The Empathic Therapist
“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
– Dr. Brené Brown
What is Empathy?
Client: “I just feel so depressed. I’ve got no energy. I can’t sleep. I hate myself.”
Therapist: “It feels hard to motivate yourself. You are exhausted. It feels so dark for you like a thick blanket? Tell me more about how it feels.”
As a therapist I hear many stories. As my clients speak I see images, I feel their emotions. With tears in my eyes I listen to them share their pain. Sometimes, I experience their ‘wins’ too. I feel joy with them when they have succeeded. I feel honoured that they trust me with their narratives.
I feel the oppressive overwhelm with my clients. I enter their pit of despair. I am with them in what was once described by a client as “a deep, dark, cave with only a speck of light above.” I entered that cave with that client. Being there with him was being empathic.
Compassion is in alignment with empathy. To feel compassion with and for someone is another way of feeling ‘with’ someone. We imagine how painful things can be and we acknowledge that pain. It is acknowledging that we all suffer in the same shared way. To have compassion is to validate how difficult things can feel.
Sympathy on the other hand would have me thinking, “Thank the Lord I’m not you with your problems!” Sympathy would feel distant to the client and in this way the client would not feel heard. Sympathy and pity are bedfellows. Sympathy would have me saying, “poor you.” Pity is focused on the self and feels uncomfortable for the listener.
I Hear You
We all experience the world differently. Within the counselling room the counsellor tries to see the world as the client sees it. Therapists enter their ‘frame of reference.’ In this way my clients feel heard and understood. I can offer the client different perspectives which allows them to reframe their thoughts and issues.
The empathic responses from the counsellor enables the client to go much deeper in their exploration of feelings and thoughts.
Often, there may be more feeling beneath the surface that my clients are not fully aware of . Take, for instance, the client who presented with being unable to only take shallow breaths and had anxiety. After exploration of her life we realised that she was anxious because she was in a controlling relationship. My client hadn’t realised this. When reflecting back what the client feels in an empathic way it enables inner decision making.
When the counsellor uses empathy in the correct way feelings and thoughts can be brought to the surface and explored. Empathy allows the client to believe that they are worth understanding and that they are important enough to be truly listened to.