The Capacity for Empathy by Naomi Miller, LCSW, Ph.D.
People frequently seek out a therapist because of relationship problems. A relationship can be both wonderful and terrible at the same time. Being able to maintain a sense of one's own identity while at the same time respecting the identity of one's partner, as well as the needs of the relationship, can be a daunting task. When one or both partners are unable to maintain this balance the result can be a breakdown in communication. Put another way, the ability to empathize, a necessary tool in all successful relationships, is gone.
What is empathy? Not to be confused with sympathy, which is to feel compassion or concern for another's suffering, empathy describes being able to emotionally put oneself in someone else's shoes, but without actually being in them. To be empathic is to have an emotional understanding of someone else's feelings. This is all the more important when one has a different view from theirs, but can, nonetheless, appreciate where they are coming from. After all, no couples are going to agree about everything!
Where do difficulties with being empathic come from? While there are many different factors that have resulted in us becoming the person we are today, early experience plays a significant role in lack of empathy. For example, if in one's own early development the need to be heard, understood and acknowledged were not sufficiently met, our own ability to respond to others in this way can be compromised. In other words, if we did not experience enough empathy to meet our own emotional needs, then it will be that much harder to empathize with others.
Where does therapy come in? While in no way seeking to play the blame game, therapy seeks to redress this problem by helping the patient to trace the roots of her difficulties as well to offer a safe haven in which the patient can now be sufficiently heard and understood; empathized with, if you will. Whether this work is done within a couples or individual setting is a decision to be made between patient(s) and therapist.
However, the goal is much the same, namely one of healing, which can result in improved communication skills. As one is able to learn to empathize more with oneself, one becomes more able to empathize with others. Hence, the gain can be both for the individual as well as the relationship.
Naomi Miller, LCSW, Ph.D.
140 Riverside Drive,
New York, NY 10024
(212) 496 9766
4 Parmalee Hill Road
Newtown, Ct. 06470
(203) 426 6987