Tag Archives: Psychotherapy

Why Therapists Should Never Say, “I know how you feel”

The following excerpt is adapted from the fifth edition of the text, Clinical Interviewing (John Wiley & Sons, 6th edition forthcoming in October).

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Many writers have tried operationalizing Carl Rogers’s core conditions. However, efforts to transform person-centered therapy core conditions into specific behavioral skills always seem to fall short. As Natalie Rogers (J. Sommers-Flanagan, 2007) emphasized, trying to translate the core conditions into concrete behaviors is usually a sign that the writer or therapist simply doesn’t understand person-centered principles.

This lack of understanding occurs principally because core Rogerian attitudes are attitudes, not behaviors. This is a basic conceptual principle that has proven difficult to understand—perhaps especially for behaviorists. The point Rogers was making then (in the 1950s), and that still holds today, is that therapists should enter the consulting room with (a) deep belief in the potential of the client; (b) sincere desire to be open, honest, and authentic; (c) palpable respect for the individual self of the client; and (d) a gentle focus on the client’s inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Further complicating this process is the fact that the therapist must rely primarily on indirectly communicating these attitudes because efforts to directly communicate trust, congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding is nearly always contradictory to each of the attitudes.

A counselor educator friend of ours, Kurt Kraus, articulated why trying to directly communicate understanding is problematic. He wrote:

When a supervisee errantly says, “I know how you feel” in response to a client’s disclosure, I twitch and contort. I believe that one of the great gifts of multicultural awareness is for me accepting the limitations to the felt-experience of empathy. I can only imagine how another feels, and sometimes the reach of my experience is so short as to only approximate what another feels. This is a good thing to learn. I’ll upright myself in my chair and say, “I used to think that I knew how others felt too. May I teach you a lesson that has served me well?” (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2012) (p. 146)

Kraus’s lesson is an excellent one for all of us. The phrases, “I know how you feel” and “I understand” should be stricken from the vocabulary of counselors and psychotherapists.

Your Life is Now: Trapper Creek Reflections

The Road

Note: This is a re-post. I had a chance to drive to Trapper this past week with one of our doc students and I was reminded of the powerful life experiences that happen at Trapper Creek Job Corps.

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Sometimes on Thursday or Fridays I drive from Missoula to Trapper Creek Job Corps. Then I drive back the same day. It’s a 140 mile round trip. Sometimes I have interns with me. The company makes the miles go by more quickly. Sometimes the interns are very nervous sitting next to me for the whole drive and consequently compete to see who gets the back seat. This makes me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t quiz them about theories of counseling and psychotherapy as we drive there together. Although I wonder about this . . . I haven’t changed my behavior. Maybe this means I’m trying to scare them all into the back seat.

This week I was on my own. When this is the case I usually begin wondering why the heck I drive all these miles. Of course, I get paid to go to Trapper Creek. That’s one answer I give to myself. But I keep wondering anyway. It’s a long day, usually 11 or 12 hours. And when I’m about halfway there, 45 minutes into dodging deer with 45 more minutes to deal with Bitterroot drivers, I begin planning my retirement from Trapper Creek.

This is my 10th year (2013). I know the road and I know the deer and I know the Bitterroot drivers, who, in an apparent show of independence, nearly always drive either 10 mph under or 10 mph over the speed limit.

Today my retirement planning ended shortly after arriving at Trapper Creek. There were three straight appointments scheduled for me: three straight chances to do something more than talk about how to do psychological assessment and psychotherapy. And then a chance to observe and give feedback to the nursing staff and a chance to offer my unsolicited opinion to the physician on how to deal with an ingrown toenail and then a fourth student to see and a staff consultation and a meeting and a quick hello to our three University of Montana school counseling interns and wild typing of reports and poof . . . the day is over without a moment to ponder life or reflect on retirement.

The drive back to Missoula is nearly always better. There are stories to tell, opportunities to second guess myself, and unrealistic hopes and fantasies about having possibly helped someone. The miles melt away.

[The following stories are vague and distorted to preserve anonymity]

Today, with no interns for company my buddy John Cougar Mellencamp joined me on the drive back. We decided to sing together. We sang the same song so many times we lost count.

Your Life is Now

This is your time . . . to do what you will do

The first two young women were graduating from Trapper and moving on to advanced Job Corps training. They needed brief clinical interviews and mental status exams. These two hard working and delightful young women are at Trapper because they’ve experienced poverty and want to improve their lives.

Your life is now

One had a history of having been diagnosed with two severe mental disorders. Before coming to Trapper she’d been on two very powerful psychotropic medications. Funny thing: At Trapper she attained a very high level of functioning without medications . . . for nine straight months!

Your life is now

She had many “citations” for positive behavior. The staff love her. There was no shred of evidence that she had a mental disorder. So I just told her so. She grinned, looked at me, and said, “I guess that’s pretty good news.” Yep, pretty good news.

Your life is now

The second young woman was equally impressive.

In this undiscovered moment

But my last appointment, a young man with a history of trauma, really made my day.

We had visited two weeks previously and had made a plan to try some EMDR for his troubling trauma symptoms. He was eager and right on time. We talked briefly to warm up. He chose a memory. We went through various rating procedures included in the EMDR protocol.

Lift your head up above the crowd

We did several sets of eye movements. I did my usual wandering in and out of the “proper” EMDR protocol. After 10 minutes, we stopped and I asked him to reflect on his experience. He turned his head back and forth and said, “My neck doesn’t hurt anymore.”

We could shake this world

Then he smiled and said, “I feel like I can breathe again.” And then, “I wish I’d known about this ten years ago.”

If you would only show us how

Thank you Trapper Creek

Thank you fine young women and men

Thank you nurses and doctor and interns and staff

Thank you deer and Bitterroot drivers

Thank you for showing me how to shake this world and make a difference.

 Your life is now

Information on Suicide Interventions for Counselors

The following information is excerpted from the soon-to-be-forthcoming 5th edition of Clinical Interviewing, published by John Wiley & Sons. This includes information that I didn’t get a chance to cover during my ACA pre-conference Learning Institute yesterday. For information on the Clinical Interviewing text, see:  http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118270045/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

Safety Planning

The primary thought disorder in suicide is that of a pathological narrowing of the mind’s focus, called constriction, which takes the form of seeing only two choices; either something painfully unsatisfactory or cessation of life. (Shneidman, 1984, pp. 320–321)

Helping clients develop a thoughtful and practical plan for coping with and reducing psychological pain is a central component in suicide interventions. This plan can include relaxation, mindfulness, traditional meditation practices, cognitive restructuring, social outreach, and other strategies that increase self-soothing, decrease social isolation, and decrease the sense of being a social burden (Joiner, 2005).

Instead of the traditional approach of implementing no-suicide contracts, contemporary approaches emphasize obtaining a commitment to treatment statement from the client (Rudd et al., 2006). These treatment statements or plans go by various names including, “Commitment to Intervention,” “Crisis Response Plan,” “Safety Plan,” and “Safety Planning Intervention” (Jobes et al., 2008; Stanley & Brown, 2012); they’re more comprehensive and positive in that they describe activities that clients will do to address their depressive and suicidal symptoms, rather than focusing narrowly on what the client will not do (i.e., commit suicide). These plans also include ways for clients to access emergency support after hours (such as the national suicide prevention lifeline 1(800) 273-TALK or a similar emergency crisis number; Doreen Marshall, personal communication, September 30, 2012).

As a specific safety planning example, Stanley and Brown (2005) developed a brief treatment for suicidal clients, called the Safety Planning Intervention (SPI). This intervention was developed from evidence-based cognitive therapy principles and can be used in hospital emergency rooms as well as inpatient and outpatient settings (Brown et al., 2005). The SPI includes six treatment components:

  1. Recognizing  warning  signs of an  impending suicidal crisis
  2. Employing  internal coping  strategies
  3. Utilizing social contacts as a means of distraction  from suicidal  thoughts
  4. Contacting  family   members   or friends who may help to resolve the crisis
  5. Contacting mental health  professionals or agencies
  6. Reducing the  potential use of lethal  means (Stanley & Brown, 2012, p. 257)

Stanley and Brown (2012) noted that the sixth treatment component, reducing lethal means, isn’t addressed until the other five safety plan components have been completed. Component six also may require assistance from family members or a friend, depending on the situation.

Identifying Alternatives to Suicide

Suicide is a possible alternative to life. Engaging in a debate about the acceptability of suicide or whether with clients with suicidal impulses “should” seek death by suicide can backfire. Sometimes suicidal individuals feel so disempowered that the threat or possibility to take their own life is perceived as one of their few sources of control. Consequently, our main job is to help identify methods for coping with suicidal impulses and to identify life alternatives that are more desirable than death by suicide—rather than taking away clients’ rights to consider death by suicide.

Suicidal clients often suffer from mental constriction and problem-solving deficits; they’re unable to identify options to suicide. As Shneidman (1980) suggested, clients need help to improve their mood, regain hope, take off their constricting mental blinders, and “widen” their view of life’s options.

Shneidman (1980) wrote of a situation where a pregnant suicidal teenager came to see him in a suicidal crisis. She said she had a gun in her purse. He conceded to her that suicide was an option, while pulling out paper and a pen to write down other life options. Together, they generated 8-10 alternatives to suicide. Even though Shneidman generated most of the options and she rejected them, he continued writing them down, noting they were only options. Eventually, he handed the list over to her and asked her to rank order her preferences. It was surprising to both of them that she selected death by suicide as her third preferred option. As a consequence, together they worked to implement options one and two and happily, she never needed to choose option three.

This is a practical approach that you can practice with your peers and implement with suicidal clients. Of course, there’s always the possibility that clients will decide suicide is the best choice (at which point you’ve obtained important assessment information). However, it is surprising how often suicidal clients, once they’ve experienced this intervention designed to address their mental constriction symptoms, discover other, more preferable options that involve embracing life.

Separating the Psychic Pain From the Self

Rosenberg (1999; 2000) described a helpful cognitive reframe intervention for use with suicidal clients. She wrote, “The therapist can help the client understand that what she or he really desires is to eradicate the feelings of intolerable pain rather than to eradicate the self” (p. 86). This technique can help suicidal clients because it provides much needed empathy for the clients’ psychic pain, while at the same time helping them see that their wish is for the pain to stop existing, not for the self to stop existing.

Similarly, Rosenberg (1999) recommended that therapists help clients reframe what’s usually meant by the phrase “feeling suicidal.” She noted that clients benefit from seeing their suicidal thoughts and impulses as a communication about their depth of feeling, rather than an “actual intent to take action” (p. 86). Once again, this approach to intervening with suicidal clients can decrease clients’ needs to act, partly because of the elegant cognitive reframe and partly because of the therapist’s empathic message.

And here’s a photo of the cover of the Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book. You can get this through ACA or on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1363881381&sr=1-3

Tough Kids Image

Through the Anger Looking Glass

This blog was originally posted on the psychotherapy.net website this past week. Psychotherapy.net is a great resource for counselors and psychotherapists . . . http://www.psychotherapy.net/blog/title/through-the-anger-looking-glass

Through the Anger Looking Glass

By John Sommers-Flanagan

A couple weeks ago on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” the focus was on the 50th anniversary of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. In this book Friedan raged against the status of women in the 1960s. Although millions of people have read this feminist manifesto, it seems very few presently understand how anger in general and Friedan’s anger in particular could be a source of insight, motivation, and personal and social transformation.

Anger is an emotional state that has a bad rap. There’s far more written about anger control (“anger management”) than about how anger, when nurtured and examined, can transform. As most mental health professionals already know, anger is an emotion, not a behavior. And emotions are acceptable and desirable. When anger fuels aggressive or destructive behavior is when it becomes problematic.

But since everyone already knows about and talks about the destructive capability of anger—let’s talk about the constructive side of this emotion instead. Hardly anyone articulates anger’s positive qualities as clearly as the feminists. Feminist therapists consider “encouraging anger expression” as a meaningful process goal in psychotherapy for at least five reasons:

  1. Girls and women are typically discouraged from expressing anger directly. Experiencing and expressing anger without repressive cultural consequences can be an exhilarating freedom for females. Similarly, experiencing anger, but not letting it become aggression, is a new and productive process for males.
  2. Anger illuminates. There’s nothing quite like the rush of anger as a signal that something is not quite right. Examined anger can stimulate insight.
  3. Alfred Adler suggested that the purpose of insight in psychotherapy was to enhance motivation. Anger is helpful for both identifying psychotherapy goals AND for mobilizing client motivation.
  4. During psychotherapy anger may occur in-session towards the psychotherapist. Skillful therapists accept this anger without defensiveness and then collaboratively explore the meaning of in-session anger.
  5. Anger is a natural emotional response to oppression and abuse. If clients consistently suppress anger, it inhibits them from experiencing their full range of humanity.

For feminists, one goal of nurturing and exploring client anger is to facilitate feminist consciousness. Feminist consciousness involves females (and males) developing greater awareness of equality and balance in relationships. However, using anger to stimulate insight and motivation is useful in all forms of therapy, not just feminist therapy.

But working with (and not against) anger in psychotherapy is complex. The problem is that anger pulls so strongly for a behavioral response. Reactive anger is destructive. Clients want to let it out. Experiencing and expressing anger feels so intoxicatingly right. Clients want to punch walls. They want to formulate piercing insults. They want to counterattack. Unexamined anger is reactive and vengeful.

Imagine a male client. He’s uncomfortable with how his romantic partner has been treating him. You help him explore these feelings and identify the source; he recognizes that his partner has been treating him disrespectfully. But good psychotherapy doesn’t settle for simple answers. His new insight without further exploration could stimulate retaliatory impulses. Good psychotherapy stays with the process and examines aggressive outcomes. It helps clients explore alternatives. Could he be overreacting? Perhaps the anger is triggering an old wound and it’s not just the partner’s behavior that’s triggering the anger?

Relationships are nearly always a complex mix of past, present, and future impulses and transactions. When anger is respected as a signal and clients take ownership of their anger, good things can happen. It can be used to help clients become more skilled at identifying and articulating underlying sadness, hurt, and disappointment. Clients can emerge from psychotherapy with not only new insights, but increased responsibility for their behavior and more refined skills for communicating feelings and thoughts without blaming anger, but in a way that serves as an invitation for greater intimacy and deeper partnership.

None of this would be possible without the clarifying stimulation of anger and a collaborative psychotherapist who’s able to help clients face, embrace, and understand the many layers of meaning underneath your anger. And it’s about time we learned a lesson from the feminists and started giving anger the respect it deserves.

Musings About Online Counseling

As Rita and I updated the Clinical Interviewing text, we did a little web-searching for online counseling resources and the excerpt below includes our musings on this very interesting topic.

From Clinical Interviewing, 4th ed, updated, SF & SF, 2012

http://www.amazon.com/John-Sommers-Flanagan/e/B0030LK6NM/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

Online Counseling: Ethics and Reality

As a part of reviewing information for this chapter, we perused Internet therapy options available to potential consumers. Previous publications suggested a possible plethora of Internet counseling and psychotherapy providers with questionable professional credentials (Heinlen, Welfel, Richmond, & O’Donnell, 2003; Shaw & Shaw, 2006). Although we hoped that Internet service provision standards had improved, we weren’t overly impressed with our results. Generally, we found that most providers may have more expertise in business and marketing than they do in professional clinical work. Affixed on this foundation of business and marketing, we found two distinct approaches: the more ethical and the less ethical.

The Less Ethical Approach

Many providers offer online services but don’t acknowledge having specific credentials (e.g., a license) typically associated with clinical expertise. For example, practitioners with bachelor’s degrees (or less) made statements like the following:

“I am a counselor, life coach, and spiritual teacher with over 20 years of experience. I have studied the fields of counseling, psychology, personal growth, relationships, communications, business, computer programming and technology, languages, spirituality, metaphysics and energetic bodywork! In addition to my training, a [sic] 18-year relationship with my second husband has deepened my capacity to help others with relationship issues.”

This sort of enthusiastic introduction was typically followed by an equally enthusiastic statement about the breadth of services offered:

“My online counseling services specialties include, but are not limited to: anxiety/panic, self-esteem, highly sensitive people, couples counseling, relationship advice, life and career coaching, emotional intelligence, personal growth, affairs, guilt issues, work and career, trust issues, abuse/boundary issues, communication skills, conflict resolution, grief and loss, emotional numbness, spiritual development, stress management, blame, court-ordered counseling, codependency, problem resolution, jealousy, codependency and attachment, anger and depression, food and body, and developing peace of mind.”

Curiously, we found that the broad range of claims on websites such as these did not move us toward developing or experiencing peace of mind.

The More Ethical Approach

There were also websites that included professional, licensed providers. For example, one website listed and described eight licensed practitioners with backgrounds in professional counseling, social work, and psychology. These professionals offered webcam therapy, text therapy, e-mail therapy, and telephone therapy.

Prices included:

  • E-mail therapy: $25 per online counselor reply
  • Unlimited e-mail therapy: $200 per month
  • Chat therapy: $45 per 50-minute session
  • Telephone therapy: $80 per 50-minute session
  • Webcam therapy: $80 per 50-minute session

The more ethical professional Internet services also tended to include information related to theoretical orientation. For example, a “postmodern” approach was described as involving: “Staying positive . . . focused on the here and now . . . offering solutions that meet your needs . . . a collaborative and respectful environment . . . quick results . . .”

How to Choose an Internet Services Provider

The National Directory of Online Counselors now exists to help consumers choose an online provider. They state:

“We have personally verified the credentials and the websites of each therapist listed in the National Directory of Online Counselors. Feel assured that the therapists listed are state board licensed, have a Master’s Degree or Doctoral Degree in a mental health discipline, and have online counseling experience.”

The listed therapists and websites are set up and ready to handle secure communication, and offer various services such as eMail Sessions, Chat Sessions, and Telephone Sessions. All work conducted by the professional licensed therapists meet[s] strict confidentiality standards overseen by their professional state board.

Both of these distinct approaches to online therapy emphasize that help is only a mouse click away.

Exploring Empathy — Part I

Happy Saturday. This post is the first of a three-part preview of our discussion on Empathy from Clinical Interviewing, 5th Edition.

See: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-2012-2013-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118390113/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

Empathic Understanding

Empathic understanding is a central concept in counseling and psychotherapy. Rogers (1980) defined empathy as:

. . . the therapist’s sensitive ability and willingness to understand the client’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from the client’s point of view. [It is] this ability to see completely through the client’s eyes, to adopt his frame of reference, (p. 85) . . .  It means entering the private perceptual world of the other . . . being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person. . . . It means sensing meanings of which he or she is scarcely aware. (p. 142)

Rogers’s definition of empathy is complex. It includes several components.

  • Therapist ability or skill
  • Therapist attitude or willingness
  • A focus on client thoughts, feelings, and struggles
  • Adopting the client’s frame of reference or perspective-taking
  • Entering the client’s private perceptual world
  • Moment-to-moment sensitivity to felt meanings
  • Sensing meanings of which the client is barely aware

A Deeper Look at Empathy

As with congruence and unconditional positive regard, the complexity of Rogers’s definition has made research on empathy challenging. Many different definitions of empathy have been articulated (Batson, 2009; Clark, 2010; Duan & Hill, 1996). According to Elliott, Bohart, Watson, & Greenberg (2011), recent advances in neuroscience have helped consolidate empathy definitions into three core subprocesses:

  1. Emotional simulation: This is a process that allows one person to experientially mirror another’s emotions. Emotional simulation likely involves mirror neurons and various brain structures within the limbic system (e.g., insula).
  2. Perspective-taking: This is a more intellectual or conceptual process that appears to involve the pre-frontal and temporal cortices.
  3. Emotion regulation: This involves a process of re-appraising or soothing of one’s own emotional reactions. It appears to be a springboard for a helping response. Emotional regulation may involve the orbitofrontal cortex and prefrontal and right inferior parietal cortices.

Empathy is an interpersonal process that requires experiencing, inference, and action. In chapter 1 we noted that playing a note on one violin will cause a string on another violin to vibrate as well, albeit at a lower level. In therapy, this has been referred to as resonance. Most people have had the experience of feeling tears well up at a movie or while someone talks about pain or trauma. This is the experiential component of empathy that Elliot et al., (2011) referred to as emotional simulation).

Beyond this physical/experiential resonance, one person cannot objectively know another person’s emotions and thoughts. Consequently, at some level, empathy always involves subjective inference. This process has been referred to as perspective-taking in the scientific literature and is considered a cognitive or intellectual requirement of empathy (Stocks, Lishner, Waits, & Downum, 2011).

Empathy—at least within the context of a clinical interview—also requires action. Therapists must cope with and process the emotions that are triggered and then provide an empathic response. Most commonly this involves reflection of feeling or feeling validation, but nearly every potential interviewing response or behavior can include verbal and nonverbal components that include empathy. The action component of empathy is likely what Elliot et al., are referring to with the term emotional regulation.

Simple guides to experiencing and expressing empathy can help you develop your empathic abilities. At the same time, we don’t believe any single strategy will help you develop the complete empathy package. For example, Carkhuff (1987) referred to the intellectual or perspective-taking part of empathy as “asking the empathy question” (p. 100). He wrote:

By answering the empathy question we try to understand the feelings expressed by our helpee. We summarize the clues to the helpee’s feelings and then answer the question, How would I feel if I were Tom and saying these things? (p. 101).

Carkhuff’s empathy question is a useful tool for tuning into client feelings, but it also oversimplifies the empathic process in at least two ways. First, it assumes therapists have a perfectly calibrated internal affective barometer. Unfortunately this is not the case as clients and therapists can have such different personal experiences that the empathy question produces completely inaccurate results; just because you would feel a particular way if you were in the client’s shoes doesn’t mean the client feels the same way. Sometimes empathic responses are a projection of the therapist’s feelings onto the client. If you rely solely on Carkhuff’s empathy question, you risk projecting your own feelings onto clients.

Consider what might happen if a therapist tends towards pessimism, while her client usually puts on a happy face. The following exchange might occur:

Client: “I don’t know why my dad wants us to come to therapy now and talk to each other. We’ve never been able to communicate. It doesn’t even bother me any more. I’ve accepted it. I wish he would accept it too.”

Therapist: “It must make you angry to have a father who can’t communicate effectively with you.”

Client: “Not at all. I’m letting go of my relationships with my parents. Really, I don’t let it bother me.”

In this case, asking the empathy question: “How would I feel if I could never communicate well with my father?” may produce angry feelings in the therapist. This process consequently results in the therapist projecting her own feelings onto the client—which turns out to be a poor fit for the client. Accurate empathic responding stays close to client word content and nonverbal messages. If this client had previously expressed anger or was looking upset or angry (e.g., angry facial expression, raised voice), the therapist might resonate with and choose to reflect anger. However, instead the therapist’s comment is inaccurate and is rejected by the client. The therapist could have stayed more closely with what her client expressed by focusing on key words. For example:

Coming into therapy now doesn’t make much sense to you. Maybe you used to have feelings about your lack of communication with your dad, but it sounds like at this point you feel pretty numb about the whole situation and just want to move on.

This second response is more accurate. It touches on how the client felt before, what she presently thinks, as well as the numbed affective response. The client may well have unresolved sadness, anger, or disappointment, but for the therapist to connect with these buried feelings requires a more interpretive intervention. Recall from Chapter 3 that interpretations and interpretive feeling reflections must be supported by adequate evidence.

To help with the intellectual process of perspective-taking, instead of focusing exclusively on what you’d feel if you were in your client’s shoes, you can expand your repertoire in at least three ways:

  1. Reflect on how other clients have felt or might feel
  2. Reflect on how your friends or family might feel and think in response to this particular experience
  3. Read and study about experiences similar to your clients’.

Based on Rogers’s writings, Clark (2010) referred to intellectual approaches to expanding your empathic understanding as objective empathy. Objective empathy involves using “theoretically informed observational data and reputable sources in the service of understanding a client” (Clark, 2010, p. 349). Objective empathy is based on the application of external knowledge to the empathic process—this can expand your empathic responding beyond your own personal experiences.

Rogers (1961) also emphasized that feeling reflections should be stated tentatively so clients can freely accept or dismiss them. Elliot et al., (2011) articulated the tentative quality of empathy very well: “Empathy should always be offered with humility and held lightly, ready to be corrected” (p. 147)

From a psychoanalytic perspective, it’s possible to show empathy not only for what clients are saying, but also for their defensive style (e.g., if they’re using defense mechanisms such as rationalization or denial, show empathy for those):

Client: “I don’t know why my dad wants us to come to therapy now. We’ve never been able to communicate. It doesn’t even bother me any more. I’ve accepted it. I wish he would.”

Therapist: “Coming into therapy now doesn’t make much sense to you. Maybe you had feelings about your lack of communication with your dad before, but it sounds like you feel pretty numb about the whole situation now.”

Client: “Yeah, I guess so. I think I’m letting go of my relationships with my parents. Really, I don’t let it bother me.”

Therapist: “Maybe one of the ways you protect yourself from feeling anything is to distance yourself from your parents. Otherwise, it could still bother you, I suppose.”

Client: “Yeah. I guess if I let myself get close to my parents again, my dad’s pathetic inability to communicate would bug me again.”

This client still has feelings about her father’s poor communication. One of the functions of accurate empathy is to facilitate the exploration of feelings or emotions (Greenberg, Watson, Elliot, & Bohart, 2001). By staying with the client’s feelings instead of projecting her own feelings onto the client, the therapist is more likely to facilitate emotional exploration.

A second way in which Carkhuff’s (1987) empathy question is simplistic is that it treats empathy as if it had to do only with accurately reflecting client feelings. Although accurate feeling reflection is an important part of empathy, as Rogers (1961) and others have discussed, empathy also involves thinking and experiencing with clients (Akhtar, 2007). Additionally, Rogers’s use of empathy with clients frequently focused less on emotions and more on meaning. Recall that in his original definition, Rogers wrote that empathy involved: “. . . being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person. . .” (p. 142). And so empathic understanding is not simple, it involves feeling with, thinking with, sensing felt meanings, and reflecting all this and more back to the client with a humility that acknowledges deep respect for the validity of the client’s own experiences.

More to come on this tomorrow in “Exploring Empathy” Part II.

References

Akhtar, S. (Ed.). (2007). Listening to others: Developmental and clinical aspects of empathy and attunement Lanham, MD, US: Jason Aronson.

Carkhuff, R. R. (1987). The art of helping (6th ed.). Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press.

Clark, A. J. (2010). Empathy: An integral model in the counseling process. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 348-356.

Greenberg, L. S., Watson, J. C., Elliot, R., & Bohart, A. C. (2001). Empathy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 38(4), 380-384.

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Stocks, E. L., Lishner, D. A., Waits, B. L., & Downum, E. M. (2011). I’m embarrassed for you: The effect of valuing and perspective taking on empathic embarrassment and empathic concern. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(1), 1-26. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00699.x

 

Excerpt from The Initial Psychotherapy Session with Adolescent Clients

Adolescent clients are known for their tendency to push their psychotherapist’s emotional buttons. For example:

Therapist:     I want to welcome you to therapy with me and I hope we can work together in ways you find helpful.

Client:          You talk just like a shrink. I punched my last therapist in the nose (client glares at therapist and awaits a response).

If psychotherapists are not aware of how they are likely to react to emotionally provocative situations (such as the preceding) and prepared to respond with empathy, validation, and concession, they may not be well-suited to working with adolescent clients (Sommers-Flanagan & Richardson, 2011).

Nearly all adolescents have quick reactions to therapists and unfortunately these reactions are often negative, though some may be unrealistically positive (Bernstein, 1996). Adolescents may bristle at the thought of an intimate encounter with someone whom they see as an authority figure. Having been judged and reprimanded by adults previously, adolescents may anticipate the same relationship dynamics in psychotherapy. Therapists must be ready for this negative reaction (i.e., transference) and actively develop strategies to engage clients, lower resistance, and manage their own countertransference reactions (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007).

And later in the article . . .

Based on clinical experience, we recommend opening statements or questions that are like invitations to work together. Adolescent clients may or may not reject the invitation, but because adolescent clients typically did not select their psychotherapist, offering an invitation is a reasonable opening. We recommend an invitation that emphasizes disclosure, collaboration, and interest and that initiates a process of exploring client goals. For example,

I’d like to start by telling you how I like to work with teenagers. I’m interested in helping you be successful. That’s my goal, to help you be successful in here or out in the world. My goal is to help you accomplish your goals. But there’s a limit on that. My goals are your goals just as long as your goals are legal and healthy.

The messages imbedded in that sample opening include: (a) this is what I am about; (b) I want to work with you; (c) I am interested in you and your success; (d) there are limits regarding what I will help you with. It is very possible for adolescent clients to oppose this opening in one way or another, but no matter how they respond, a message that includes disclosure, collaboration, interest, and limits is a good beginning.

And finally, photo that includes me and my professional coauthor.

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