Empathy – sophisticated sympathy

Empathy – sophisticated sympathy. A practitioner shares her revelation on the true harm of empathy.

Empathy – sophisticated sympathy

The psychotherapy profession advocates empathy and yet I now know that if we are empathic we will absorb/take on our clients’ issues. I recall the very moment I knew I no longer absorbed my clients’ issues.

I was in a supervision session where I was going through my latest client’s life history, when my supervisor made an empathic sound – a low groan. It stopped me in my tracks and I thought, “what are you doing?” In that moment, I realised that this is how I would have been had I not begun the practice of observing and not absorbing; having compassion instead of empathising. Instead of being affected by what my clients are sharing, imagining how they feel, I rather choose to be as in my body as possible and simply hear and see what is being said verbally and non-verbally.

It could not have been clearer that I had made a choice that stopped me from being drained by the work I do. I can listen to a client’s life story without getting lost in it, remaining fully present with me in order to offer them this reflection of a way out of the pain they are in. I do not join them in their emotional state. Could we then say that empathy is a trick of the profession – that it is merely sophisticated sympathy – which professionals agree is of no use to clients?

Not only is empathy sophisticated sympathy, it is recommended by many schools of psychotherapy as the holy grail of the profession for aiding transformation in their clients. A well-executed empathic reflection can help a client be heard and know that they have been fully understood. But what is the energetic quality of this?

At a conference in Islington, London 2011, I heard Colin Trevarthen (Professor Emeritus of Child Psychology and Psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh) express that “empathy is evil”. I went up to him after he presented to learn more. Trevarthen went on to tell me that the origin of the word empathy is to look with an evil eye, that it is an unnatural way to be with someone. (I have not been able to verify his claim – Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathēs emotional, from empathos feelings, emotion — more at pathos First Known Use: 1850)

I couldn’t agree more however... but what is evil about being empathic?

  • It traps the person in believing that their story about their hurts and experiences is who they are
  • It feeds recognition that they identify with their experiences
  • The therapist is poisoned by taking on the energy of something that is not theirs – the emotion enters the body of the therapist and cannot be easily dealt with as it’s not their issue.

When we identify with the story of our hurts and experiences as being us, we forget that we are Divine by nature, that our natural expression is a breath away and has nothing to do with our story. By identifying with the story that is being empathized with we are offered no true healing; we may feel met in our hurt but that only cements the hurt in the body, without healing it.

Attending psychotherapy conferences it is very common to notice that the practitioners are quite exhausted, with little vitality. When we absorb an emotion that is not ours we can’t deal with that energy in our bodies – as the root cause is not our experience. It is literally poison to the body of the therapist.

Empathy is a damaging position for the client and for the practitioner’s health and wellbeing, as described here by world philosopher Serge Benhayon.

"Taking other people’s stuff on creates 80% of illness and disease in this world – absorbing others people’s stuff is poison, which you cannot debase so easily to heal."

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 486

I have had many counselling experiences with Esoteric practitioners who observe rather than empathise and I can share that when someone accepts what you are sharing and then offers you the space to discover together the energetic truth of what has occurred, it is a freeing and a truly healing experience.

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AccountabilityAwarenessHumanityMental healthPractitionerSickness

  • By Vanessa McHardy, MA Integrative Child Psychotherapist

    Vanessa loves to help young people and adults to have an understanding of how they learn and how they can express all of themselves in all areas of their lives. True learning is at the heart of Vanessa’s life in all ways.

  • Photography: Clayton Lloyd