Role Of Mutual Empathy In The Therapeutic Process

The path of healing and growth both in and out of therapy is via empathy. Mutual empathy involves mutual impact, mutual care, and mutual responsiveness. It depends on repair of empathic failures and altering relational expectations created in earlier formative and nonresponsive relationships. Simply put, therapy involves a dance of responsiveness: "I (therapist) empathize with you (patient), with your pain (for instance), and I let you see that your pain has affected me. In short, you have affected me and you matter to me." The patient sees, knows, and feels (empathizes with) the therapist's empathy and thereby begins to experience a sense of relational competence and efficacy. The patient finds and experiences the ability to create a caring response in the other person at the same time that there is a diminished sense of isolation. Both patient and therapist begin to move into growth-fostering connection (Jordan, 2000, 2002a, 2002b). Because RCT posits that chronic disconnections result from repeatedly not being empathically responded to or, at the more extreme, being violated, abused, or neglected, the healing intervention is one of responsiveness and empathy. Acute disconnections happen all the time in relationships; we are hurt, misunderstood, not listened to, overlooked. If in the moment we can represent our response to these failures, authentically share their impact on us, and find a caring response in the other person, we feel as though we "matter." We are taken seriously, respected, and listened to, and we feel relationally competent. We participate in changing the relationship in a more growthful direction for others and ourselves. We also experience the five good things mentioned previously (zest, clarity, creativity, a sense of worth, and a desire for more connection). In such resilient and reparative interactions, specific relationships are strengthened, and our faith or trust in relationships in general is also deepened. in fact, as acute disconnections are negotiated, we come more fully and confidently into connection.

if, however, we are empathically failed, misunderstood, humiliated, violated, or abused and we attempt to protest or to register our injury and we are not responded to but are ignored, further hurt, punished, and so forth, we learn that we cannot authentically represent ourselves in this relationship. if this occurs in a relationship with a powerful and important other (e.g., parent, teacher, boss) on whom we are dependent, we begin to distort our experience to try to fit in. We begin to deny our own pain to be accepted by this other person. As a result, we disconnect from ourselves. As Gilligan (1982) notes, we begin to keep ourselves out of relationship to stay in relationship. We move out of authenticity to stay in the semblance of connection. Authentic connection, however, suffers; both our connection with the other and the connection with our own experience are weakened. We can trace the effect of chronic disconnection most clearly in cases of childhood abuse, the most obvious and egregious example of relational injury. For instance, in the case of childhood sexual or physical abuse, children are hurt or abused; they initially try to protest, to state their reality. Their reality is denied, or they are threatened with dangerous consequences, further injury, isolation, the loss of loved ones, even death. To stay alive, psychologically and sometimes physically, they develop what RCT labels "strategies of disconnection" (Miller & Stiver, 1997); that is, they disconnect from their own real affective-cognitive experience and begin to twist themselves to be acceptable to literally stay alive in this abusive but needed relationship. Their inner experience gets frozen, immobilized; they feel isolated and endangered. They begin to lose track of their own real affect. As affect is split off, they are vulnerable to not knowing their own feelings. The necessary learning about the complexity of feelings cannot happen when they are left alone with strong affect. Furthermore, their biochemistry is altered in ways that leave them more vulnerable to affective instability and traumatic disconnections. Thus, a small hurt may lead to a big chemical and behavioral reaction as the overreactive amygdala short-circuits the cortical mediation of pain. The relational images of "If I register my hurt or anger, I am shunned, abandoned, or endangered" begin to generalize to all other relationships, and slowly children learn to bring only partial aspects of themselves into relationship. Their vulnerability in particular is not safe. They also experience the opposite of the five good things: a drop of energy (depression), confusion (lack of clarity), decreased productivity, a drop of self-worth, and a withdrawal from relationships in general. In the case of abuse, they also experience the more alarming symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) characterized by hyperarousal, panic, nightmares, self-destructive behavior, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts, which further isolate and confuse them. It could be argued that some of the more

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painful consequences of these symptoms (the startle response, affective lability, inauthenticity, lack of trust, self-harm, substance abuse, and eating disorders) are the deepening sense of isolation, shame, and helplessness. These symptoms make the possibility of reparative connection even more elusive.

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