Things I heard myself say during sessions yesterday:

I think you feel so screwed up that there’s no hope you could ever do anything to get better … that you might as well throw yourself onto the trash heap.

Sounds like you’re saying none of these apartments will make things any better — one’s as good as another — because wherever you go, you’ll take yourself and all your pain along with you.

I think you feel completely alone in the world, and that no one cares about you.

Seems like when you get to that point, you want to give up and hand yourself over to the snakes, because you feel that there’s no goodness left anywhere in the world, inside or out.

These strike me as statements of stark truth that grow from true empathy, not sympathy.  By entering into my clients’ emotions and articulating exactly what they feel, I empathize with their pain but don’t try to make it better by offering consolation or easy optimism.

Because I’m not afraid to look at something so painful and then to articulate it, I also communicate to my clients that, as painful as their experience may be, as unbearable as it seems, it actually can be tolerated.

I’ve thought before about the differences between empathy and sympathy and now I’ve added another distinction. When we sympathize with someone who is grieving, for example, we essentially say: You are over there, having your experience of loss; I am over here, feeling unhappy that you feel so much grief and I would like to say or do something to help you feel better.

Sympathy has its value; but when the sympathizer doesn’t want to enter too deeply into the other person’s grief, or wants to make that pain go away because it’s so hard to tolerate, the mourner can end up feeling even more alone. I know you’ll get through this. In time, the grief will get easier to bear. You won’t always feel so sad, I promise. When condolers say such things, they are sympathizing, but the mourner won’t necessarily feel consoled.

When you’re in the midst of the grieving process, it seems as if you will always feel that way, even if you know on a rational level that you won’t.

It’s another thing altogether to enter into the person’s grief and feel it just as he or she does (or close to it), without offering consolation or encouragement. That’s true empathy. Empathy involves a kind of identification, where I, in some sense, become you in feeling and share your pain; there’s no distance between us. In my experience, people find such empathic statements truly comforting, even when there’s no additional consolation on offer.

Empathic interpretations make the client feel understood and closer to the therapist. By telling my client that I empathize with and understand his feeling that he’s all alone, he feels a little less alone because I’m there understanding him. When I articulate unconscious feelings of hopelessness, my clients feel a tiny bit more hopeful: if I (and we) can face the truth, maybe they really aren’t damaged beyond repair.

Woman in the window photo available at Shutterstock.