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Three criteria are front and center in selecting a psychotherapist: cost, schedule, and empathy. These are not the only variables. For example, academic degrees and diplomas, professional certifications or equivalent publications and experience, insurance benefits, location, and Internet reputation (say, on Facebook or LinkedIn) are also criteria. Okay, I am just kidding about Facebook; but don’t laugh too hard, we are heading in that direction. In addition, it is increasingly common for psychotherapists to call out the therapeutic agreement explicitly, sometimes in writing, managing the expectations and defining the boundaries of the situation. In general, not a bad thing if it is handled with care – and empathy. The challenge faced by most prospective patients or clients, who are searching for a therapist, is that once they are in an emotional emergency, there is no time to interview several prospective psychotherapists to find a good fit. This is a case for having a periodic emotional check up just as one would have a physical check up in order to establish a relationship against a possible future crisis. However, this level of planning rarely occurs. From a negotiating perspective, the individual seeking help is “one down” in terms of leverage. Of course, reputable professionals will bend over backwards to be accommodating. In any case, the patient/client is still responsible for making his or her own best case and being a powerful self-advocate. Once again, no easy answer here if your issue is low self esteem and loss of power. Still, while acknowledging that the variables of negotiating flexibility, schedule, and cost are on the critical path, they are not the focus of this article. That leaves the criteria of empathy. Without empathy, nothing else works.
The short definition of empathy is that it is the capacity to know what an other individual is experiencing because (speaking in the first person for emphasis) I experience it too, not as a merger but as a trace affect or experience that samples the other’s experience. Thus, if one is overwhelmed by the other’s trauma and re-traumatized, one is not using one’s empathy properly. Simply stated, you are doing it wrong. Optimally, I experience a trace, a sample, a virtual vicarious representation of the other’s experience of suffering or joy or indifference so that I “get it” experientially and emotionally as well as cognitively. The boundary between self and other is firmly maintained, but the boundary is permeable in one limited sector, the communicability of affect, sensation, experience. In a larger context, empathy is the capacity that enables the other person to humanize the one by recognizing and acknowledging the possibilities for growth, transformation, and recovery in the one.
Empathy is different than interpersonal chemistry – that certain something = X that just clicks between two people such that they know they can work together. Yet empathy is the basis for this chemistry and fans out into multiple forms of relatedness and possibilities of understanding. As the author of three professional books on empathy, I work with behavioral (mental) health professionals on burnout, compassion fatigue, and related dis-orders of empathy in their lives and practices, and my own client interactions benefit from this depth of expertise and experience.
To cut to the chase, look for a psychotherapist that is genuine and authentic in relating, providing a gracious and generous – that is, empathic – listening. If the individual you are talking with does not provide the empathy you require, keep looking. Absent a warm, empathic listening, the process of psychotherapy is indistinguishable from dental work. It can be painful, granted that many individuals seeking a therapist are already suffering from significant emotional pain. Even in the best of situations, it is not that there are zero challenges even with empathy. The process does not work unless one goes up to the edge of one’s comfort zone and goes through the boundary, pressing beyond it. That takes courage – going forward in spite of being afraid (“anxious”).The more the therapist can be authentic in the relationship, the more powerful he (or she) can be in facilitating transformation in the direction of health and well-being on the part of the patient. This is true even when the attitudes that the therapist experiences are not ones that he would endorse if he lived up to all his ideals. A simple example: if I am approached for services by a person with self-esteem issue [low] who is also obese, my attitude towards the perceived extra weight is going to be front and center. Since the person struggling with low self-esteem and an (un)related weigh issue may not endorse such a view himself, it is important to recognize that there is nothing wrong with people coming in all shapes and sizes. Even if I would not endorse such an admittedly edgy slogan as “fat is beautiful”, it is still essential to be in touch with my own ambivalence (given that such exists). It is essential for the therapist to be intimately in touch with his own feelings and attitudes, generally as a result of his own work in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis as a patient. He must be willing to make the call – “the chemistry is just [not] right here and it is me” – otherwise, it just will not work out. The point is that none of this will work without a deep empathy for the experience of the world of the other individual.
What to look for is a therapist who can provide the kind of empathic relatedness that recognizes the humanity of the other, even amidst the effort and struggle of dealing with unattractive, challenging symptoms, not all of which the patient is even willing to share at first due to doubt, shame, or previous unhappy experiences and outcomes. Sometimes it is necessary for a prospective patient to “burn through” several therapists until he finds someone that he can trust. This doesn’t means that the other therapists were “wrong and bad,” though it might mean the mismatch between patient expectations and therapists’ services took awhile to converge on market availability. In short, look for a therapist who can provide the kind of relationship that the patient/client is able to use to overcome obstacles, jump start growth, and facilitate transformation in the direction of positive possibilities.
The key term here is actually “usability,” not in the sense of mis-use but in the proper and powerful sense of a means to guide the person back to naturally occurring development. The differentiator between use and mis-use is – you guessed it – empathy. The more the patient recognizes the therapist’s empathy, the more the patient will naturally restart the process of growth away from rigid, fixed, apathetic, shut down emotional functioning toward a way of being that is alive, vital, dynamic, full of feeling, engaged for better or worse with the issues that promise to provide satisfaction and fulfillment. Full disclosure: as I write this, I do so as someone who has been on both sides of the therapist/patient interface as well as the therapist/client one. It is going to sound a tad like bragging here at the backend but … additional qualifications for commenting on what to look for is that my works on empathy are footnotes in Goldberg, Wolf, and Basch (see bibliography below). This list of what to look for is not complete nor is my knowledge and experience; all the usual disclaimers apply; so your feedback, criticism, experiences, impertinent remarks, and comments are hereby requested. Please let me hear from you.
Agosta, Lou. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy.London: Palgrave/ Macmillan.
__________. (1984). “Empathy and intersubjectivity,” Empathy I, ed. J. Lichtenberg et al.Hillsdale,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.
__________. (1980). “The recovery of feelings in a folktale,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287-97.
__________. (1976). “Intersecting language in psychoanalysis and philosophy,” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Vol. 5, 1976: 507-34.
Basch, Michael F. (1983). “Empathic understanding: a review of the concept and some theoretical considerations,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 31, No. 1: 101-126. (See p. 114.) .
Gehrie, Mark (2011). “From archaic narcissism to empathy for the self: the evolution of new capacities in psychoanalysis,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 313-333.
Goldberg, Arnold. (2011). “The enduring presence of Heinz Kohut: empathy and its vicissitudes,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 289-311. (See pp. 296, 309.) .
Kohut, Heinz. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wolf, Ernest S. (1988). Treating the Self.New York: TheGuilford Press. (See pp. 17, 171.)
This post and all contents of this site (c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. and the Chicago Empathy Project