The Present Moment Part 1: Empathy

Our thanks go out to Margaret Landale for producing this series on mindfulness and psychotherapy.

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.

We begin with empathy.

Empathy is essential for psychotherapy

Empathy is of course a core quality in psychotherapy and counseling, and is recognised as a key component in positive psychotherapeutic outcomes. Importantly this is independent of the psychotherapeutic approach or techniques and interventions used. (1) Counselors are naturally empathic – otherwise we would probably not have ended up in this profession. But let’s pause a moment to consider empathy a little more.

What is empathy?

At core empathy relates to our innate human capacity to attune to others. In counseling the attunement to our client’s emotional experiences and mental states is a vital aspect of the therapeutic alliance and relationship. Rogers defined empathy as the therapist’s ability

…to sense the (patient’s) private world as if it were your own, but without losing the ‘as if’ quality. (2)

And Buber wrote:

The therapist must feel the other side, the patient’s side of the relationship, as a bodily touch to know how the patient feels. (3)

The important factor here is that empathy does not so much rely on a cognitive or diagnostic understanding of our client’s presenting issues, but is a sensed and felt attunement to our client’s experience and their individual patterns of self-organisation and relating.

Empathy and social bonding

Empathy is deeply rooted in our need for social bonding. It supports mothers in looking after their babies and children, it helps our family and social communities and can also be seen as a vital ingredient for building a safe therapeutic relationship in which the client can feel seen and supported. Daniel Siegel talks about the importance of ‘being felt’ by the other. (4)

Empathy and trauma

In counseling and psychotherapy this deep attunement to our client’s experience also means sensing and absorbing the client’s distress or dis-regulated emotions, and this can become especially challenging when dealing with complex trauma issues.

One of my colleagues recently described feeling overwhelmed as she was listening to a young female refugee’s account of seeing her family members killed and then being repeatedly raped herself. My colleague felt the horror of the client’s traumatic experiences so intently that her mind went blank and she herself seemed to go into a state of shock.

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