A new grief therapist asks if being empathic is a liability?

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I am a new therapist who is just beginning to work with grieving people, but wonder if I’ve chosen the right career.  I’ve always known I was an empathic person, someone who could feel genuinely for others who were hurting, and this made me a good listener for friends when I was growing up.  But now that I am working with clients I worry that my empathy could be a liability to me personally, and even contribute to my eventual burnout or compassion fatigue.  Do I just need to get used to it, harden my heart, or just better balance my empathy with objectivity, or something else?  In your answers to clients it is clear that you too are very empathic, and you’ve found a way of retaining this for your whole career.  Can you help me understand this issue so that I can try to do the same?

Megan T., LCSW

Dear Megan,

Your comments about the downside of therapeutic empathy prompted me to think more about this conundrum:  If empathy is crucial for therapy, and especially grief therapy, is it also inherently painful or punishing for the therapist? Certainly if we are sensitive people we can feel another’s hurt, and even cry responsive tears—I do it all the time, in and out of therapy!  But this in itself is not a liability—if we do not cry longer or louder than our clients, this sort of responsiveness is typically validating, and helps us feel “what it is like to be them,” which can be a kind of precondition to understanding what they need to really be of help. The problem arises when the emotion stays with us, and carries throughout our day or evening… or career.

In this case I think something more is going on.  Perhaps we have an unfounded presumption that we can “solve” another’s problems, maybe because we were cast early into the role of problem solver or caretaker in our families of origin, and have not yet learned the lesson that companioning or consulting in someone’s life is not the same as living it.  Perhaps we were ourselves wounded in some of the ways our clients were, and have not given sufficient attention to our own healing, so our personal pain is activated by theirs.  Or perhaps our earlier experiences of helplessness, as in the face of a family member’s inconsolable grief, leaves us alert to and fearful of similar emotion in our client’s lives, so expressions of this stick with us like tar, and become the focus of ruminative concern.

There is actually an easy test for whether our empathy is responsive and adaptive, or personal and problematic, in the sense of pointing to something unresolved in our own lives:  If we carry just certain feelings of the other forward beyond our immediate interaction with them (e.g., grief, hopelessness, anxiety) but not others (e.g., anger, joy, guilt), then this might tell us that it is not our empathy, or capacity to feel with another, that is the issue—it is our vulnerability to or our difficulty integrating and acting on just certain emotions that could be problems for us, in some way or another.  Of course, this insight is itself useful, as it suggests parts of our experience that need more attention in order to heal.

But in considering your own sensed obstacles to becoming or remaining a therapist, also consider that obstacles of some kind are universal in this career we pursue.  That is, working as a therapist will always require work on ourselves, and this is always a work in progress.  Certainly the contrast to the empathic response you describe is no solution to the struggle you describe; unless the therapist merely becomes a psychoeducational robot offering generic advice from a distance, we will always resonate to our clients’ suffering (and success).  But this does not mean that we are condemned to hear endless echoes of their distress, or have it drown out the music of our own lives.  Attending to those lives, and the implicit needs still to be found and met within them, will leave us optimally positioned to similarly hear and engage the needs of another.

Dr. Neimeyer

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