We are all familiar with the history of Psychotherapy, and the inauguration of Psychoanalysis as one of its leading methods. What some may not be familiar with is the integral component of all therapeutic approaches – empathy. It may seem like common sense – if we are analyzing a client, or listening to their problems, we are being empathetic towards them. This is a significant misconception. Although it seems straightforward, most therapists who do not follow a client-centered approach actually fail to take an empathetic stance.
Webster’s defines empathy as understanding someone else’s point of view, being able to put yourself in their position, to share their emotions and feelings (Merriam-Webster). Essentially what is happening when we employ empathy is that we are telling the person “I understand what you are going through, and I’m here to help you.” We show solidarity with them, we support the individual without infringing upon their personal autonomy. Carl Rogers outlined empathy in a therapeutic setting as expressing the desire to understand and appreciate the clients’ perspective, which is closely related to unconditional positive regard. By being empathetic in a therapeutic setting, we not only allow the client to feel open, and capable of expression, but by doing so in such a safe and welcoming atmosphere, we also allow ourselves to understand the client. Should we choose not to be empathetic, and find ourselves trying to “fix” the client, or the clients’ problems, the therapy will end up helping us more than it will help the client. Why do I say this? Because when we offer solutions, and when we allow ourselves to be overcome by the idea of solving the problem, we are actually acting in a way that is motivated by our own pride, and our own needs. The client is in need of a listener, in need of a person who will acknowledge and validate their feelings, without judgment, and without solution. It may seem strange, why then, would you go to therapy, if you were not looking for a solution?
It is not that the client is not looking for a solution, but that the client is the source of the solution. By offering the client our empathy we also give them the control. Control is so important in therapy, just as it is important in our everyday lives. More often than not, the client is in therapy because he feels he does not have control. If he attends therapy, and we act in a way that mimics empathy, we allow him to believe we are listening, we understand, then provide him with the solution to his problem; he leaves feeling cheated and quite probably worse than before. In order to approach him with total empathy, we must listen to the client, understand the client, feel his emotions and experience, understand his situation, and lead him to the solution. By giving him control, he is able to build confidence in himself. This sort of approach instills the client with a sense of ability, and to an extent a sense of pride. It is a way of building up his character, to allow him to believe in himself, and to feel capable in every situation.
Rogers’ states that the most helpful form of empathy, is listening to the clients emotions and feelings behind his words (1974). Throughout the course of therapy, the client may not mention how they are feeling; it is the therapists’ role to determine the feelings behind his words. By understanding the feelings, and not simply listening to the words, the therapist is better able to understand the clients’ situation, and the client is able to put more trust in the therapist.
Empathy is an essential component of successful therapy, and its absence can damage the clients’ success. The client must feel the therapist is being empathetic, in order for it to play its role. If the client is unable to feel the therapist being empathetic, it is quite likely the therapist actually is not being empathetic.
The concept of empathy is not a novel idea by any means, but Rogers’ teachings and demonstrations have shown the importance and necessity of empathy in therapy. This contribution continues to be felt in psychotherapy, as well as other related fields such as counseling, education, and medicine. Surely, the best way to reach your students is to understand them, and the best way to treat your medical patients is to understand what mental processes may be underlying their somatic symptoms. Should it be found that your patient is stressed, it may aid in diagnosing their ailment, and there is no better way to determine your patient is stressed than to listen to them. The presentation of their symptoms may even fade or decrease, if we approach it with the understanding of catharsis by expressing the underlying emotions that are causing the somatic symptoms, the symptoms may decrease.
Empathy is so much more than listening; it goes above and beyond finding a solution. It offers the client to feel control, trust, and reliance on others, which all play a significant role in successful therapy, and in everyday life.
American Personnel and Guidance Association. (1974). Carl Rogers’s 1974 lecture on empathy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMi7uY83z-U&feature=share&list=PL9w3l7GkGUr1yxU4s2PiggyCbOO3XfpRf
Empathy. (n.d). In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy
Rogers, Carl. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable