It is propitious that I begin my blog about empathy. Empathy, often synonymous with sympathy , though untrue, is a catchword for feeling someone’s pain. Empathy is popularly defined as, the ability to understandand share the feelings of another. Sympathy is defined as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone’s misfortune. The first being in the proverbial “shoes of another,” and the other, seeing the shoes, and feeling sad.
Therapists learn about empathy upon entering the building on the first day of graduate school. it would be hard to be an effective therapist without understanding and feeling someone’s pain. I believe that is correct. When I sit acrossfrom a patient, they need to know that I get it, not just in my head but in my heart, as much as I can. It helps me to understand and helps them to feel that they are “gotten.”
When I first started being a therapist I might be on line at Starbucks and if I overheard a conversation about someone's children who were going through some difficulty, or a tough relationship breakup, or any kind of distress, anxiety, and the list goes on, I became sad.I wanted to fix it. It consumed me , all of a sudden I heard sorrow and distress wherever I went. Of course it existed before, but my empathy radar was on and fast becoming raw. Colleagues, professors, professionals all toldl me I would get used to it.
Should I? Is that good? is that what I want? Does that mean I will become cold and callous? Can I still be a good therapist if I get used to it?
A man named Paul Bloom has been in the news lately. He is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. According to Bloom, empathy is, “narrow -minded, parochial, and innumerate.”
“… Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect — people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded — but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us. It also shows more respect than a clumsy attempt to get into their skins; I agree with the essayist Leslie Jamison, who describes empathy as “perched precariously between gift and invasion.”
He touches on something for me. When a patient is in pain and crying, do they want me to cry with them? and then who comforts whom? I’m not saying that sometimes a therapist has to throw caution to the wind and be in the moment but, how can I engage with you if you are worried about me? if I am worried about me? It is the patients session, not mine.
That “therapeutic distance,” enables me to see you, in that moment, and while I see you to experience you with a modicum of neutrality and distance otherwise, I am your mother.
So, can I say I can stand in a line and shrug off someones’ pain when overheard? not so much. Sometimes I can intercede, sometimes I can put some perspective on it, after all I don’t know the whole narrative, only the story the person is presenting. And sometimes, I can just walk away, sad.
What do you think?