The word “empathy” is often used to describe a positive stance toward another, synonymous with “being nice.” But empathy is more radical than that. When engaged deeply, it takes a lot of (sustained) awareness to maintain an empathic stance.
Empathy is the embodied tending to the immediate experience of another, as it unfolds moment-to-moment. To dare to hold the other not merely as an object in our own awareness, but as a unique subject, with valid feelings and beliefs, and ways of making sense of their experience.
If the other can clearly articulate their experience, that will make the empathic process easier. But this is often not the case. For each of us, there is psychic experience we’ve dissociated and disowned, and remains in an unformulated state. Somehow, we must attune to this as well, providing sanctuary and safe passage for it to come into the relational field and be met with mutual care.
Empathy is the capacity to stay with the other’s experience as it unfolds, to attune to their subjectivity, while simultaneously being aware of our own contribution to the interactive field by way of our own biases, transference, and projection… somehow using that material for the benefit of the relationship.
Empathy is not something we offer only to another. We can practice empathic attunement toward our own experience as it is emerging right now. What am I experiencing in this moment? Setting aside all interpretation and even all agendas to shift, transform, or heal, right now, what is my actual, lived experience?
What is happening in my body? What emotional tone or mood is there? What is the overall felt sense of being me, right now? How have I come to imagine myself, others, and the world, and how might I reimagine?
It is more an art than a science… an art of love, really, that perhaps we humans need now more than ever. Self-empathy, other-empathy, self-attunement, other-attunement. It is up to all of us to bring these realities into this world. We will not find these capacities outside ourselves, but awaiting discovery inside this miracle brain, electrically alive nervous system, and majestic heart.
Shared with gracious permission from A Healing Space.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, working with individuals, groups, couples, and families. My practice integrates developmental, relational, and contemplative perspectives/ approaches to psychospiritual growth and healing.
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