Monday, March 28, 2011


My blogger friend Linda asks about empathy. I wrote this some time ago for a workshop.

Empathy is quite a complicated psychological process when one gets down to describing it theoretically. I suppose this is to be expected as it is considered one of the more ‘higher’ forms of communication compared to the more basic and primitive processes such as simply communicating feelings to another.

Carl Rogers states that empathy is not just the cognitive understanding of the client‘s experience, but actually experiencing it without getting lost in it.

He says to sense the client’s confusion, timidity or anger as if it were the therapist’s own but without getting lost in it. That is without it becoming to big in the therapist or negatively impacting on their ability to function. The therapist can then communicate that understanding to the client.

(Rogers(1962), The interpersonal relationship: The core of guidance. In Rogers and Stevens (eds.) “Person to Person”).

These are some examples I found in the text books of empathy being expressed

“It must be very frightening to be so uncertain about your job security.”

“I think I see what you are saying. In some ways you like coming here and talking to me, but you’re not sure it’s really doing very much for you.”

“My goodness, you really love her, don’t you?”

This process described however rests on magical thinking and thus is a flawed process or at least a flawed description of the process.


Lets examine the process of empathy from an ego states perspective.

1. Therapist is aware and comprehends their observations of the client.

The Adult ego state of the therapist observers the clients behaviour and verbal reports of what they are experiencing.

2. Therapist has their feeling reactions to the awareness and comprehension of the client.

3. Therapist’s Parent ego state keeps the Free Child reaction in check such that it does not get too large or debilitating to the therapist and that the gaol remains the welfare of the client rather than the therapists own Free Child needs.
4. NP caring combines with FC feeling reactions and Adult ego state understanding to have an empathetic response to the client. As you can see quite a complex psychological process.


It should be noted that one can not experience what the client is experiencing, one can only have a feeling reaction to it. This feeling allows the therapist’s experience to be what he perceives is a copy of the client’s experience but this is only ever a guess as one cannot experience what another person is experiencing.

Ironically in this way empathy is quite self centred and narcissistic process. It is about me and my understanding of the experience of the client. It becomes about the other in the last stage of the process with the NP involvement. The therapist’s personal experience of the client is then used in a caring way to the benefit of the client.



  1. Hi Tony, I always thought empathy to be more about child to child connection (body language) however now that you mention some of those mirroring techniques by the therapist, perhaps it is a lttle more "mechanical"? My guess is that the narcissistic element involved would need to be aligned with compassion and or at least, genuine representation of therapists potency. If not, and the therapist manages to simulate (fake) the above empathic skill set, then the therapist is more about "using relationships" and perhaps involves anti social tendencies. k

  2. I'm not sure about the narcissism idea. I think all experience would then fit into the narcissism box - all experience is my experience.

    I think there is a difference between focusing on ourselves and another person or object. Even though they are both our experience.

  3. We may have to agree to disagree on that one Evan,

    It seems to me the only experience that I can know is mine and that is a self involved exercise. So narcissism would seem to fit the bill in this way.



  4. Tony, there is some solid evidence coming first with monkey research and then human that our brain does react in a way that imitates what we observe. An ape makes a threatening move toward another ape. The observing ape's brain reacts with the same brain response but without the action. The observing ape now has several choices, wimp out and slink away, return the rage, or play possum and flop in a heap. The behavioral clue observed is the same so the choice of anger should be similar. My source a feature in The Edge an occasional ezine by leading professionals. I have not had time to read the last three.

  5. Good points Ken,

    I would tend to think that the empathy process I describe allows both parties to gain a sense of connection with each other. Yes I agree that compassion is involved in empathy but the inital 'part' of empathy is a self examination of ones feelings and thus one could denote it as a narcissistic process


  6. In this situation then empathy seems narcissistic. But I get why a therapist would have to connect to the client in this way.

    At the moment the therapist and I are talking me through empathy, selflessness and what he calls my "agape" style of loving others. The need to get the lines between each more defined.

    Now I wonder if, deep down, I am not just a naval gazing narcissist.

  7. Thanks Jon, I will look up that ezine

    I have always maintained the view that imitation ia an instictual thing that humans do. In ego state terms the introjection into the Parent ego state. So it is good to have some neurological research to back up my view


  8. Hello Linda,

    What's wrong with being a navel gazing narcissist. Some of my best friends are precisely that!

    Watch out for that self deprivation racket my good friend.

    Ahh yes, agape! Carl Rogers used the term a good deal. Sometimes you hear therapists saying they have agape for their clients. A nice word to sanitize their eroticised counter transference to the client.


  9. BTW Jon,

    If you can get hold of that article I would be interested to read it


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