When you begin therapy you enter into a particular (perhaps peculiar) type of relationship, one with well-defined boundaries and ethics. Beyond its method and structure, at the very heart of this relationship lies empathy.
As a therapist empathy means doing all you can to understand your client from inside their own experience. It requires an ability to communicate this understanding in ways that are sensitive, meaningful and useful, both verbal and non-verbal.
It is a powerful experience to feel understood, listened to, cared for and respected. Over time it can make it easier to have empathy for yourself, to take your own personal pain and suffering seriously, to judge it less, as trivial, stupid or simply a product of your own personal weakness.
When we begin to take our own struggles seriously, we gain access to another layer of empathy: compassion for the child that we were, often a child who made sense of what troubled them by deciding that there must be something wrong with them – that they were the problem. In the context of an authentic and empathic connection with another human being the shame or disgust or guilt that has become so entangled in our sense of self can begin to make way for new feelings. Sadness (perhaps) for what was lost and loving regard for the child who did the best they could at the time. When there is more space in our imaginations for the reality of our own struggle, we can begin to see other people differently too. When we experience the power of feeling understood we may also experience greater internal space for new thoughts and feelings, both about ourselves and about others.
The therapist as the client
All psychotherapists have had their own experience of being a client in therapy. Sharing the most intimate and often painful moments of someone’s life is made possible when you have felt and expressed your own. It is not that as a therapist you become an expert on life (not even your own) but that having undergone your own therapy you will be more equipped with the clarity to differentiate your separate self and experience from that of another. To understand whose feelings are whose and to have the versatility and flexibility to step into and out of another person’s shoes.
The circuitry of empathy
Empathy is a complex system of mutual cues and responses that regulates each persons experience of self and others. We observe this very clearly in parent/ infant interactions. How attuned a parent is to the (myriad/micro) communications of an infant will inform the infant’s reciprocal response to the parent.
It is not that in ideal world infants and young children would be perfectly attuned to at all times. Over-attunement can be stifling and intrusive. What’s more important is the experience of an ongoing relationship in which misunderstandings and mis-attunements can be repaired.
Emotional neglect and emotional intrusion are flip sides of the same coin. Anyone who has suffered either will have good reason to believe that they may never be understood.
As a therapist we cannot “know it all” for our clients, we cannot tell someone how it is they feel or what is true for them. What we can provide is an open-ended, respectful curiosity for our clients and a willingness to share in the important project of “getting it.” Paying close attention to the unique form of connection that exists with each client means understanding empathy as a mutually influencing system. From this perspective, the communication of empathy becomes much more a mystery to engage with than a tool to master.
Gerry Gilmartin is an accredited, registered and experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor. She currently works with individuals (young people/adults) and couples in private practice. Gerry is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice.