Empathy has long been recognized as an essential element to providing proper service to our clients. To make sure we are on the same page, let’s start with this basic definition of empathy: the ability to share and understand the feelings of another.
A young and talented psychotherapist recently asked me about the role of empathy in AAIT. In watching me work, she noticed that I seemed to stay “pretty neutral.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that observation. My experience and expression of empathy seems to have shifted through my years of practice. In my opinion, the value of therapeutic neutral empathy cannot be overstated.
There’s an aspect to empathy and compassion that feels sticky to both the practitioner and the client. It’s not really neutral. This kind of empathy can feed into the dynamic play of the Karpman Drama Triangle with therapist settling comfortably into Rescuer, the client surrendering to Victim, while the presenting problem and associated players becoming the Persecutor.
Or, if the client is a sensitive, our sticky empathy can reverberate with them emotionally. They may then shift into Rescuer to take care of us emotionally, shutting down their own emotional experience or simply hitting emotional overwhelm. Sticky empathy will also cloud your vision of our next right step. Learning to recognize this kind of empathy in ourselves is imminently valuable.
Empathy does not always look like soft eyes and a quiet voice. Sometimes empathy looks like quiet confidence and a firm voice. Empathy has as many faces as a patient and steady parent. Of greater importance than what empathy looks like is our capacity to access and use it.
Empathetic capacity can be determined by the ease, fluidity, and depth with which we can assume the point of view of another. One of the fundamental aspects of AAIT is our ability to assume and help our clients assume multiple points of view (POV). The degree to which we can enter another’s POV can illuminate the limits of our empathy. The more we intentionally enter the POV of another, the more agility we have with empathy. This intentional approach to empathy also seems to contribute self-compassion.
With AAIT, we use the four elements of human experience in a variety of creative ways to flesh out an experience; thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations (TIES). These elements bind us to the energetic charge associated with our experiences. While our attention to and acceptance of these elements can free us from their charge. Let’s play with this a bit as it relates to assuming the POV of another.
Consider a client, you can choose one for whom you feel deeply, this might help you feel the sticky empathy. Bring to mind the most recent problem they presented. Notice what you think and imagine as you call this to mind. Notice your emotional response and body sensations.
Now shift your POV. You could even place two fingers in the center of your chest, silently saying to yourself, “I’m no longer (YOUR NAME), I’m (CLIENT’s NAME).”
Feel yourself as that client in the situation they described. What do you imagine they are thinking? What is the image picture? What is the emotion (can you feel it)? What body sensations do you notice? How completely can you sense what it’s like to be them in this situation? Notice the places you want to turn away from or not experience. Notice what you resist. Investigate your experience AS them. Take a couple of breaths, just noticing. How does this noticing inform your understanding?
With AAIT, the next step is to engage in a method to integrate whatever came up from the client’s POV. Neutralizing this charged energy typically results in spacious open awareness, infused with understanding. This liberates us to walk that balance between empathizing and indulging. Freed up, we are no longer vulnerable to sacrificing change for empathy or empathy for change. The empathy no longer feels sticky, but clear, like a mountain stream.
What do you think the costs of sticky empathy are? How do you recognize it?