounding us that reinforce what seems like a prescription for how to suffer acceptably. The DSM-5 acts as one of those messages, telling us the “wrong” ways to suffer.

But there are more nuanced messages—ways we are taught to interact with suffering in social settings like schools, workplaces, families, and friend groups. Messages that are embedded in every aspect of our lives. Together they create this prescription, which, if we or people we care about are straying from, we must try to help them conform to. And, if we cannot do this, we must offer them up to the stronger restraints of psychiatry.

If we were to write out this prescription it might read: Do not suffer too loudly. Do not suffer too long. Do not suffer so much that you cannot work. Do not suffer existentially. Do not suffer so much you become defiant or confused. Do please suffer “proportionately” to stimulus.

The rules are potentially endless and can change with the circumstances surrounding the sufferer, particularly the demands of their life and the people in it—what kind of job they have, their family roles, their economic situation, their race, their religion, etc. This can be where a form of gaslighting can appear between a sufferer and a “healer” The “healer’s” demands for how one is allowed to suffer can become moving targets and improvised, making it very hard to conform at all.

Since I have come off most of my psychiatric drugs, I have had many conversations around what is the acceptable level of suffering my loved ones and I will bear before I will go back on them. I’ve had deadlines enforced for how long I can feel down, I’ve had suspicions raised around the appropriateness of grief and loss, I’ve had cutoffs for how much I can mention something I’m worried about, I’ve had limits set on how angry I can become. For myself, day to day, I have set rules for how often I can skip the dishes, how often I can take a nap, how often I can choose not to take a walk or cook. And I’ve decided what the threshold is for me to become concerned about my level of suffering.

I have been challenged to defend the normalcy of my reactions to everything and anything. As a survivor, I feel as if my entire job is to explain over and over again the reasonableness of suffering. Especially in our world as it is today, with so much pain. I try within myself to find a path, and to show a path to allowing the diversity of how we suffer. Somehow, it does come down to diversity, really. All these rules around pain reflect a society of conformity; we must conform even to how we suffer.

Since I was a kid, the phrase “pain is relative” has held a place in my memory, likely because I so often felt othered by the intensity of my engagement with the world, my creativity and empathy. I don’t know where it came from, or who said it. Sometimes it’s used to describe the diversity of biology and explain why some of us are “weaker” in the face of suffering. A pain that a “healthy” person deals with well could bring someone with a supposed chemical imbalance to their knees. Or so it’s said. But for me this phrase never set up a hierarchy of who suffered better, who was ill, just how different our hearts are and how our values are attached to different things. What matters to one matters little to another.

Buddhists call this mental conditioning. How we have been taught to think, how we have reinforced certain pathways of thought throughout our lives. Throughout our youth, from our parents’ youth and our grandparents’ youth, it seems our society has been shedding frameworks meant to help us cope with suffering, shedding the breadth of compassion and acceptance around it and replacing it with weaponized empathy that is subservient to conformity—in other words, psychiatry. Psychiatry becomes almost like a police force, enforcing the rules of suffering.

The gaslighting around empathy and compassion in the psychiatric industry was one of the strangest things about my experiences. I remember drawing a map of my mind soon after my third hospitalization, just before I went back to college. It was a combination of words and images all collaged together to make the image of a bird in a cage. On the bottom left, I wrote the words “I just want to say, from that point on, compassion was twisted, corrupt.”

a drawing by Karin Jervert
“Bird” by Karin Jervert.

To me, before being hospitalized, I could discern compassion from harmful intentions. But after, it became so tied to how others wanted me to behave it seemed even compassion or empathy could be weaponized against me.

Weaponized empathy is such a strong phrase and is hard for some to hear. It is hard to imagine that empathy could be corrupt, twisted to a point of inflicting violence against another. But, as with any intention, we can become lost in our own desires and pain and what we offer up to another can become harmful. I’ve experienced this many times.

Perhaps I have experienced this even more than the least insightful psychiatrist because the conditioning I received as a young 21 year old was eradication of suffering. I learned rules. I learned how to shut down suffering. I got the best education out there. And I internalized all of it. I shut my own suffering down by gobbling up pills, grasping at others for relief, desperate for my own complete eradication for years.

So I understand the instinct. But something has got to change. I am encouraged around every corner, as someone with a diagnosis, to follow the rules of suffering. My mother always used to say about art, you have to learn the rules before you break them, right?  I am ready to break them. Because I know, maybe more clearly than I know anything else in this life, that you must allow suffering to be, and not just to be, but to be in a de-weaponized, compassionate, safe space.

We must really try to be that safe space for ourselves and each other. It is the lack of force, the lack of judgment that creates healing.

It is a lot of work, inner work, that I attempt every day and often fail. In a time of pandemic, racial injustice, intolerance of all kinds, financial struggles, relationship strains, I have had to remind myself over and over that my suffering around such a hard time in history is normal. I am not ill because I suffer. I am only ill if I turn the weapons, my own or those of psychiatry, against myself again. I am only ill if I choose to destroy myself because I am not following the rules of suffering. I will forever be ill if I do not de-weaponize my compassion for myself and I will continue to enforce illness on others if I do not de-weaponize my empathy.

Psychiatry will continue to create illness and compound suffering and trauma if they also do not de-weaponize their tools of healing. If they do not stop meeting suffering with such force.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

20 COMMENTS

  1. There are certainly a lot of rules around suffering in Western culture and other cultures probably have those too. I found when I was going through a very hard time there were rules that were very hard to interpret and some even contradicted each other. When I tell people the rules are not completely objective, they will say that we are doing the best we can, and if we didn’t have the rules for suffering and it’s expression there would be complete and total anarchy and we would all be carrying too large a burden from other people expressing their feelings to us “too much” But why are their rules the ones we should use? Why not my rules, or Evan from down the street’s rules, Chinese rules, or even none at all? How does one objectively measure “too much” suffering to express to others? Can you weigh it with a scale or measure it with a ruler? The Wiccan Rede is “As it harm none, do what you will.” But how does one measure harm to others and where it begins and ends? Even the most ardent religious fundamentalist follows the social norms to some degree. When I grew up in church, they preached boundaries as defined by Western culture, Western definitions of common sense, and backed it all up with the Bible. I always thought Jesus broke a couple norms from his culture too! 🙂 When I was younger, I thought it was okay to not conform and to break the rules, but as I grew older I was told it was the only way to exist and be a good person, but I couldn’t make sense of the rules or believe in their objectivity. I turned to a psychiatrist, and when the drugs he gave me made me suicidal I turned to several psychologists and therapists, but nothing has helped. Western norms are the gospel I cannot pin down or follow, and psychology was unable to be my saviour from myself and my suffering. I am starting to advocate for living free of the rules, but it is hard. I always feel like saying to people when questioned, “Well, I’m not a murderer, I have never felt the urge to commit an armed robbery, and I believe in compassion and have found it a far more effective tool for helping myself and others. It’s the best thing since CBT!”

  2. Beautifully written, Karin, elusive yet highly descriptive of psychiatry’s insane belief system, and resulting systemic crimes against humanity.

    I like the drawing, too, need to check it out longer, read all within. But compositionally, visually, it’s impressive.

    – a fellow psych survivor, and graduate of the number one art school in the US, at least it was the year I graduated from that art school.

  3. Karin i was so happy to see your name come up on the front page of MIA today! Maybe i shouldnt (oh! More “rules”!), but i have my favorites among the contributors to the site’s content and yours is one 🙂

    I dont know if its just a similarity of temperament or something, but the way you express these nuanced & emotional concepts and revelations, to me it feels like running into a stranger who shines a really bright flashlight on me so i can SEE, and says, “haha i knew you were looking for that, i get it,” lol!

    Is it fair to call these phenomena you talk about “internalized psychiatry”? I was not totally aware that i had that word for it until i read this piece, but in my own heart thats what i would call my own “rules” from the outside about suffering. The whole concept of these rules is super morbid and disturbing!!

    I usually think I Know Everything, but you went and put that flashlight on me and i saw some stuff that i didnt realize was under my nose… although it did stink, and i did know it was from psychiatric labeling! Thank you again for more of your wisdom (sorry to sound corny, ha!), i think your particular perspective was “missing” from MIA and so necessary. You must be really good at grieving because its clear you have cultivated emotional intelligence out of the nasty muck of punitive measures from weaponized empathy. It kind of just grows well there. Please keep giving us your words!!

    Im sorry that we can relate, i do the same thing! I wish we both had better answers to the age old Why, but you’re not alone <3

  4. And Karin i forgot to mention, your art is so striking and beautiful! What a way to be, using art to help move the feelings (so to speak). I love the words and your handwriting in it… i could say so much but the whole thing is so expressive! I felt it from all the way over here and in the relative “future.” Thank you for including that, it speaks to me and im sure many others

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You seem like a lovely human being that has, unfortunately, been hurt by the very system that we hoped was going to help us. My experience is that we also have rules of suffering based on what social location we have been assigned. Since I have been assigned to the white, Christian, cis-gendered male social class (Can we please stop putting people into these narrowly defined boxes already?), I am not allowed to suffer. I cannot complain. I cannot disagree. I cannot say I am having a hard time. When I do try to tell people that I’m suffering, they look at me and say “You? How could you possibly be suffering? Your life is so easy. Look what I or so-and-so over there has to deal with…” When are we going to start treating people like human beings instead of treating them by their assigned social class?

  6. Thank you for your insight. I believe the concept of weaponized empathy holds true not only for emotional distress but for physical as well. It seems that patients with physical conditions suffer too loudly. If you are in pain, here is an antidepressant. It doesn’t seems to matter what your physical symptoms are, they try to give you an antidepressant. People in healthcare need to ask what is a normal response to a stimuli. If the person has gastroenteritis you wouldn’t expect them to be bubbly and cheerful, would you? If they have a hole in the cornea of their eye, wouldn’t the obvious answer be they are in pain? Instead they are given an antidepressant because they are suffering wrong with their eye pain. Our society seems to imply people should never feel negative emotions and that message is harmful. It also sends the message that we should be silent when in physical pain as well.

  7. I was repeatedly told in NAMI and day treatment and clubhouse that if I ever went off my “meds” I would either kill myself or someone else or both. Therefore it was my moral obligation to take the drugs even though they made me ill and I realized they would kill me prematurely.
    Sad to realize the drugs were making me harder to live with and ruining my ability to perform ADLs and basic hygiene. Years and years of being lied to and about to my nearest and dearest. 🙁

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