Empathy not sympathy: the vital essence of counselling

looking down into a hole

If I sympathise with you I would stand at a distance and say I feel sorry for you. This may help if I’m a friend or family member. It may be helpful for me to acknowledge that you’re going through a bad time but it has no impact on me.

If I show empathy for you, I will actively get alongside you and feel with you.

If we use the analogue of the hole, someone who sympathises will stand outside the hole calling from the top. People who sympathise make the mistaken belief that getting out of the hole is the best option. They may make suggestions about how to do that. E.g. “try climbing the sides”, they point at a foot hold or send down a rope etc.

When I empathise, I will jump into the hole to see things from your perspective. Once I’m inside the hole, we will both be able to weigh up the various options together. Sometimes, this may involve sitting in the hole for a while. Feeling our emotions is an important part of healing and, as a counsellor, this is something I can help you do. Perhaps after a bereavement, it can be tempting to rush back to work. Perhaps the people in our lives may feel awkward about know the “right” things to say. But as a counsellor, empathy means I can sit with you and we can talk about the things that are causing you pain.

One of the most empathic things I was told when I was in one of my darkest times was “I will hold your hope for you”. This was someone sitting alongside me, seeing that I could not hold my hope myself.

Empathy isn’t about rescuing or fixing, it’s about really listening and showing deep understand for the human condition.

Core conditions

Empathy is a core condition of person-centred therapy (PCT). The other core conditions are congruence and unconditional positive regard. PCT is an evidence based meaning that these core conditions have been found to be, in the words of Carl Rogers “necessary and sufficient” for therapeutic change to occur.

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