Exploring Empathy III


This is a practice-based situation that makes for good discussion about how empathic and how leading it’s appropriate to be in a counseling or psychotherapy session.

Putting It in Practice 5.1

What and How to Validate? Empathic Responding to Trauma and Abuse

Empathy often includes validation of client emotional experiences. But sometimes clients have ambivalent feelings about their own experiences which makes empathic validation complicated. This is especially possible in cases of trauma and abuse where victims can and do experience victim guilt—feeling as though they caused their own abusive experiences. For example, take the following Therapist-client interaction:

Therapist: “Can you think of a time when you felt unfairly treated? Perhaps punished when you didn’t deserve it?”

Client: “No, not really. (15-second pause) Well, I guess there was this one time. I was supposed to clean the house for my mother while she was gone. It wasn’t done when she got back, and she broke a broom over my back.”

Therapist: “She broke a broom over your back?” (stated with a slight inflection, indicating possible disapproval or surprise with the mother’s behavior)

Client: “Yeah. I probably deserved it, though. The house wasn’t cleaned like she had asked.”

In this situation, the client seems to have mixed feelings about her mother. On the one hand, the mother treated her unfairly; on the other hand, the client felt guilty because she saw herself as a bad girl who didn’t follow her mother’s directions. The therapist was trying to convey empathy through voice tone and inflection. This technique was chosen due to concerns that focusing too strongly on the client’s guilt or indignation and anger might prematurely shut down exploration of the client’s ambivalent feelings. Despite the therapist’s minimal expression of empathy, the client defended her mother’s punitive actions. This suggests that the client had already accepted (by age 11, and still accepted at age 42) her mother’s negative evaluation of her. From a person-centered or psychoanalytic perspective, a stronger supportive statement such as “That’s just abuse, mothers should never break brooms over their daughters’ backs” may have closed off any exploration of the client’s victim guilt about the incident.

Alternatively, this is a situation where gentle, open and empathic questioning might help deepen the therapist’s understanding of the client’s unique personal experience and help her explore other feelings, like anger, that she might have in response to her mother’s abuse. For example, the therapist could have asked:

I hear you saying that maybe you feel you deserved to be hit by your mother in that situation, but I also can’t help but wonder . . . what other feelings you might have?

Or, the therapist might use a third-person or relationship question to help the client engage in empathic perspective-taking herself:

What if you had a friend who experienced something like what you experienced? What would you say to your friend?

From a nondirective perspective, sensitive nondirective responses that communicate empathy through voice tone, facial expression, and feeling reflection are usually more advantageous than open support and sympathy. There’s always time for open support later, after the client has explored both sides of the issue.

In first version of this interaction, the therapist used a nondirective model, expressing only nonverbal empathy for the client’s abuse experience. He didn’t openly criticize or judge the mother’s violence. Do you think the therapist might have been too nondirective—in some ways aligning with the part of the client that felt her mother was justified in abusing her? Is it possible that the client actually might have been more able to explore her anger toward her mother if the therapist had led her in that direction using immediacy (i.e., empathic self-disclosure):

“When I imagine myself in your situation, I can feel the guilt you feel, but also, a part of me feels angry that my mother would care so much about housecleaning and so little about me.”

This self-disclosure is both empathic and leading. Do you think it’s too leading? Or do you think it’s a better response than the neutrality often emphasized in psychoanalytic therapies? These are important issues to discuss as you intentionally develop your own therapy style. . . and so be sure to discuss the variety of ways you might respond empathically and therapeutically to this client scenario.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Empathy III”

  1. John–I never cease to be amazed that you can keep posting even as you finish up your own book. This post would make a great piece for classroom discussion!

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