In my counselling program, we were always taught that the therapeutic alliance was the most important part of any successful therapy. Trust was fundamental to the construction of the therapeutic alliance, and it was through empathy that trust was forged. In my few years of practice, it seemed to hold true that relating to my clients through the use of empathy helped them to trust and confide in me the details of their struggles. As I would listen, my mind would focus on what it may have been like to be in my client’s shoes. I believed every word they would say, and considered their positions as though they were my own. I would ask questions when I was not clear to help define my clients position on their experience of an event or a reality, and I would adjust my views accordingly to better empathize. This worked well enough as time after time, the clients thanked me and seemed appreciative of my time spent with them. I always thought that the more empathy you could harness, the better the outcome. But what did I think empathy was? One session made me reconsider what empathy meant to me in my practice.
This client had seen me multiple times before. For confidentiality, let us call him “Toby”. Toby had originally come to me to help him with raising a problematic teenage child. I would see them regularly and helped them with communication exercises, and untangling their emotions and intentions from their words and reactions. My empathy worked well for a number of sessions as Toby continued to come back with son in tow, claiming successes in the home that had never been witnessed before. After a few months of sessions, Toby disclosed to me that he wanted sessions for himself, rather than with the child. I was open to the idea and happy that the successes helped Toby believe that if I can help him and his son, that maybe I can help him as well.
In our first session, Toby explained that he had been victim of multiple forms of domestic and family abuse, spanning years. He described vivid memories that I watched through my mind’s eye. The abuse was horrible. I sat silently as Toby recounted the tales, and feelings of helplessness in moving past these experiences. At the end of the session, all I could feel was gratefulness of this person reaching out to help themselves move on. I utilized the same tools of empathy that had worked so well before, and looked forward to seeing Toby again. Unfortunately, after that session, neither Toby, nor his son, ever came back to see me.
People are resilient and we all use different tools and mechanisms to adapt and survive. Toby’s pain was something he was surviving, and it is possible that he distanced himself from his own experience in order to survive the pain. The logic and flat tone he used when narrating his experience was not lost on me. How does empathy build trust when the very thing that kept a person alive was to block the feelings that hurt so much? I do not have an answer, but that moment helped me to temper my views on empathy, and therefore my practice. Empathy was not solely isolating the feelings and views stated by the client and taking them as your own. Empathy was also reading between the lines and understanding the quiet hesitancy, fears, anxieties, and resistance within the session as well. Maybe I was moving too fast for Toby, but I believe I struck a nerve. Perhaps it is also what Toby needed to create a chink in the armor to truly begin healing from past wounds.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA