Empathy: the spirituality of counseling

by Judy Harrow

Counselors help clients make and implement life decisions. There's always an emotional dimension to decision making. The better we can understand our own inner reactions, our memories, hopes, fears, dreams, the better "insight" we have, the better the decisions we can make. This interior realm is often called the person's "inscape." Empathy is intimate participation in the inscape of another.

The word "empathy" is actually a poor and misleading translation of the German word "einfuhlung." A more direct and correct translation would be "in feeling" or "feeling into something."

So, empathy is not something we have, not just passive receptivity to the client's inscape, but something we do. Empathy is the active practice of feeling into the inscape of another. By the classic definition, this is an act of magic. The counseling session is another kind of set-apart time, devoted to the client, during which, by the client's permission, and by our own focused will, we change our consciousness. For that time, as best we can, we set aside our own inscape to enter theirs, hoping to help them explore it more fully.

Allowing another into our inscape is an act of great trust. Entering the inscape of another is an awesome privilege and responsibility. No one is ever perfectly "ready" for such deep contact. Still, if you are serving as a priest/ess, someday, somebody will nervously ask you if you have a few minutes to talk. Then, ready or not, you are acting as a counselor. The work itself will be your best teacher.

This is the Goddess' on-the-job training program: You do the best you can. You keep working on your own growth in insight. You stretch your skills, but do not go beyond them. You keep track of how your clients do, You find an elder to talk things over with. And, above all, you acknowledge your mistakes so you may learn from them.

When you sit with a client, the first challenge is to listen as openly as possible, without expectation or judgment. Always remember: this person is not you. No matter how similar they may seem, they came through a substantially different set of formative experiences. Race, class, gender, culture, region, specific family history, specific personal history, all have their influences. You will hear them better, and they will feel safer to speak, if you can set your theories aside and just listen.

You may be uncomfortable in the presence of grief, pain, anger or confusion. Bear with it. Don't rush to shut them up with slick answers or cheap comfort. That only cuts off their process. The client needs somebody to just be there, listen, and accept what they are saying. They haven't always had that. Being free to speak even the most hurtful things, feeling heard, understood and accepted, this is what it means to feel safe. All their experience, from earliest childhood to the way you respond to them today, builds or destroys that sense of safety.

Some of the client's message is verbal, some is non-verbal (tone of voice, facial expression, posture, and very much more). Some of the client's message is consciously chosen, some comes from their unconscious. You will receive some of it consciously, some of it subliminally. What you have received subliminally will also shape your reactions. If you really listen, and really care, you will inevitably have emotional responses to what you hear.

The second challenge is to listen as openly as possible to yourself. This will allow you to distinguish emotions you are picking up from the client, and likely sharing with them, from those that are entirely your own. For example, confronted with a very angry client, an empathic counselor would feel into the client's anger. But, if the counselor had previous painful experiences with anger, s/he might also be feeling some fear. It's important to be clear about where each feeling comes from.

So, the client shared as much as s/he could in this moment. Don't press or pry. The client knows how much s/he can face right now, and how safe s/he feels far better than you can. You opened yourself as far as you could, to both the verbal and the non-verbal parts of the message. Since non-verbal communication is often also unconsciously sent, you may be aware of some things that are still not consciously available the client. The third challenge is responding with acceptance and encouragement, so the client may feel safe to explore further.

Most often, you'll simply reflect back to the client what you have heard. This is called reflective, or passive, or "resonant" empathy,. A model commonly given to counseling students is "_________, I hear you saying you are feeling _______ about _________." (Don't worry, you'll find more natural wordings.) Such easy and comforting responses belong in the early phases of the exploration, while the client is getting used to working with you, and possibly to the whole idea of exploring their inscape. You'll also use reflective responses whenever the client is assimilating some new inner discovery, or if you sense that the client is getting stressed or upset. Gentle pacing helps maintain the client's sense of safety, without which no real work can take place.

As the client becomes more comfortable with you and with the exploration process, you may occasionally want to use a more active form of empathy, sometimes called "additive" or "imaginative" empathy. In these responses, you will be describing your perceptions of the client's non-verbal communication. The model is "_________, I hear you saying you are feeling _______ about _________. I am also sensing _____." Additive empathy does not mean adding to the client's feelings; it means adding to their conscious knowledge of feelings they were already having inside.

Always remember that you might be mistaken. You are still likely to be viewing their inscape through the lens of your own, and that might dull or distort the client's message. No one can perfectly distinguish perceptions from inferences from projections. Be sure to present any additive empathy responses very, very tentatively, If you insist that you know better about their life than they do, you will erode their sense of safety.

They may shut down. Worse yet, they may start telling you what you want to hear. Worst of all, especially if they have come to see their priest/ess as an authority figure, they might believe that you know better than they do about their own experiences, perceptions and feelings. If things deteriorate that far, their inscape becomes less accessible not only to you, but to them. Then you haven't just failed to help, you've actively done harm. Instead, realize that, for this work, you are a helper, not a leader. Make your suggestions, but let them control the process.

Please, as you do this, have reasonable expectations of yourself. It's important to understand that empathy is not an inborn talent but a trained skill. It's also an ideal, a model, a goal we work toward but never completely achieve. For one thing, our capacity varies with what's happening in our own lives. It's harder to open to the other when you are tired, scared, hurting. Also, even at our best moments, our own inscapes still shape and color our perceptions.

The practice of empathy, then, requires us to explore our own inscapes, develop our own insights, create the inner clarity that makes real listening possible, This deep self-exploration will bring us to our own hard, frightening, and painful moments. Sometimes we will recall ugly memories, or face, name and integrate the parts of our own hearts and minds that we were taught by example to reject. Neither is it easy to identify and take responsibility for our strengths.

Be careful not to push yourself too hard too fast. Be as gentle and respectful - and as thorough - with yourself as you would be with one of your coveners, Remember, this process is not altogether new to you, and you already have some good tools. Much of Wiccan practice supports self-exploration. Awareness meditation helps, as does journal work. And you may want to get some individual help from someone you trust who has preceded you on this Path.

Empathy is an intellectual, emotional, and, ultimately, a spiritual discipline. Like all others, it requires consistent and patient practice. Practice helps us to listen openly at the times when it isn't easy. Insight helps us distinguish our "stuff" from theirs. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself room and time to grow.

 To learn more:
Berger, David M. Clinical Empathy Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1987
Margulies, Alfred The Empathic Imagination NY: Norton, 1989

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  • Originally published in Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter (Ostara, 1995)
    The address of this page is http://proteuscoven.com/counsel/empathy.htm
    Contents of this page are copyright © 1995, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.