This month marks my fourth year of practicing counseling professionally, specifically family therapy. As I reflect on the last four years, one aspect of myself that has changes comes to mind. That is my relationship with empathy. But before I go on, it might be helpful if I first explain what empathy is.
Empathy is the skill to understand the perspective of another person. In other words, to put yourself in their shoes. This can involve feeling what another person is feeling with them. As opposed to sympathy, which is more or less feeling for a person; akin to feeling bad or pity for someone. Not an altogether bad thing, but also not terribly helpful for someone seeking help.
Now, since I’ve defined what empathy is and a little bit how its different from sympathy, I’ll share with you how its changed throughout the course of my career. When I first started practicing counseling I had a deep sense of empathy for my clients. I understood their struggles and what they were experiencing. I truly cared for them. And even though I lacked confidence, skill and experience, I made up for my professional weaknesses with caring intensely for my clients.
Surprisingly, my experience is not all that uncommon. There is some research which demonstrates younger therapists can actually be more effective than their more seasoned counterparts. Why? The reason is not skill or experience. Obviously, those traits belong to the seasoned counselors. The reason is younger therapists tend to care more intensely for the person in front of them. Coupling that with the well established fact that the most important part of counseling is the relationship, you can see why a therapist who genuinely cares and understands their client, even though they may be less skilled as their seasoned counterpart, may actually be more effective. Weird how that works out, right?
But… its not all roses and daisies from there on out. The longer a therapist practices, the harder and harder it gets to… well, care. Therapists work with some very challenging people. Especially therapists who are just starting out. Typically, therapists just entering the field are working with some of the most challenging populations. The pay is not very good ($30-35k annually), they are starting to pay their student loans, and have high professional liability. Unless you’re a psychologist working in Beverly Hills charging $250 a session, your bound to get jaded and burnt out by the high stress, overloaded caseload, and low pay. Furthermore, clients have high level of needs and little motivation to change. When the therapist tries to intervene and help, they are met with resistance and denial. At the end of the day, a therapist can feel like they’ve put in massive amounts of work with little to show for it and the people they are trying to help, don’t care or appreciate them. For many, this is a career killer.
Its ironic how the thing that got a therapist into the field, wanting to help people, is the thing that may force them out. The reason being, its really hard to help people change, especially those who don’t want to change. Therapists can experience something known as Compassion Fatigue. And this is what happened to me.
That care and empathy I felt so strongly for my clients at the beginning of my career, eventually started to wane. I began to grow bitter. Partly because I was repulsed by the nasty behavior I would see clients act out on their loved ones. I couldn’t understand how a person could act so cruelly to their child, spouse or parent. Combine that with low pay, little appreciation, poor outcomes with clients, and self-doubt, I soon hit an empathy wall. And I hit it smack in the face. This effected how I practiced. I noticed I was less effective with clients. I would drive home after sessions and just yell. Quickly I was faced with the question, How do I keep going?
The one thing that was my saving grace was learning an intervention in the model I practice called Reframing. The skill is essentially looking at someone’s worst behavior for the purpose of finding a noble intent. In other words, an alternative explanation for bad behavior that is either benign or even positive. For example, a teenager uses pot, steals, and vandalizes other people’s property around the time of his parents divorce. Because the parents are so concerned for their child, they put aside their contentious issues and focus on how they can best support their teenager. They decide to co-parent, support each in front of the teen, and settle the divorce quickly instead of dragging it out. One could survey the situation and conclude that the teen is a bad egg, and his criminal behavior is only adding more stress to his parents when they are enduring heartache from the divorce. OR, one could make the case that the teen acting out, in a way provided a distraction or focus that would unify the family towards a common goal. That, in fact, the teen unknowingly repaired the growing rift in the family. And even though things aren’t perfect, they are on a better course than the one they were headed on.
This is a radical way of thinking and not many are comfortable with it. Its easy to get caught in the trap of seeing only the negative. But, once I really threw myself into the reframing skill, it gave me a way of understanding my clients in the midst of, what on the surface, appeared to be deplorable behavior. And not only that, it gave me a way of relating to them. I could relate with their struggles. I could see my own struggles in them. Slowly, I sloughed off all the negative ascriptions to their bad behavior, and began looking for alternative explanations. And believe it or not, a growing sense of compassion returned. But it wasn’t like the care I had at first for my clients. This was a much more resilient and tenacious kind of compassion. The term I’ve used to describe is Learned Compassion.
What I mean by Learned Compassion is that before, when I first started, I was relying on compassion that came naturally. The situation or plight of the client evoked a feeling of care for them. I didn’t have to work at it much, but that quickly faded since it wasn’t very resilient. Learned Compassion on the other hand I gained through experience. It developed more like a skill. I now practice compassion as I would playing basketball. It doesn’t depend on the client or their situation evoking a feeling of care for them. I can give compassion to a client regardless of who they are, whether they deserve it or not.
I think we often conceive of compassion in the first way I described it. We give it dependent upon the worthiness of person. But this, I would argue, is a deficient form of compassion. Its weak, and won’t get you very far. In order for a therapist to survive in the field, they need to be able to give compassion, as I said before, regardless of the person, the situation, or the worthiness of either one. This is a stronger, more profound, more transformative way of practicing compassion for you and for those you encounter.
Here’s where my story can be of help to you. Therapist or not, we all struggle with being compassionate to those around us, be it a co-worker, child, spouse, friend or relative. We all struggle with only seeing the negative, but do not let that kill your empathy and compassion towards others. I say this from personal experience. When you have numbed yourself from caring about others, you have given up something precious and life giving. Turning away from others kills your joy. Do not let this happen to you. I implore you to reframe the people who it is easy to only see the negative. Practice learned compassion with them. If not for their sake, do it for yourself. Reframing allows you to not be so hurt by the other persons behavior.
I challenge you to be a person of tenacious, resilient and fearless compassion. Give it regardless of the worthiness of the person in front of you. For, I’m sure, there have been times when you have not been worthy of compassion yourself, but we all need and want it. In the act of giving compassion you will receive more than you gave. Compassion frees the burdened soul, for those who give it and receive it.
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