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Is Empathy Enough?

When we listen to many mental health practitioners, it sounds like empathy is the only skill that a therapist needs. Is it, though?

Empathy is often defined as “feeling with” and contrasted with “feeling for.” Anyone who has watched Carl Roger’s demos or read his books can recognize his empathy as his ability to be with the patient at every moment of the session. It is as if they are walking together through the forest, holding hands — he shares the client’s experience.

But again, is it enough?

Here is a problem. When we fully share the client’s experience, we only see what the client sees—and miss everything they miss. We miss their own role in their drama, the peculiar similarities between their internal monologue and the voice of their mother, and other interesting unconscious dynamics.

The sole focus on empathy also leaves a question: what part of the client should we empathize with? Should we empathize with the false self or a narcissistic client? Should we emphasize the harsh and punitive superego of an obsessive-compulsive client? Seeing parts of the psyche as parts requires a meta-position — which is absent when we are “walking together through the forest holding hands.”

We can be more helpful to clients by gently bringing to their awareness what they are not seeing (or trying not to see).

We need to be able to: 


1/ Experience their world through their immediate senses — which allows us to build rapport 

2/ See their world through the eyes of the parts of the self they do not identify with—to help them discover abandoned parts of their psyche. Empathy with only ego-syntonic parts forecloses this exploration.

3/ See their world through our own eyes — to show them that there is more than one way of making meaning of their situation.

4/ Observe whatever feelings they stir up in us — to show them what impact they make on others.

We need more than empathy.


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