Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Passion, emotion, empathy, and depth of thought and feeling are admirable characteristics. They fuel a human being’s ability to care deeply about others and to oppose cruelty and hate. Living a life without this intensity of emotion would be like living a life without love. However, there are situations when an individual’s ability to invest emotionally prevents him or her from maintaining a balanced perspective. 

As a young psychotherapist, I was empathic and passionate about my work, so I struggled with this dilemma. As I progressed through school, practicums, case consultations, and professional experiences, I developed the capacity to momentarily transition from a deep state of empathy to a more logical and theoretical stance. This ability to be extremely empathic, but briefly step back in order to consider the situation intellectually has proven to serve me well, not only as a psychotherapist, but as a mom, friend, partner, and human.  

Professionally, I use every ounce of empathy I can muster. Authentically resonating with a client’s experience conveys sincere understanding. This provides relief, fosters trust, and allows the client to feel less alone. 

After empathizing, I emotionally detach for a second, in order to reflect on what I know about the client’s history, human development, attachment, trauma, and transference. Synthesizing this data, I formulate an understanding of the client’s experience which usually illuminates why they are stuck. Incorporating empathy when communicating this information helps the client immensely.

As a parent, the ability to be empathic, but also detach for an instant to contemplate the situation from a logical standpoint is helpful. Empathy allows kids to feel understood and connected to their parent, and logic permits thoughtful advice. Empathy heals, comforts, and creates closeness. Logic provides the child with direction. 

The other day, I discovered my ten-year-old daughter sitting on the bathroom floor, head in her hands, sobbing. She was embarrassed about the way her tummy looked in her bathing suit, and she was late for her friend’s pool party. I sat on the floor with her, stroked her back and empathized, “It hurts to feel different. I get it.” She snuggled closer to me. I rubbed her back and told her a story about when I got my hair cut and the woman cut it so short everybody thought I was a boy. “I hid in my bathroom and cried for hours,” I explained. She hugged me tighter. Gently, I said, “It really hurts to not like the way you look. I understand.”

Next, I helped her problem solve. I mentioned a cover-up, a water shirt, or perhaps she could borrow something from her older cousin’s collection of suits.  She decided she’d wear her suit and make the best of it. I validated her inner beauty and her strength of character.  

Emotional depth and empathy are powerful tools. Ensuring they are followed with calm, critical thinking enhances the healing nature of empathy. Together, empathy and intellect create resilience

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