Tuesday, January 03, 2012

On the pain of empathetic failure - mainly for therapists


Many womb twin survivors have a problem with empathy - too much or too little.  I came across this material today among my computer files on healing,  and I think I may include it in the new book, but here is a taster:

Definitions of empathy

Empathy is bothering to guess the inner experience of another with the help of intuitively obtained information. Empathy is trying to see into the mind of the other. Empathy is the desire to know and understand the nature of the interior world of the other person.

There can be no empathy if there is no desire to reach out to the other. There can be no empathy if there is no wish to create emotional intimacy with the other. There cannot be empathy without love. There cannot be love without empathy.

Empathy is not  some form of extra-sensory perception. Empathy is not the ability to feel exactly the same as the other person.  In empathy one does not become the other. In empathy one is not possessed by the spirit of the other.

Empathy is based upon the assumption that the other person's experience is completely separate from one's own. Empathy allows for individual differences between the experiences of others  but, in the ability to guess the experience of another, recognises the common humanity between people.

The practice of empathetic enquiry is found most commonly in therapy.  It is only necessary to make this kind of enquiry when a client refuses to explain their own inner experience to the therapist. By this refusal to explain, the client creates an information vacuum. The therapist is dragged into the vacuum and begins to help the client explain himself to himself by listening very carefully to everything that is said, plus the associated nuances and coded messages that lie beneath the client's words and behaviour.

Only when the therapist is able to step  into the shoes of his client and see the world through his eyes is he able to be accurate and helpful  in this explanation.

The empathy game

If the client showed a little empathy for the therapist then he would give him a break and tell the truth of his inner knowledge as openly as possible at all times, thus speeding the process of self discovery.  If he was able to do this, of course then he would not need therapy. This game is not about  healing: it is a way to be fed with unlimited quantities of empathy over an unlimited period of time. The more resistant the client, the more empathy is required in the therapist.

There is in fact no reason for any client not to be already aware of his own inner experience.  He is of course perfectly aware of it since he lives with it all the time. He is the only existing world expert on himself. However he judges the proficiency of the therapist by the level of empathy he displays, as demonstrated by the accuracy the therapist is able to demonstrate by his intuitive guesses about the things he, the client, is choosing not to say. In short, the therapist is expected to do all the empathy in the relationship.

The therapist wins a "round" if he is able to accurately guess what the patient is feeling. Meanwhile, the client rewards the therapist occasionally by some small emotional reaction that seem to have brought denied feelings to the surface.

The client wins a "round" if he manages to deny or obscure the truth enough for the therapist to be unable to guess what is going on in his mind.

The rules of the game are that the therapist should make full use of his skills of intuition and empathy with the client, so that the client can have the experience of being in close union with an empathetic person. The slight changes the client makes keep the therapist hopeful that they are making progress, so he redoubles his efforts to help his client "find himself". 


The client feels lost and wants to be found by the therapist.  To be found is to be on the receiving end of empathetic desire coming from another person.

A new definition of the desire for a therapeutic relationship therefore is the search for an empathetic union with another in which the client can experience and endless feast of empathy while his therapist is paid to be starved of it.

The message being sent from client to therapist through this process of resistance to healing can be decoded as coming from a place where the desire to express empathy is all one-sided with the other person doing nothing at all.   This has created a deep seated, frustrated desire to make empathetic union with another person that has always been constantly frustrated. Lost and hungry for empathy, the client comes every week to be fed. Only then can he keep going.

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