An exploration of sustaining empathy in the therapeutic relationship

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McGrane, Bernie
Issue Date
MA in Psychotherapy
Dublin Business School
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The purpose of this study is to examine a therapist’s ability to sustain empathy in the therapeutic relationship. It acknowledges that empathy is a complex construct and examines its implications for the therapeutic practice. Despite being a term widely used across a variety of disciplines, studies into empathy have been sparse and inconsistent. More recent studies on the topic, however, have been informed by embodied psychotherapy and influenced by research on early development and neuroscience. In this study, the quality of empathic engagement is shown to emerge in the unique intersubjective experience of client and therapist. It is grounded in the shared embodiment of their humanity which is a dynamic complex construct, one which provides a useful framework for practice application. This exploration has demonstrated how the therapist’s personal development and self-regulation are central to their ability to sustain and manage empathic engagement. The research was conducted as a qualitative study using a thematic analysis of the data. A number of themes were consistently raised by participants in the interview process. The findings were then discussed in relation to the therapist’s view of sustaining empathy. They include aspects of the therapist / client relationship and the issue of reciprocity in therapy work. Interviewees discussed the bi-directional healing they have experienced in the therapeutic relationship. They spoke of the intersubjective experience and the relational depth in being able to create an empathic connection. However, despite what therapists’ say they are getting from the work, this study found that it is virtually impossible to sustain empathy all the time in the therapeutic relationship. The research concluded that the re-emergence of participants’ early developmental issues (like loss, separation, attachment) were significant blocks to their ability to sustain empathy. Along with difficulties, supports to the therapists’ sustaining empathy were also explored. Finally, the study considered the implication for psychotherapy practice and pointed to possible directions for further research. Author keywords: Empathy, reciprocity, intersubjectivity, therapeutic relationship