The risks of empathy are perhaps most obvious with therapists, who have to continually deal with people who are depressed, anxious, deluded, and often in severe emotional pain. There is a rich theoretical discussion amongst therapists, particularly those of a psychoanalytic orientation, about the complex interpersonal relationships between therapists and their clients. But anyone who thinks that it’s important for a therapist to feel depressed or anxious while dealing with depressed or anxious people is missing the point of therapy.
Actually, therapy would be an impossible job for many of us because of our inability to shut down our empathic responses. But good therapists are unusual in this regard. A friend of mine is a clinical psychologist with a busy schedule, working for several hours at a stretch, with one client leaving and the next coming in. This would kill me. I find it exhausting to spend even a short time with someone who is depressed or anxious. But my friend finds it exhilarating. She is engaged by her clients’ problems, interested in the challenges that arise, and excited by the possibility of improving their lives.
Her description reminded me of a discussion by the writer and surgeon Atul Gawande about the attitudes of “tenderness and aestheticism” that good surgeons feel toward their patients, treating them with respect but seeing them also as problems that need to be solved. Freud himself made a similar analogy: “I cannot advise my colleagues too urgently to model themselves during psycho-analytic treatment on the surgeon, who puts aside all his feelings, even his human sympathy, and concentrates his mental forces on the single aim of performing the operations as skillfully as possible.”
My friend does get into her client’s heads, of course – she would be useless if she couldn’t – but she doesn’t feel what they feel. She employs understanding and caring, not empathy.
Paul Bloom – Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion p.144