Empathy and the Mind-Body Connection

By November 29, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

Therapists have idiosyncratic methods in preparing themselves for connection with clients. Today’s guest blogger, Rebecca Sokoll, LMSW, an insightful family and couples therapist brings her training as an actor to bear on her role as a therapeutic listener. She describes how a specific kind of mind-body awareness informs her work and underlies the communication process between herself and her clients. She underscores the need for internal flexibility: the ability to balance perspectives of the one who is being empathized with and the empathizer. An unbalanced empathic stance can de-stabilize boundaries between individuals and cause confusion. Fear that this may occur is echoed in the often-heard complaint that partners feel “they can get lost in the inner world of the other if they get too close.” Fear of intimacy can be traced to a misunderstanding or mistaken expectation of the nature of compassionate and empathic connection; in order to effectively place yourself within the experience of another you must be securely and flexibly connected with your own. Empathy that furthers mutual understanding is grounded in a two-sided perspective. Ms. Sokoll describes well the back-and-forth aspect of empathic connection in her piece:

When I worked in experimental theatre during my twenties and thirties, my ensemble and I practiced an effort that we called “work in the moment”.  It’s an exercise meant to increase awareness of how our inner lives effect our behaviors.  The work, focused and concentrated, was done with the group seated. We took turns describing physical sensations as experienced in the here and now.  Someone might say, “I feel tension in my forehead at a point between my eyebrows,” or a clenching in the jaw, or the sensation of their skull balancing over the top of the spine. Another might speak of experiencing shallowness of breath, pressure in the chest, skin tingling against the temperature of the air.  Another might talk about feeling their feet grip the floor, or warmth and expansiveness in their hips.

People would sometimes talk about “feelings”—frustration, annoyance, happiness, sadness, etc.— rather than these somatic counterparts. When this happened, they would be directed to go back to the language of the exercise, they were asked, “Where is it in your body, that happiness?  How does it feel there?” I learned that I register my somatic sensations and their corresponding emotions and associations in a way that is less fettered by self-judgment and self-consciousness than I do when experiencing what most of us call ‘emotion.’ I am more accepting of myself, less anxious when grounded in my body awareness. This practice of somatic self-attunement is the first part of a tool I use as a therapist that I think of as my double-ended arrow of attention. This comprises a major component of what I experience as a clinician in psychotherapy sessions—either as therapist or client. The first end of the arrow, the one facing me, connects me to the body awareness described above. The second part of the tool, the end of the two-headed arrow points outward towards my client or clients.  The first end of the arrow creates a connection to my physical self in the moments immediately preceding the session. It helps me to allow my attention to roam through my body, getting pulled by certain sensations and intentionally directing attention to other areas which I know will help me feel grounded and centered.  Then I welcome my partner to the room.  By the way, my partner could be an individual, couple, or group of family members.  The outwardly directed arrow of my attention shifts instantly from passive to active, making eye contact, seeing the physical presentation of my clients, the objects they carry, their sitting posture, facial expressions, etc.   I continue to make an effort to monitor my inner state, but it’s not so easy! Now the first arrow is pulled by the second and for a moment I may lose contact with my body completely as I am drawn to so much coming in from outside myself.  I try to maintain a dance with attention that travels back and forth between myself and the other in the room.

Working face to face with others, incorporating the input from their presence in the session, provokes physical tensions, emotions, and drives within me. When studied in the moment, this inner awareness is like a terrain that I navigate within myself. This can be terrifying, energizing and engaging.  Click here to learn more about this process on www.psychologytoday.com.

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