One Person’s Empathy is Another’s Counter-Transference

One person’s empathy is another’s countertransference. I will not confess my weaknesses, since they will be obvious to the reader in any case. The short – very short – definition of “countertransference” is one’s reaction and response to the other person. As Freud famously noted, betrayal oozes at

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every pore. That sometimes applies to psychotherapists too. Breakdowns in empathy occur. Defensiveness happens. Secrets are withheld or revealed. And if there is empathy, can narcissistic rage be far behind? That too occurs, albeit in an aim-inhibited form. When a person gets angry enough, the person finds that being self-expressed is worth the risk of being vulnerable and exposed.

In my book, A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery (Routledge 2015),  I have attempted to reach back into my own training as a dynamic psychotherapist, and, retaining the sense of a naïve beginner, capture clinical “lessons learned.” While I aim to address a wide audience of experienced clinicians, this work also addresses the dynamic psychotherapist in training. I try to express with empathy and humor what are the dynamic “take aways” for the starting practitioner, based on my own experiences in the “college of hard knocks.” However, here is the distinctive feature: No one knows better than the advanced practitioner, we are all always beginners. Therefore, there are “lessons learned” liberally intermixed for the seasoned veteran too.

Thus, instead of a confession, I offer a bold statement of the obvious: The individual writing a book on empathy – in this case, myself – struggles to be empathic, has to give an account of his own empathy, and indeed on occasion – gasp! – lacks empathy. If this be defensiveness, make the most of it. Anyone promising empathy has to take a stand on his own empathy. On a good day, one gets there. One is “in the zone,” delivering empathy – making empathy present in the conversation. On a less good day, one struggles to relate – to be in touch. This is my ultimate inauthenticity. One discovers one lacks empathy, in the fundamental sense of resistance to empathy. One works on expanding the empathy that one does have, removing the obstacles to empathy. If empathy were so easy, there would be more of it in the world.

Cynical readers may say that the author did not get enough empathy. “That must be why the author is so engaged by the subject.” Point granted. Yet such an assertion lacks nuance. It overlooks what “enough” would even mean here. Enough to give empathy away to others who may not have enough? The minimum sufficient to flourish and thrive? What would a world look like in which there was enough empathy, much less related but distinct phenomena such as compassion, flourishing, altruism, or love? Okay, I did not get enough empathy. This is because the task is not increasing the quantity, but rather expanding the quality of the empathy in relatedness to self and others. The task is developing the empathy in which we already live – to make empathy present in the moment of relatedness.

The empathic narrative, the good read – like D. W. Winnicott’s “good feed” – has its source in the reactions and countertransferences of the narrator – and of the author. Empathic failures – optimal and non-optimal failures – are the genetic explanation of the motivation behind this project of expanding the presence and effectiveness of empathy in a clinical context and in the world. The goal is to create a context for the natural unfolding of empathy – in others and myself.

Paradoxically, empathy is like the oxygen we breath, yet is all-too-scarce scarce in the market. A subtle shortness of breath overtakes one. Heinz Kohut said that empathy is oxygen for the soul; but the student asks if anyone else is experiencing shortness of breath, and he or she is then dropped from the program. Speaking truth to power is disruptive? Hmmm. The market for psychotherapy services is filled with professional schools granting diverse credentials at an accelerating rate. Yet the natural unfolding of empathy seems like a high bar in today’s marketing mix of mental health services, which are characterized by a dizzying diversity of talk therapies, varieties of psychotropic medications and pretexts for prescribing them, and social justice agendas (e.g., Solomon 2012). In such a context, the proposal that empathy is at the foundation of human relationships can seem out-of-date. Does anyone still believe in empathy? An enthusiastic advocate of empathy can sound like a lone voice crying in the wilderness – and an echo of the cry “Empathy!” is the source of the title of “A Rumor of Empathy…” Empathy has disappeared behind rules and regulations of confidentiality and is never spoken about. Empathy has disappeared behind the institutional framework. Empathy has disappeared into “the circle of caring,” but many are still outside the circle.

Yet empathy lives. It lives as communicability of affect – empathic receptivity. It lives as empathic understanding of the possibilities of clarifying misunderstandings and restoring relationships. It lives as empathic interpretation in human responsiveness to the vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering and happiness. It lives in empathic listening as a paradoxical use of language in providing a gracious and generous listening to the other person’s narrative and struggle. Empathy lives as a multi-step process encompassing and unifying the diverse aspects of human relatedness. For more details and exact definitions of “empathy,” etc., please consult the full text (available at your favorite online bookseller – click here to order A Rumor of Empathy ) or at least ask the college or institute to order a copy for the library. Makes sense?

Written By Lou Agosta

One Person’s Empathy is Another’s Counter-Transference was originally published @ Listening With Empathy and has been syndicated with permission.


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