Oops! A Therapist forgets empathy

A therapist's empathic oops.

A few weeks ago, Husband’s finger lingered over the “send” button on a text.  For a looong time, his finger hovered over the message.

We had talked about it.  We had together decided on a course of action with a family member. And now, he was doing his part of the implementation, and as we sat on the couch, he hesitated.

Sometimes, initiating a tough conversation feels awfully similar to pulling the trigger, doesn’t it?

He was worried that clarity and forthrightness would end a relationship:

  • He was scared that expressing his own position would push another further away.
  • Husband felt vulnerable–would allowing his distress to be seen create further problems?
  • He/we aren’t perfect…what if our best-thought-out plans weren’t perfect and it didn’t work out because he should have done better?
  • What if it backfired? What if it made things worse? And so…most of all…
  • What if sending it was a mistake? Maybe he shouldn’t send it at all? Maybe we should just continue to limp along in the relationship and not rock the boat?

To put it bluntly, he was scared.

Now, Husband is a strong man. He can lug lumber with the best of ’em. Husband willingly stood at the front of a church and acted in 3 sketches in front of hundreds of people not so long ago, being willing to be ridiculous and serious…all to make some important points about anxiety. He brought his first wife, Car, home to die in their home during his last days.

Husband is so not a wimp. But he was scared to send the text.

And he told me he was struggling to send the text to start the ball rolling on a new sort of conversation.

I wish I could say that I heard him express himself, and validated his emotions, cared for him by truly hearing him, and showed him that I value when he shares his feelings.

You know, all those things that I do respectfully and significantly every day as a therapist when I meet with clients. Because I know how hearing people’s emotions and validating them does something important–something life giving. Empathy is what I do.

I didn’t do any of the hearing, validation, or caring that is so much a part of almost every conversation.

Nope.  Didn’t do any of the good stuff. Instead I gave him a pep talk!

I gave him a rousing spiel reminding him about all the things.  Everything we discussed in the past. I repeated all the content. I talked him into pushing send. More correctly, I probably cornered him into pushing send, still fearful but now also fearful of disappointing me.

Not my best moment.  At all.

But, as life would have it, just a few hours later I was prepping a presentation for a group the next day that spoke of the value of being heard. How empathy was magical and powerful to a person–how it empowers people to move forward.

And I realized the error of my own ways. Gulp.

See, the beauty of seeing a therapist is that they can give you empathy and validation and curious listening because his/her sole purpose is to be there for the client.  The client’s feelings and thoughts don’t trigger and entangle a therapist, pulling them out of their authenticity and having them convince, cajole, judge, or otherwise invalidate them and the space they find themselves in–and have risked telling you about! It shuts down courage and names it foolishness.

Empathy fact: Convincing a person out of their feelings doesn't work!

Convincing a person out of their feelings doesn’t work.

It just doesn’t.

The feelings that are wanting a voice and being shut down instead actually increase their energy and escalate in the all important desire to be acknowledged and heard.

Instead, when feelings are validated, it’s often like letting a balloon deflate in a room where the balloon completely took over.  And when the balloon deflates, there is room for thoughts and feelings that are important and valuable to be felt.

Validated feelings feel respected, and respected feelings are then willing to share floor time with other thoughts and feelings that are already inside of a person.

Empathy fact: When feelings are validated they feel respected. When feelings are respecting, they are willing to share floor time with other thoughts and feelings that are already inside of a person.

Once the intensity of the surface feeling is heard and held, treasured and tender, it subsides, allowing for clear thinking:

  • Fearful people are fearful, not stupid.

  • Furious people are angry, not idiots.

  • Bereft people are sad, not clueless.

My pep talk, full of accurate facts and positions only insulted Husband.  He’s as smart as he is strong…and I didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. What I didn’t do was be what he needed…because I couldn’t/didn’t put aside my own fear to truly listen to him, and trust him to figure this out. He needed to explore his fear, understand it, and have it released through the profound hearing of it–which would have allowed him to use all the good reasoning he already had surrounding the text.

Empathy: Listening to what a person is saying, as well as listening to the emotion behind it is powerful.  Theresa Wisemen lists empathy as containing four qualities that we can all learn; can all choose:

  1. Perspective taking–to see the world as another sees it

  2. Staying out of judgement

  3. Recognizing emotion

  4. Communicating that emotion to that person


This is do-able, if we have enough presence of mind to decide to make the choice.

And that’s the trick, isn’t it?  To be sufficiently mindful and grounded in situations where emotions run high…to be able to make the choice to be empathic.  To be able to give others the gift of profound listening.

At the end of the day, connecting with each other meaningfully with empathy is gonna get us all farther down the road than anything else.

And when we need empathy, we need to ask for it, knowing that the other may need time and space to be able to be grounded enough to offer it.  Know that some are not in a position to ever offer empathy to us. Respect that limitation and draw boundaries in light of that. And then get empathy elsewhere.

We all need empathy…it helps us all to hear ourselves into deeper speech. It creates connection, a closeness.  Empathy, as a choice, even (maybe especially) when it’s difficult, changes the conversation in good ways.

I’m still working on it with Husband and my Junior Tribe Members…it’s a lot harder with people I care about. Maybe you too?

Join me in the decision to choose empathy?

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