A lot of people assume that going to therapy is the same thing as having a friendly ‘chat’ with a friend. Some people also don’t believe that going to therapy is necessary since they have a great support network. Others just assume that therapy requires laying down with your eyes shut. Okay – this may only ring true in cartoons.
So, why does obtaining a Masters in Psychotherapy take three years, when therapy is assumed to be all about ‘just listening’ and ‘handing you a tissue’? Psychotherapy is much more complex than that.
Dave Mearns & Brian Thorne, explain how “Empathy is not a ‘technique’ of responding to the client, but a way-of-being-in-relation to the client. Empathy often feels like being on the same roller-coaster” (p.55). They also explain how “The counsellor empties herself in order to receive the client’s experiencing” (p.72).
The above really reminds me of Bruce Lee’s famous quote “be water, my friend”. Maybe he knew something in 1971 that we are still trying to practice in 2020.
Dialogue really does go beyond “ah, sorry to hear” in the therapy room. The type of empathy displayed is trained and learned. It is counterintuitive.
Outside of therapy, the most natural response for someone is the ‘ah, sorry to hear’ or sharing their issues with you too, after you have opened up. While intentions are good, it does not give you the space to ‘be in your feelings’. This is where empathy is key.
Carl Rogers’ Person-Centred Therapy was created in the 1940’s. He believed that his three core conditions were the foundations to seeing change in a client. When a client feels heard and understood, change happens within.
In very simple terms, you learn how to see the world through your client’s eyes and be with them on the journey of exploration.
In the amazing book Person-Centred Counselling in Action (p.60) you can learn all about Empathy Scales!
There are four levels to how counsellors focus on empathic responses. In my head I think of these categories like Mixed Martial Arts:
- Fighting for the Title
Jokes aside. In the extract below, a mature student whose self-esteem has grown considerably upon discovering that she is in fact a highly competent student, is expressing unhappiness within her relationship (p.59):
“He treats me like a baby – looking after me all the time, mollycoddling me all the time …suffocating me!”
The below show possible counsellor responses at each of the four levels:
Level 0: Men are all the same – you’re better rid of them!
Level 1: God, that must be hard.
Level 2: It’s like he doesn’t understand you … how you’re changing …. He still treats you like he used to, which may have been OK then, but not now … and you’re damned angry at that.
Level 3: I see your anger that he doesn’t understand that you’re changing … that seems really really strong … but I also wonder … you look though you’re trembling … is that trembling just your anger or is there something else going on in you as well?
It is amazing what happens when there is no judgement or assumptions. In fact, the client responded to Level 3 with a hesitant “yes, I’m scared … I’m scared I’ll lose him”.
The depth of reflection displayed in Level 3 has enabled the client to become aware of her fear and anger. Two different yet very complex emotions. This particular client later traced that this fear she was feeling was due to becoming more independent, she was not as far down that road as she had believed. One could argue, this had nothing to do with her partner in the first place.
Where these emotions stem from, what they really are and why they are there in the first place are discovered in the therapy room.
More on Empathy below: