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Empathy Revisited

byGerard Murphy

The process of empathy can be interpreted in many ways. I will present my understanding of empathy using quotations from Mearns and Thornes, Rogers, Benner and others to support my views and form a picture of the process, as I understand it.  I will explore the conditions necessary for the practice of empathy and I will look at the dimensions involved in the process, focusing on spirituality and love. I will also introduce some of my own experiences to demonstrate my personal meaning of empathy where appropriate.

My understanding of empathy is that of a process, a particularly complex process of being with another human being. This process encompasses a variety of functions that I believe to be physical, psychological, emotional/feeling and spiritual–all of which facilitate healing within a therapeutic relationship. The process requires the counsellor to leave aside his or her own issues, ideas and perceptions and to gently enter into the client’s frame of reference, accurately sensing and understanding the feelings and attitudes of the client and communicating this appropriately, so that the client knows he or she is fully understood. It is a process where the counsellor provides a sacred space for the client to explore or unburden safely, and where the counsellor holds or absorbs the client’s suffering or pain and shares his or her own strength with the client, during the session.

Without empathy there can be no understanding. Empathy is indeed a prerequisite of human relationships and is mandatory in therapeutic settings. The process of empathy requires of the counsellor a commitment to the client, far above and beyond that required for normal social interaction. It requires the counsellor to be at the depths of self and to have an energy of awareness that comes from deep within oneself.  I could identify with the following quotation concerning empathy: “Brief definitions seldom capture the full meaning of processes.”(Mearns and Thorne, 2003, p 41) Mearns and Thorne proceed to offer the following definition:

Empathy is a continuing process whereby the counsellor lays aside his own way of experiencing and perceiving reality, preferring to sense and respond to the experience and perceptions of her client.  This sensing may be intense and enduring with the counsellor actually experiencing her clients’ thoughts and feelings as powerfully as if they had originated in herself.

This definition does not capture the full meaning of such a process, but it does capture an important part of empathy, which is a central dimension of the therapeutic relationship.  By way of supplementing this definition, I would link it with two other pieces of literature; firstly, a quotation from a lecture by Dr. Frank Lake to the Clinical Theology Association :

To communicate empathy with one whose basic experiences of life are utterly different from our own is not a natural gift.  It requires deliberate study, effort, costly identification.  We must focus on our own inner life, sorting it out and distinguishing it from the other persons and admitting to our own failures, our own sordidness, weakness, guilt, lust and rage.

Here, Lake gives an insight into the depths required by the counsellor and leaves little doubt about the commitment required to practice empathy.  Finally, to refine my understanding, I believe the words of David G. Benner in a paper entitled ‘Therapeutic Love; An Incarnational Interpretation of Counselling’ are appropriate.  He says of empathy:

But perhaps it is more parsimonious to view the curative factor in this basic process as love.  Love involves giving of oneself to another, making oneself available to bear someone else’s burdens and to share in their struggles.  This is not sloppy sentimentalism but rather tough, discipline personally costly love.  Its mode of communication is involvement, its effect is healing. (Benner, 1985, p.10)

I would endeavour to look at these three quotations and combine the wisdom of each of them. Mearns and Thorne explain the process in the therapeutic situation, Lake points to the counsellor as a person and the need to be at depth, and Benner adds the element of ‘love’, which he suggests leads to the transformation of the clients inner world, and thus, he says, constitutes “…the incarnational element of psychotherapy.”  Together these produce a map that I feel I can follow as I endeavour to gain more experience and understanding of this complex process of empathy in my training.

Interestingly, Carl R. Rogers poses a number of questions on the subject of ‘Characteristics of a Healing Relationship’ which, in my view, demand attention.  He asks:

Can I be strong enough as a person to be separate from the other?

Am I secure enough within myself to permit him his separateness?

Can I permit him to be what he is?

Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see them as he does?

Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate it or judge it? Can I enter it so sensitively that I can move about in it freely without trampling on meanings which are precious to him?

Can I sense it so accurately that I can catch not only the meaning of his experience which are obvious to him, but also those meanings which are only implicit, which he sees only dimly or as confusion?

Can I extend this understanding without limit?

(Rogers, 2002, pp52-3)

All of these questions are appropriate in gaining understanding of what is required to facilitate growth in relationships. They point out the need for sensitive, accurate empathy.  This can only occur when the counsellor has achieved a deep level of self-awareness and has an integrated appreciation of his or her own separateness and is able to provide basic conditions for the client such as warmth, genuineness, trust, rapport, equality and unconditional positive regard. The therapist needs to be involved fully with the client and be fully alive within himself or herself, ready to risk  without getting hooked in, without losing the ‘as if’ quality described by Rogers.

Equally important is the necessity for the therapist to exercise self-care and professionalism in his or her approach to dealing with clients. The therapist needs to be mindful and focused and have a meditative self-presence. The therapist must work at his or her personal relationships and have his or her needs for love and affection met in order to prevent unconscious material leaking into sessions with clients. A balanced lifestyle including rest, exercise and diet are also vital ingredients for the therapist in renewing strength which is constantly depleted when working with clients. Supervision and the sharing of burdens complete the picture and enable the therapist to continue practicing the process of empathy at depth. This is the commitment required as Rogers points out when discussing the counsellor’s role.  He says: To be of assistance to you I will put aside myself – the self of ordinary interaction – and enter into your world of perception as completely as I am able.  I will become, in a sense, another self for you – an alter ego of your own attitudes and feelings.”(Rogers, 2003, p35)

Words like ‘to put aside myself’ and to ‘become another self for you’ bring me to examine what else might be taking place in the process of empathy and in therapeutic relationships.  I am, of course, referring to the spiritual dimension, which I mentioned earlier. When two people meet at this level of reality it becomes so much more than a meeting of two people – it becomes a meeting of two souls.  Towards the end of his life, Carl Rogers identified a new spiritual dimension in his work. William West in his book ‘Psychotherapy and Spirituality’ quotes Rogers as follows:

I found that when I am close to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness in the relationship, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing.  Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful…At these moments it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other…Profound growth and healing energies are present.(West, 2000, p28)

Rogers’ use of the word ‘presence’ here suggests a mystical or spiritual experience.  West points out the controversy this caused in client-centred circles. However, it makes perfect sense to me. West later quotes Mearns: “The future of the person-centred approach may well depend on its capacity to embrace the world of spiritual reality.”(West, 2000, p.29) Brian Thorne  captures the importance of spirituality and uses the word ‘tenderness’ to describe those moments in therapy where the therapeutic encounter becomes a spiritual experience for both parties.  Thorne says of tenderness: “In the first place it is a quality which irradiates the total person.  It is evident in the voice, the eyes, the hands, the thoughts, the feelings, the beliefs, the moral stance, the attitude to things animate and inanimate, seen and unseen.” (in West, 2000, pp.68-9)

Thorne continues to describe ‘responsive vulnerability’ – the ability to move between worlds of the physical, emotional, cognitive and mystical, without strain, the joyful embracing of the desire for love, the flow of energy moving through him freely, two human beings fully alive together.  He concludes: At such moments I have no hesitation in saying that my client and I are caught up in a stream of love.  With this stream there comes an effortless or intuitive understanding, and what is astonishing is how complex this understanding can be.”

These descriptions of tenderness, love and empathy represent role models for the kind of contact I would aspire to in my understanding of how I might experience clients in a therapeutic setting in the future. I believe I can also draw from my personal experiences in life to complement what I now understand about the process of empathy.  My ability to understand others less fortunate or more troubled or so completely different than me has developed and expanded in recent years. The deeper I look within myself the more I can identify with others.  When I see a criminal, a murderer, a rapist, a paedophile, a terrorist I now ask myself: why not me?  Of course I understand the impact on their victims, but I am experiencing people differently.  After all, they are people too and I can’t but wonder what particular set of circumstances might I experience before I also respond as they have. Frightening as it may seem, and this is what Lake referred to as ‘costly identification’, this is where the process of empathy really becomes a humbling shared human experience.

In conclusion, I am inclined to use words like tenderness, gentleness, warmth, participation, communication, intuition, spirituality, healing energy and humility when describing the wonderful process of empathy. I see empathy as a very important and necessary component of therapy. I have no doubt that the nature and practice of empathy can be healing for both client and therapist. If I were pressed to define empathy with one word, I would choose ‘love’ as it sparks the fire of relationships, therapeutic and otherwise.  In the words of the great Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his poem ‘Love’s Energy’:

Someday, after we have mastered the wind, the waves, the tide and gravity, we shall harness for God the energy of love. Then, for the second time in the history Of the world, man will have discovered fire. (in Dyer, 1998, p.227)

Gerard Murphy is a second year student at Castlebar Counselling and Psychotherapy Centre. He can be contacted at murphyandmurphy@eircom.net


Benner, D. G. (1985) Lingdale Paper No. 1.’Therapeutic Love: International Interpretation of Counselling’ C.T.A. Oxford .

Lake, Dr. F. Clinical Theology Association. Lecture

Mearns, D. and Thorne, B. (2003) Person-Centred Counselling in Action. London: Sage

Mearns, D.  in West, W.(2000) Psychotherapy and Spirituality. London: Sage            

Rogers, C. R. (1967, new Ed. 2002)) On Becoming a Person. London: Constable

Rogers, C.R. (1951, new Ed.2003) Client-Centred Therapy London: Constable& Robinson

Rogers, C.R in West,W. (2000) Psychotherapy and Spirituality. London: Sage 

Thorne, B. in West, W. (2000) Psychotherapy and Spirituality. London: Sage 

Teilhard de Chardin, P. in Dyer, W.D. (1998) Wisdom of the Ages. London: Thorsons

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