Empathy: What is it and How Can We Show It? Find Out How Therapists Do This.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/prabakarant/

 

“Can I see anothers woe,
And not be in sorrow too.
Can I see anothers grief,
And not seek for kind relief.

On Anothers Sorrow
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience

 

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to put oneself into the world of another, in both a thinking and feeling way, as far as that is possible. It is really trying to understand how that other person sees and experiences the world.

There is a difference between empathy and sympathy or compassion. Sympathy is feeling affected by and sorry for someone’s situation. Compassion is feeling caring concern towards them and their plight and wanting to offer help. Empathy is a more total experience of someone else’s perspective, an intense attunement, putting oneself in another person’s shoes.

Empathy has been thought of as a natural aspect of most people’s personality, a fundamental, innate part of us that enables us to relate to and socialise with others. However, some recent research has indicated that it is mostly a learnt quality, influenced by upbringing and environmental factors.

This, and other research projects now mean that scientists can actually witness the areas of the brain involved with empathy:

With the technological advances of the 21st century, studies began using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to research empathy, frequently using empathy for pain as their experimental paradigm. Two seminal studies (Decety and Jackson,
2004; Singer et al., 2004) simultaneously posited that a specic set of regions of the pain matrix(specically the anterior cingulate cortex [ACC] and anterior insula [AI]) are activated both by experiencing pain and by watching others experience pain.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes

Image:Flickr. The City Project.

Science has revealed that there are neurological indications that can be detected when a person is feeling empathy:

Whether it’s watching a friend get a paper cut or staring at a photo of a child refugee, observing someone else’s suffering can evoke a deep sense of distress and sadness — almost as if it’s happening to us. In the past, this might have been explained simply as empathy, the ability to experience the feelings of others, but over the last 20 years, neuroscientists have been able to pinpoint some of the specific regions of the brain responsible for this sense of interconnectedness.

 

Why does Empathy matter? What are its effects in Psychotherapy?

Being understood is in itself a highly therapeutic experience; feeling that another has really ‘heard’ you and comprehended both the thoughts and feelings that you have expressed can only improve one’s state of mind.

Many well-known psychotherapists have underlined the crucial importance of empathy as a core skill:

 

“…deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift one can give to another.”

(Carl Rogers.)

Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.

“The empathic understanding of the experience of other human beings is as basic an endowment of man as his vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell”

Heinz Kohut

 

People often feel better after one or two sessions of therapy; this is most likely because of the fact that they have felt really heard. This is frequently an enormous relief, a new and freeing experience for many people, who might never have felt such care and attentiveness from another.

Obviously, empathy alone is not enough to bring about real lasting change; there are many other therapeutic aspects of the process.

However, empathy is important in helping create a vital sense of acceptance as an individual, validation, and safety, all through the process of psychotherapy. Without it, there can be no progress, no healing, no real connection:

“For it is an immutable truth, that ‘WHAT COMES FROM THE HEART THAT ALONE GOES TO THE HEART.’  (Coleridge)

How to show Empathy.

Therapist’s self-reflection is crucial, achieved through introspection, their own therapy and through regular individual and group casework supervision. In this way, a therapist can work though any personal blocks and obstacles that might be in the way of showing empathy to all kinds of others.

For example, if a therapist had struggles with a dominating father, then it might be difficult to show empathy to what is perceived as a dominating man in the therapy room.

Empathy can be shown in a variety of ways, both verbal and non verbal. For instance, showing a non-judgemental attitude is crucial. This is achieved through:

1.Body languagean accepting, open stance (arms and legs relaxed, unfolded), eye-contact, (but not staring) nodding supportively, mirroring the client’s body language and expression (subtly), having an accepting and warm facial expression.

2.Demonstrating understanding : gentle and accepting tone of voice, lack of judgement, never interrupting the client and allowing the client space and time to talk. The counsellor will often reflect and paraphrase the client’s thoughts and feelings to show this understanding.

3.Listening skills:There are several ways in which the therapist or counsellor can demonstrate that they are really listening. These are both verbal and non verbal. Listening and attending skills are crucial for the client to feel heard and validated.

Empathy.

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible
Comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weight thoughts,
Nor measure words–but pouring them
All right out–just as they are
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them,
Keep what is worth keeping,
And with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

George Eliot.

 

Have you experienced real empathy in psychotherapy or counselling? Can you say how it helped? Leave a comment below.

 

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Image: Flickr. University of Hawaii.

Letting in The Other: What does Hospitality Have in Common with Poetry? Part 2: Thinking, Difference and Empathy.

‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become
the wounded person.’

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.

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The Good Samaritan. Ronald Rae. Wikimedia Commons

This second post of three represents a temporary focus on hospitality and poetry; however, these concepts are also highly relevant to psychotherapy. In therapy, allowing another person in to one’s inner world and showing empathy are crucial.

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How can a person let another into their world if they feel no empathy towards them? This holds true for both poetry and hospitality, It would be difficult to offer hospitality to another without having empathy for that person.

The poet also needs empathy in order to describe the spectrum of the human condition with which the reader can identify. The poet needs to see the self in the other, to recognise human commonalities.

At this point we can fruitfully refer back to a previous post; here, we have seen that the poet can contain and express difficult feelings for us.

In his book The Poetry Pharmacy  , William Sieghart takes this concept of poetry as containment even further; he actually prescribes certain poems for a variety of problems. What a delightful concept!

 

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He comments in the book:

‘Suffering is the access point to poetry for a lot of people: that’s when they open their ears, hearts and minds. Being there with the right words for someone in that moment- when something’s happened, when they’re in need- is a great comfort…..’

(Sieghart)

This quotation highlights graphically the theme of this post: the hospitality of the poetic endeavour. The words ‘access’ and ‘open’ emphasise the act of entering into another’s world. The quote continues to bear witness to the fact that poetry, like hospitality,  is about giving and receiving. In this case, poetry is seen as a balm, a comforter, very like the offer of succour or a room for the night when in dire need of accommodation.

Both poetry and hospitality involve feelings and emotions.  I think this is what Derrida was referring to when he spoke of hospitality being poetic.

In the poetry extract below, see how Wordsworth becomes a kind of host, offering hospitality and kinship in terms of openness to other voices and into thoughts and feelings.

Through verse, the poet allows an emotional bonding, a connection, a kind of interaction with the ‘guest’, the reader. It is also a prime example of the poet’s recognition of the universality human experience, his knowledge of the ‘self in the other,’ mentioned above:

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

 

Wordsworth

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Van Gogh. Enclosed field with setting sun.

Thus the meaning of hospitality can be extended, to describe the poet’s attitude, as well as that of the hospitable host. By means of emotional and linguistic fluency, poetry can demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable and let others into that vulnerability, allowing the poet to be seen and recognised, sharing perspectives.

Both poetry and hospitality are reflective, thoughtful. The invitation is to share in something inner. Poetry offers us a special kind of nourishment, it gives us ‘food for thought.’

Hospitality has connections with both poetry and with thought. Without a particular kind of thinking, we will not be able to host others into our own physical, psychic or poetic space. We will be unable to think in terms of the other, to think ourselves into the other’s skin. This might be called empathy, but it might involve more than that.

It entails something more poetic, a transcendent quality that is related to the idea of becoming other. It is a celebration of difference.

‘1. Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.’ Hebrews 13:1-3

Acknowledging this and identifying the fact that the ‘stranger’ is not only outside of ourselves, but also within is crucial. The process of trying to becoming one with all aspects of the self, rather than scapegoating others, is surely the most creative way of thinking:

‘If this elephant of mind is held on all sides
by the cord of mindfulness,
All fear disappears and happiness comes.
All enemies: all the tigers, lions, bears,
serpents, elephants…
and all the keepers of hell; the demons and the horrors,
All of these are contained by the attention of your mind,
and by the calming of that mind are calmed,
Because from the mind are derived all fears and unmeasurable
sorrows.’

Shantideva.

 

 

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Image: Peter Clarkson. Unsplash.