In this set of articles we will explore embodied attunement and empathy as key qualities for working mindfully in the present moment.
All content is adapted from a talk given by Margaret Landale at the BACP Universities & Colleges Conference 2014, with her permission. Thank you Margaret! If you’d like to hear more from Margaret, please see this interview and attend our workshops on Mindfulness in Psychotherapy. Also visit Margaret’s website.
A special form of empathy: Compassion
Previously we discussed empathy, social bonding, and trauma. The article ended with an example of a colleague of mine who, upon hearing the account of a young refugee’s traumatic past, went into a state of shock herself.
What is compassion?
To understand my colleague’s reaction more fully let’s broaden our focus to include compassion. Germer and Siegel describe compassion as a ‘special form of empathy’ when they write:
We can be empathic with just about any human emotion – joy, grief, excitement, boredom. Compassion, however, is a special from of empathy insofar as it is empathy with suffering (along with a wish to alleviate it). Suffering is a prerequisite for compassion. (5)
And the following quote by the Dalai Lama might sum up a core quality in our psychotherapeutic work, when he describes compassion as:
Sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to try and relieve it. (6)
The skillful therapist
We could recognise qualities such as: empathic attunement, unconditional positive regard, acceptance, building a safe therapeutic alliance, containment, holding and rapport as expressions of empathy, but these terms also imply the need for skillful empathy. And we might like to think of compassion as empathy with the necessary skills to appropriately support our clients in their self-awareness, self-organisation and self-expression.
Coming back to my colleague –when we talked about it together, she recognised she had felt overwhelmed by her client’s experience and recollections and what this alerts us to is the fact that our capacity for self-regulation is a vital part of empathic attunement and provides the necessary ground for skillful empathy or compassion.
To summarise so far: empathy is a felt and embodied process of attunement to self and others. The therapist’s skillful empathic attunement is therefore linked to his or her capacity for affect regulation.
Affect regulation is grounded in an embodied awareness and the therapist’s capacity to track and process complex emotions in themselves first. Empathy is an expression of working in the present moment and in this context I will now explore how mindfulness can support and enhance our capacity for embodied attunement and empathy.