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Review: Empathy and Mental Health by Arthur J. Clark

Empathy and Mental Health: An Integral Model for Developing Therapeutic Skills in Counseling and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge 2022 Electronic Version

As a young man, Arthur J. Clark heard Carl Rogers speak and was inspired to devote his life’s work to applying empathy in education, counseling, and talk therapy. This book is the distillation of years of experience and learning, and we, the readers, are enriched and even enlightened in this original synthesis of existing ideas on empathy. It is fully buzz word compliant, diligently calls out the limitations and risks of empathy, and guides the readers in expanding their empathy to make a difference in overcoming suffering and mental illness. It takes a lot of empathy to produce a book on empathy, and empathy is evident in abundance in Clark’s work.  

As noted, Clark’s academic background is in education, as was Carl Rogers’, but the reader soon discovers Clarks’ work with empathy to be generously informed by Freud, Ferenczi, and Adlerian psychoanalysis. Thus Clark quotes [Alfred] Adler (1927): “Empathy occurs in the moment one individual speaks with another. It is impossible to understand another individual if it is impossible at the same time to identify oneself with him” (Clark: 20). At this same time this reviewer was enlivened by the application of distinctions to be found in the Self Psychology of Heinz Kohut and the latter’s colleagues Michael Basch and Arnold Goldberg. This brilliant traversal of the practice and conceptual landscape of empathy inspired Clark’s life work, and is on display here.

The book is filled with short segments of transcripts of encounters between counselor/therapist and client. To the point that empathy is much broader than reflecting feeling and meanings, examples are provided of empathic encouragement, empathic being in the here and now (immediacy), empathic silence, empathic self-disclosure, empathic confrontation, empathic reframing, empathic cognitive restricting, empathic interpretation. Clark’s work with empathic reframing, cognitive restructuring, and interpretation are particularly useful (Clark: 105 – 106). 

“Empathy” is not so much a substantive as a modifier – a manner of being that applies across a diversity of ways of relating to the other individual. (It is a further question, not addressed by Clark, as to the status of these vignettes. Are they disguised, permissioned, ideal types, some combination thereof? Just curious. In any case, they work well and remind me of M. F. Basch’s vignettes in the latter’s Doing Psychotherapy.)

Clark makes reference to the celebrated video (e.g., widely available on Youtube) of Carl Rogers, interviewing the real-world patient “Gloria” about her relationship with her nine-year-old daughter “Pammy.” Rogers’ empathic listening skillfully turns the focus from Gloria’s presenting dilemma of how much information about sex to share with her inquisitive nine-year-old daughter, Pammy, into a willingness on the part of Gloria’s to call out her own blind spots and conflicts over sex. Rogers’ empathic responsiveness shows the way for Gloria to recapture her own integrity around adult sexuality so that she can provide Pammy with the appropriate sex education the child needs, regardless of the details that may be relevant only to the adults. And Rogers does this in about twenty minutes, not months of therapy.

At this point, it is useful to give Rogers’ definition of empathy (p. 11): “To perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition.” Rogers was definite about excluding the perspectives of the practitioner in conceptualizing empathy in his person-centered approach to therapy. In this regard, he stated, “For the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another’s world without prejudice.”

Clark’s integration of the diversity of approaches to empathy in history, theory, and practice distinguishes subjective, object and interpersonal empathy: “Subjective empathy encompasses a practitioner’s internal capacities of identification, imagination, intuition, embodiment that resonate through treatment interactions with a client and empathically reflect the individual’s experiencing. Objective empathy pertains to the deliberate use of a therapist’s conceptual knowledge and data-informed reasoning in the service of empathically understanding a client in a relational climate. Interpersonal empathy relates to comprehending and conveying an awareness of a client’s phenomenological experiencing and pursuing constructive and purposeful change through the application of a range of interventions” (Clark: xiv).

Clark started out as a school counselor and he gives the example of the student who comes in and says “I hate school!” The reflection is proposed to be something like “You are feeling angry about school.” This demonstrates just how important the tone in which a statement is made can be. This could indeed be an angry statement, which takes “hate” is a literal way. However, it could also be an expression of contempt, disgust, cynicism, resignation, sadness, or even fear (say, since the student is being bullied). The empathy is precisely to acknowledge that the listener is far from certain that he does knows what is going on with the student and to ask for more data. “Sounds like you are struggling with school – can you say more about that?”

Not afraid of controversy or tough topics, Clark’s contribution is thick with quotations from the founding father of psychoanalysis – Adler and Freud and the literature Freud has been reading such as Theodor Lipps, to whom we owe the popularization in Freud’s time of the term “empathy [Einfühlung].  The subsequent generation of ego psychoanalysts is also well represented Ralph Greenson, T. Reik, Jacob Arlow (and Beres). 

Clark credits and recruits Ralph Greenson’s distinction of the therapist’s inner working model of the patient and uses it to enrich Rogers’ contribution to empathic understanding. “As empathic understandings evolve through therapeutic exchanges and assessment interactions, a model of an individual emerges that becomes increasingly refined and expansive. In turn, by ways of empathically knowing a client, the framework facilitates sound treatment interventions through the engagement of interpersonal empathy” (Clark: 88). Note that Clark aligns with the view that the countertransference is distorting/pathological as opposed to the total response of the therapist. There are many tips and techniques guiding the therapist diligently to monitor and control the countertransference neurosis. 

Since this is not a softball review, I note some issues for productive debate. For example, if Clark had allowed that countertransference included the therapist’s entire reaction to the client, including personal reactions which are not necessarily conflicted or neurotic (on the part of the therapist), then Clark would have been constrained to spend more ink on his own individual responses, empathic and otherwise. Such disclosure, which Clark otherwise separately validates as appropriate in context (and if not this context, then which?), would have enriched a text which otherwise reads like a textbook (and perhaps that was the editorial and marketing guidance).

Also useful is the therapist’s being sensitive to cultural differences and dynamics. In a brief transcript of an interaction between a privileged white school counselor and an African American 8th grader attending the college prep private school (Clark: 42), we are supposed to see objective cross-cultural empathy based on the counselor’s reading of some articles (not specified) on cultural differences. 

By all means, read up on cultural differences. However, I just see a rigorous and critical empathy (my term, not Clark’s), plain and simple. The counselor “gets it.” The student is afraid of being seriously injured or even killed by the criminal element in his neighborhood as he waits for the school bus. Is this breakdown of policing in the inner city really in the cultural article? The counselor also “gets it” that the student’s feelings are hurt by being laughed at by his more privileged classmates because his mom is a house cleaner rather than an executive or doctor or lawyer. It is the counselor’s empathic response based on her empathic understanding of the student’s specific fear and hurt feelings that enables the student to deescalate from his problematic acting out. Even though, like most 8th graders, the student would be the last to admit he has been emotionally “touched,” he was. Thus, Clark’s empathy shines through in spite of his style-deadening need to accommodate behavioral protocols, evidence-based everything, and the plodding style of delivery consistent with training in schools of professional social work and psychology.

“Objective empathy” may seem like “jumbo shrimp,” an oxymoron. Nor is it clear how dream work, with which Clark productively engages, falls into the “objective” rubric. Yet it is a highly positive feature that Clark emphasizes and explores in detail the value of dream work. 

Let one’s empathy be informed by the context: “Consider, for instance, what are the daily struggles like for a client who meets the diagnostic criteria for a bipolar disorder or attention deficit [. . . .] When giving consideration to such challenges through a framework of empathic understanding, a practitioner calls upon reputable data and a spectrum of work with individuals from diverse backgrounds in order to generate a more inclusive and accurate way of knowing a client” (Clark: 35).  

And yet this precisely misses the individual who is superficially described according to labels, but has his own experience of bipolar or attention deficit. Empathy is precisely the anti-essentialist dimension, the dimension that is so pervasive in psychiatry and schools of professional psychology that replace struggling humanity with “You meet criteria for – [insert label].”

While Kohut is properly quoted by Clark as one of the innovators in empathy and Kohut’s concise definition glossing empathy as “vicarious introspection” is acknowledged, Kohut’s other definition of empathy as a method of data gathering about the other individual is overlooked. However, it aligns nicely with Clark’s description of “objective empathy.” Maybe my close reading missed something but why not just say “taking the other person’s perspective” is “objective empathy” as opposed to vicarious introspection (“subjective empathy”)? 

The subtitle promises “An integrative model for developing therapeutic skills [. . . ]” Clark substantiates the need for work in critiquing all those training program that model the skill of repeating back to the client words similar to those the client expressed. “In a meta-analysis of direct empathy training, Lam et al. (2011) found that the majority of 29 studies did not clearly conceptualize or define empathy, some did not describe training delivery methods, and almost all of the initiatives failed to present evidence demonstrating individuals’ propensity to behave more empathically after training” (Clark: 140). Clark’s discussion of reframing, cognitive restructuring, and empathic interpretation are relevant and useful in overcoming what amount to a scandal in psychotherapy training.

What Clark is trying to say is this: You think you are being empathic. Think again. A rigorous and critical empathy (my phrase, not Clark’s)  is skeptical about its own empathy. That does not mean being dismissive either of one’s own empathy or the struggle of the other person. It means being rigorous and critical. Empathy is made to shine in the refiner’s fire of self-criticism and a radical inquiry into one’s own blind spots. 

Clark does not escape unscathed from the behavioral and observation protocol dead end. The reader will seek in vain for self-criticism or inquiry into Clark’s own blind spots – instead the reader is awash in the extensive behavioral, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) attempts, albeit empathically deployed, to capture therapeutic encounters in a behaviorally observable or reportable protocol. Nor I am saying there is anything wrong with that as such. Yet might not the behavioral and observation protocol swamp precisely be the blind spot where the self-deception lives against which Rogers frequently denounces? To gather the honey of self-knowledge and empathic understanding one must risk the stings of distortion and disguise. 

Clark’s would be a different work entirely if he explored the college of hard knocks in which he forged the empathic integration. He is trying to make what is largely an artistic practice into a rule-governed scientific algorithm. It is worth a try and the reader must judge the extent to which Clark succeeds. Spending a lifetime preparing articles for peer-reviewed publications in education, psychology, etc., does not generally bring life and vitality to one’s practice, manner of engagement, or writing style. However, Clark’s richness of material, wealth of distinctions related to empathy, and organizing virtually every aspect of empathic research and published references goes a long way towards compensating for Clark’s work not necessarily being a “page turner.” Clark’s writing reminds the reader more of the Diagnostic and Statical Manual (DSM) – Ouch! – more than (for example) of D. W. Winnicot, Christopher Bollas, Arnold Goldberg, Freud, who was an expert stylist (granted much is lost in translation), or even Carl Rogers himself.

Thus, Clark’s integrated approach calls for “a diagnosis [as from the DSM] that represents the lived experience of the individual.” Agree. Clark gives an example where the therapist is interviewing Omar who has low energy, lethargy, lack of motivation, and hopelessness about the future. The diagnosis encapsulates and integrates a lot of Omar’s experience, and, though Clark does not say so, Omar may even be relieved to hear/learn that he (Omar) is not to blame for his disordered emotions (“major depression”); and Omar should stop making a bad situation worse by negative self-talk, verbally “beating himself up” in his own mind. The treatment consists in getting Omar to do precisely what the depressed person is least inclined to do – take action in spite of being unmotivated. If one is waiting to be motivated, absent a miracle, it is going to be a long wait. Maybe the empathic response is precisely saying this to the client, acknowledging how hard it is (and may continue to be for a while) to get into action on one’s own behalf. 

This is all well and good. However, narrowly or expansively empathy is defined it is the anti-DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual). The DSM has many uses, especially in aligning terminology such that the community is talking about the same set of criteria when it uses the word “generalized anxiety disorder.” It also has uses in requesting insurance reimbursements. In short, there is nothing wrong with the DSM-5 (2013) or any version – but there is something missing – empathy. In the case of empathy, the recommendation is to relate to the struggling human being who presents himself in therapy, not to a diagnostic label. 

Thus, Clark makes the case in his own terms: “From a humanistic perspective with central tenets focusing on respect for the individuality and uniqueness of a person, employing the DSM to categorize clients through a labeling procedure is thought to impede the growth of authentic relationships and empathic understandings of a deeper nature. In this regard, in a human encounter, perceiving a client through categorical frames of reference and symptomatic functioning hinders an attunement with the individual’s lived experiences and personal meanings. Moreover, applying a label to a client possibly influences a practitioner to shape preconceptions that are objectifying and forecloses a mutual and open-minded exploration of the contextual existence of the individual” (Clark: 27).

Though Clark does not say so, almost every major mental illness involves a breakdown of empathy. The patient experience isolation. “No one ‘gets’ me.” “No one understands what I am going through.” This is the case with most mood disorders, thought disorders, as well as those disorders typically described as “disorders of empathy” such as some versions of autism spectrum and anti-social personality disorders. 

One matter of editing detail may be noted, a consistent misspelling of the name of celebrated primate researcher, philosopher, and empathy scholar Frans de Waal. There are no “Walls” in de Waal’s name – or in his empathy! We will charge this wordo to the editors who otherwise perform an admirable job. 

Returning to a positive register, one of the most important takeaways from engaging with Clark’s work is that short therapy in which empathy is the driving force is powerful and effective. Clark does not specify the elapsed treatment in most cases, but I did not find one that was explicitly called out as being longer than fourteen weeks.

The emphasis is on the use of empathy in relatively brief psychotherapy – which is a powerful and positive approach that pushes back against the assertion that one needs cognitive behavioral therapy for relatively time-constrained encounters. Empathy produces quick results when skillfully applied. It is true that one of the great empathy innovators, Heinz Kohut, had some famous long and multi-year psychoanalyses; but these individuals were significantly more disturbed than Clark’s example of Anna, whose presenting behaviors were largely social awkwardness. 

A strong point of Clark’s work is his debunking of the caricature of Rogers definition of empathy (and indeed of empathy itself) as merely reflecting (i.e., repeating) back to the speaker the words that the speaker has said to the listener. There is nothing wrong as such with reflecting what the other person has said, especially if the statement is relevant or well expressed. However, the mere words are pointers to the other person’s experience and are not reducible to the mere words. This is not a mere behavioral skill of reflecting back language, but a “being with” the other in the complexity and depth of the other’s experience as refined in the therapist’s own experience, and that is something one can best learn in years of one’s own dynamic therapy. Additional processing of the other person’s experience is encapsulated by and captured in the other person’s words, but not reducible to the words. The aspects of empathic responsiveness, embodiment, acknowledgement, recognition, encouragement, immediacy, possibility, clarification, and validation of the other’s experience form and inform the empathic response and the reply to the other. 

A rumor of empathy is no rumor in the case of Clark’s work – empathy lives in his contribution to integrating the diverse and varied aspects of empathy. 

Edwin Rutsch interviews the author Arthur J. Clark:

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project