“I was a bit worried about starting seeing a counsellor. I knew that what I’ve been through in the past often elicits a ‘poor-you’ response from other people. When I’ve tried to open up about these things to others, even my friends, I always get a sense that they are feeling sorry for me. But I don’t want their pity. When I first met my counsellor, I was worried that I’d be on the receiving end of the same kind of sympathy. But it wasn’t like that at all. He listened to me, he understood me and I felt accepted by him. After years of people feeling sorry for me, it was genuinely refreshing to feel like someone really ‘got’ me and where I was coming from.”
Empathy is often confused with sympathy but the two states are actually very different. Whereas sympathy is an emotional response to another person (for example, we might feel sorry for someone who tells us about an upsetting event that has happened to them), empathy is something a little more complicated. Empathy involves trying to understand the other person’s experience from their own subjective point of view. Another way of describing it is imagining what things would be like in the other person’s shoes… not ‘How would I feel in this situation?’ but rather ‘How do they feel in this situation?’
Empathy involves putting yourself, your own thoughts and beliefs, your own preconceptions and personal emotional baggage to one side. Psychologist Carl Rogers believed empathy to be one of the core conditions of successful therapeutic growth. He highlighted the ‘as if’ quality of it, where the therapist endeavours to sense the emotions of the client as if they were their own emotions. Whilst some people are naturally more empathic than others, we are all capable of practising and developing empathy towards other people. A key element of empathy is understanding your frame of reference. Your experience of the world around you is based not just on what happens to you in the present, but also on a multitude of experiences (both good and bad) in your past. These experiences are made all the more subjective by your own beliefs, your sense of who you are and what you feel is right and wrong. With such a diverse range of factors to take into consideration, it should come as no surprise to learn that your own frame of reference, the way in which you experience the world, is wholly unique to you. When practising empathy towards others, we must learn that we each have our own subjective view of the world and that one person’s frame of reference may be radically different to our own.
Being on the receiving end of such empathy can be a powerful experience. Many have described it as akin to being understood at a deep emotional level. For those who have found themselves frustrated by the inability of their friends or family to “get” where they are coming from, an empathic encounter can feel like a breath of fresh air.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
01851 871094 / 07815 662208