Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On empathy

“I am human and let nothing human be alien to me.” ~Terence

It seems to me that the world would a lot better off if we were all able to live by that statement.


A very wise man, Carl Rogers, said that one of the most powerful things a therapist can do is be "radically empathic". You can argue all you want about the best theoretical approach to treating someone, but what cannot be lost is the genuine attempt to understand and experience what the client is going through.

However, being genuinely empathic can also be a little overwhelming.

One of the most valuable things I have had to learn in my clinical training without being explicitly taught is how to be genuine and caring without becoming weighed down with others' difficulties. I've always been on the sensitive side of the spectrum, which is probably what lead me into the field in the first place. However, when I came home and cried my eyes out after my first serious interaction with a profoundly desparing suicidal woman, I began to realize that I would become a bit of a wreck if I didn't find some sort of a filter.

And there comes the difficulty of balancing. I don't want to lose what makes me good at what I do, which is that genuine empathy and sense of connectedness, and no one wants a disconnected, jaded therapist. All the same, I can't be carrying around the weight of what is discussed in a one hour period with me twenty-four hours a day. It becomes even more difficult with the necessary wall of confidentiality. It would be easy to be fully emotionally involved if I had the ability to unburden some of the more intense stuff with my loved ones. Instead, my only option is to unload the emotion minus the words (outside of vagueries... which is apparently a neologism as well. I mean very vague statements, like "I had a hard session"), or find my own special ways of processing, which I think has been the key to my development over the past few years.

The reason this issue has arisen again is because of my new job doing forensic assessments. Mine, and especially everyone else's primary fears in my taking this job is that my personal safety would be somehow threatened, or that situational anger would be thrown my way. However, in discussing the job with someone who'd been in the same position for a while, she spoke not of such fear. She said that the best and worst part of the job was that your sense of the borders between you and "them" (them being criminals) became so much more permeable .

And, today, I found myself in a room with someone who had done some awful things. The night before, as I tossed and turned, I worried about fear over being alone in a room with him, or being overwhelmed by aversion from his actions. However, the reality, as I sat across from him and heard his story, I was instead enveloped in his pain and remorse.

I guess we are all human after all, for better or for worse.


distracted spunk said...

This was beautiful. And incredibly true. I read something the other day that reminded me of how even when we see someone who has done terrible things, the humanity comes from how they respond to their actions. I think...that's what's so scary about pathological liars. They're charming and sweet, but they never seem to feel remorse from their lies. That sort of thing. Thanks.

Yoda said...

Yea, I can only hope people find that "empathy" and not poke fun of me for not getting laid for months ;-) hahaha!

Beautiful post!

Hope said...

That quote is so powerful. As was this!

P.S Carl Rogers is my hero.

Airam said...

This is why I couldn't be a psychologist. It was on my list of possible career choices and I just didn't think I'd be effective ... or that my clients problems would be constantly whirring on in my head. You'd be surprised as a teacher how much of a counselor you become. You're not only teaching these kids but all of a sudden you're dealing with their home life. Broken families. Estrangements. Court orders. It's seriously insane at times. And it's not only with the kids ... it's with the parents too!

All Mod Cons said...

I really couldn't do what you do. I just don't have the patience.

Paint is just so much more...err...not complicated. No "borders" there. Just drying times.

Ant said...

My doctor buddy went through a horrific time when he first started his career because of exactly this - worked way too hard, sensitive guy, people dying left, right and centre (stories of him performing CPR on someone that had been dead for ages but he didn't realise...)

He's learned to disengage a bit now, and I can tell he's a harder man for it, but I suspect he's also a way more effective doctor too.

I don't think you'll ever be a jaded therapist, precisely because you're on the sensitive end of the spectrum and you write blog-posts like these. The key is to try and empathise but not sympathise - understand the pain, but don't get emotionally involved in it. Easier said than done but still worth remembering (and especially in this situation - never forget that whilst of course they are human, they are still dangerous people...)

PS One good thing that I took away from being raised in the catholic church btw: the confessional. If you do find yourself overwhelmed and needing to unburden specifics in a confidential environment, I'd suggest finding one of these...

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

This made me think of a discussion I had with a co-worker who was complaining about her back aching and her knees hurting. She gets the lift wherever she can and rarely walks anywhere.

I suggested that if she did some exercise (unless you count 'cleaning' or 'walking to the bus stop' as exercise), she might feel better as the body seizes up if it does not get regular use.

She said she gets 'chesty' if she does that. I explained that this happens when you exercise, but this chestiness would pass with time as her fitness increases.

'Who are you, Mr Fit?' she says.

Irritated, as I am just trying to offer advice, I (wrongly) say 'Well, yes. I exercise blah blah blah times a week. It feels great.'

'Well that's just because you haven't got anything better to do, she says.

I handled this situation wrongly, mainly due to my frustration with her desire for sympathy rather than empathy, having had this conversation with her countless times in varying incarnations.

But, this is the tip of the iceberg compared to what you hear, no doubt.

I need patience.

eric1313 said...

That's a lot, to see the human side of someone we'd rather write off as a monster on many other occasions.

Confidentiality has to be its own struggle, too. The allure of all that writing material would have me stuck to keyboards and notebooks.

eric1313 said...

Go Wings!

Miriam said...

I've always been told I'm a listener but to some extent I want to be a talker. I'm glad that you're able to listen without judgment. I kind of gives me hope :)


captain corky said...

It sounds like you're going to do a great job. Very few people can get past the judgement, anger and fear. It's very impressive Princess.

brookem said...

it can be so hard to find that good balance. to not take the home with you and let it weigh you down. to be right there in the moment with your client/patient, etc. and leave your own preconceieved notions at the door. i struggle with this from time to time too. it sounds like you are doing a great job at finding that balance and working out how to process the experience afterwards.

brandy said...

I LOVED this. Airam said a lot of what I was going to say- about striking the balance in teaching and finding it tricky when there's just SO MUCH that is involved with teaching, that I can't imagine being a psychologist. It sounds like you are dealing with it well though, and finding a path that works for you. I did a practicum in a school where they really focused on character education and 'empathy' was a big word there. It was amazing to see how different a school that focused on it worked compared to a school who just assumed kids would grow to be empathetic without assistance.

Sheila said...

I am very empathic which is why I could not do that job - it would be too overwhelming. I took psych 101 in High School as well as 2 years of Peer Counseling. It is through "peer counseling" that I can be genuinely empathic without having to buffer as much.

I am glad that your eveluation today went better than you had predicted.

I hope you are able to find your balance!

Zelda said...

I hear ya. I've been involved in forensic work for over 10 years. The day I don't see the person beyond their crimes is the day I quit (or take a very long break!).


Mrs4444 said...

I started working with emotionally disturbed teens about 20 years ago (residential treatment). At first, whenever they cried, I cried, too (or did everything I could to cheer them up). A wonderful psychologist on staff said to me one day in a staff meeting, "Your dad is an alcoholic, isn't he?" I was flabbergasted at his incredible ability to read my mind! It was the beginning of huge growth for me; the reason everyone else's emotions got me stirred up was because it was tapping into my own "shit" so-to-speak. It was so liberating to dig into my past and work through my stuff. I'm guessing you've done the same in your training (my niece just graduated with her PHY in Child Psych and did so, too.) It's the best thing you can do for yourself; that, and taking care of your own emotional needs.

I still get a little sucked in now and then. I still talk about school sometimes at home. However, when kids I'm working with today cry, I'm happy for them; glad that they can feel and are going through their emotions instead of around them.

I cannot imagine how hard it must be to come so close to the raw emotions of suicide or to be exposed to evil on earth. You are in my prayers. Thank you for what you do.

P.S. And sorry for writing so much here!!

Abbey said...

I always wanted to do forensic psych. All the way up till I was a victim. I chose an alternate path but the topic still facinates me. Despite that, I don't know that I ever would/could do counceling for inmates...it's interesting that you can go beyond their crimes. I wonder, however, how you'd handle someone that didn't feel sadness or remorse for their crimes. Just a thought.

A Margarita said...

That was poetic and beautiful and real all at once. I think your patients are lucky to have you as a listener.

Princess of the Universe said...

It's why I had to stop after my honours degree. I walked into University thinking I would save the world with my wisdom and compassion. I realized that I would never be able to remove myself from what I was hearing and I would totally burn myself out in a very short time.

Lisa said...

I'm highly empathic, which is why I decided against pursuing further studies in psychology. I can just imagine how hard it is for you. This was a beautiful read. Thank you.

benjibopper said...

i think my wife went through many of the same feelings and thoughts when she worked with gang members in a salvadoran prison. it sounds difficult, but an amazing experience. surely we should all go through something like that.

me, i should probably attend a republican convention or something and try to have empathy for those wingnuts. surely that would make me a better man somehow.

Eve said...

Wow. I've always wondered about that, and in fact thought about becoming a therapist. But I think overempathizing would be a detriment.

Forensic assessments? Yow. What about honesty of the assessee? That's an interesting topic. I'd be interested to read more about it in the future.

libby said...

wow. what a great post! and you know, I'm glad that you are working toward finding a balance. Because for me? I'd be on the sensitive side and probably would get swept up in it all, which is why I probably couldn't do what you're doing. I seriously admire the people who do do this and who learn the art of that perfect balance!