Empathy and Compassion in Therapy

I have supervised therapists for many years now and frequently both newly minted and seasoned practitioners talk about the burden of empathic attunement. Empathy asks of us therapists to have skin in the game, to open our hearts and minds to the pain and suffering clients bring to us day in and day out so that we may get a sense of their inner world and attune to and understand their being from the inside out. To genuinely engage with our clients, we need to genuinely feel alongside them. To the best of our ability, anyway. Our clients feel felt when we meet their being with an open heart and mind, willing to sit with whatever arises in their inner and outer life. But opening ourselves in this way, we need ways to navigate what can easily become overwhelming.

Compassion offers an expanded view. Thupten Jinpa, Director of the Compassion Institute at Stanford University, helpfully offers the following three integral aspects of compassion: First, we need to perceive the state of the other accurately, a cognitive process. Empathy arises when we open ourselves up to the emotional experience we perceive in the other and allow sufficient time to ‘sit with’. Then the motivation arises to help the client find a way out of their painful experience.

A conscious awareness of moving fluently between all three aspects is what helps us to stay steady in the face of suffering. Professor Paul Gilbert, founder of Compassion-focused therapy, reminds often that compassion is not a feeling but a motivation. The firefighter, for example, does not personally have feelings for the person they save but rather are motivated by a desire to reduce suffering. And after all, it is this motivation that got most of us into the therapeutic profession in the first place.