Empathy Explores Beyond Limits – Peter Ryan


Death is like a cold, dark whirlpool, a wave of suffering, just waiting to wash us away
you who rest in comfort upon the shoreline, how can you know our state? (Hafiz)

I am a passionate about spreading the word, work and wonder of empathy. This passion is born out of years counselling studies and practice experiences. However, it is individuals from various social, economic and cultural backgrounds that have shown me just how far reaching the cosmic dimensions of empathy can be. Empathy penetrates the darkest corners of the human condition and sheds an understanding light of acceptance onto the chaos of existence.

It has a Ninja-like quality of daring at its heart. I named this quality a courageous sensitivity.

The effectiveness of my courageous sensitivity to engage traumatised individuals in the therapeutic process is evidenced in Extending the Empathy Zone Embrace[1].

I believe, the secret to exploring hurtful experiences locked within the inner terrain of human existence is down to one fundamental fact – empathy is a born survivor. It thrives in the unknown, vulnerable, emerging presence, keeping its edge sharp. Instinct is empathy’s whiskers, intuition its resonator. Empathy recognizeswelcomes and treasures the individuality, personhood, identity, spirit or soul of the other human being in all its shared and unique aspects[2]. That is why, when labouring with raw materials from a client’s subterranean world, it is essential external forces of influence, bias and control on a person are equally welcomed for empathic exploration. Not all psychological problems are caused by childhood experiences; not all emotional stress concerns individuals. The influence of history, geography, economics, philosophy and religion on individual responsibility is vastly underestimated[3]. A closed system of relating only condemns people once again to draw in the exhaled breath of oppression found in stuffy, compartmentalised environments. An empathic ecosystem liberates individuals by its refreshing, interconnecting atmosphere. Its breath-taking relationship is designed to blend in with its surroundings, not to be apart from it.

Empathic understanding…always leads directly into the psychic connection itself. Rational understanding is merely an aid to psychology, empathic understanding brings us to psychology itself. (Karl Jaspers)

There is still a lot of misconception about empathy. It’s often mistaken as a fluffy, “female” feeling to be used as a tissue for mopping up tears. Nothing could be more wrong. Empathy is always knowledge-based[4] drawing on both masculine and feminine qualities beating quite capably at its organic heart. Empathy’s unisexual soul is the bedrock of what it means to be a complex human being. And attempts by many high ranking professionals seeking to place a “cognition crown” on empathy’s majestic head are doomed to failure. This top-down approach heavily laden with logic and order will just not do. Parading empathy in ordered logic as the ideal state of mind not only betrays a deep wariness towards human unordered and often irrational feelings and emotions but also demonstrates a poor understanding of empathy’s true power. Viewing empathy through such a lens condemns it to exist in a restricted, incongruent and lifeless enclosure whose walls are fiercely guarded by seemingly superior reason. If this state of affairs continues to gain ground in the counselling realm, it will rip the heart out of empathic engagements. I am reminded of the late Indian history writer and teacher, Abraham Eraly, who said: Everything was efficient and well-ordered in the Indus cities, most remarkably so, but there was little scope for artistic flourishes or individual creativity in this bloodless, precision-engineered society.

 From the first moments of a therapeutic encounter with a client, I let empathy guide our way through the session. Empathy is felt and reasoned simultaneously. It is a quantum experience[5]. As the dynamics of our empathic connection develops and clients stop hugging the shoreline of familiarity then the spirit of adventure into understanding the waves of their suffering can begin. Empathy is the sail that keeps the vessel of healing afloat in the dark whirlpool. Therapy without empathy is not counselling. And counselling without empathy is not therapy. Empathy is not a ‘technique’ of responding to the client, but a way-of-being-in-relation to the client[6].

Empathy is extremely effective in alleviating shame – the underlying emotion of many disturbing feelings and behaviours. As beautifully expressed by five year shame researcher Dr Brené Brown: Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders (…). Shame is an epidemic in our culture. Empathy is the antidote to shame[7].

In order to be vigilant against the creeping vine of shame and its ability to produce chock-off points, therapeutic engagement requires constant use of body awareness which is the gateway to keeping empathy fresh when dissolving shame. Empathy is not only a born survivor. It is the rescue service available in bringing isolated clients back from the brink of oblivion and into the fold of humanity. It is not for nothing that empathy represents the deepest expression of awe, and understandably is regarded as the most spiritual of human qualities[8].

I believe that finding answers to difficult issues is made easier when clients are fully supported by an empathic therapist who trusts in their capacity to transform. For empathy, in all senses of the word, involves an ongoing, ever-changing process of self-transformation[9]. This confidence in empathy and positive transformation has an evolutionary component embedded in my sense of trust.  For we humans are gifted with possessing the most highly sophisticated powerhouse of abilities on the planet – the nervous system with the most powerful brain known to us. This highly specialised system utilises and arranges interactions between humans and the world around us. It is regulated by the constant flow of information via sensing, instinct, intuition, visceral experiences, images and perception. Being open and non-judgemental to the plethora of ‘subterranean gifts’, generated by new experiences, is vital to keeping our powerhouse in pristine top-notch shape. Consequently, if the nervous system is used to distort or deny perceptions and experiences, and emotions and feelings that those persecutions and experiences could/would evoke, it becomes overstressed and starts failing, and with it the zest for real, authentic life.

For empathy to thrive it must feel the pulse of emotion. Emotion is the engine where the zest for life is created. Emotion is the true touch-stone in successful empathic communication and is the gateway to authentic living. Authenticity is to empathy what water is to life. The bridge linking empathy and authenticity is called unconditional acceptance. Empathy distilled from a non-judgemental openness draws forth the clear, clean waters of authenticity in an endless cycle of rebirth and sparkling purity. Accessing the life force of authenticity is dependent upon maintaining the quality of a non-judgemental presence. Empathy and unconditional acceptance enhance one another in promoting movement towards congruent living.

Thus the first step towards an empathic life and authentic living is to take a stand. That is, take ownership of what we are experiencing and by doing so calibrate our ability to evolve fully into the unfolding moment. In counselling, as in life, limits imposed on experiencing the integral stream of our internal information system keeps human potential locked in a flat-earth landscape.

We don’t always have to express verbally what we are feeling, but, as Carl Rogers phrased it, we must be open to making our feelings available to our awareness. We need to tune in and trust in our private unique frequencies and rhythms. By doing so we allow for a more confident space to bloom in which the fruits for an empathic life and authentic living can be enjoyed.

To be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself — and thus make yourself indispensable.

(Andre Gide)


[1] http://uktherapyguide.com/blog/extending-the-empathy-zone-embrace/

[2] http://www.empathictherapy.org/What-Is-Empathic-Therapy-.html

[3] Clarkson P. The therapeutic relationship. London: Whurr publisher Ltd; 2009

[4] Joseph S. and Worsley R. Person-centred psychopathology. United Kingdom: PCCS Books Ltd; 2012

[5] Rifkin J. The empathic civilization. Cambridge: Polity Press;2010

[6] Mearns D. and Thorne B. Person-Centred counselling in action. London: SAGE Publications, London; 2008

[7] https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en

[8] Rifkin J. The empathic civilization. Cambridge: Polity Press;2010

[9] Cinramicol A & Ketcham K. The power of empathy. London: Piatkus publications;2000

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