Thursday, January 24, 2013

Empathy Is Not Enough

I’ve been seeing Kevin three times a week for a little over a year. He calls himself a computer geek and he is, a very successful one, having made millions marketing specialty software. He’s married to a woman he remembers loving, but now feels nothing towards. He knows he should love his kids, but he’s not really sure he does. He came to see me because he recognized that something was definitely lacking in his life.

Working with Kevin is a challenge. He’s smart and articulate, but prone to an over-intellectual style that seeks to engage me in heady discussions, as opposed to emotional connections. I have to work to stay in the immediate, in the emotional interaction between us.    

Kevin sees himself as burdened by the disapproval of his father, a man he describes as a tyrant who ruled with an iron hand, someone who was convinced that his only son would amount to nothing. Consciously Kevin takes pride in having proven his father wrong, but in his mind, he still hears his father’s voice telling him he’s nothing, a “worthless bag of shit.”

Kevin begins today’s session by saying that he’s tired of feeling so much pressure in his life, tired of feeling it’s entirely up to him to provide for his family, entirely up to him to grow his business, entirely up to him to make every decision. He talks about how his wife doesn’t appreciate him; how his employees don’t realize all he does for them.

As he talks, part of me feels annoyed, almost angry, experiencing him as whining and complaining about that which has been of his own making. I’m surprised by the harshness of this thought. And then not surprised. First, I am thinking in the voice of his father. I am thinking in the voice he carries inside his head, the voice that tells him he’s nothing, a “worthless bag of shit.” But I am not an empty receptacle here. I have my own internal voices as well. I, too, had an angry, critical father who berated me for my perceived deficiencies. And even the voice of my loving and beloved grandmother could be rejecting of what she saw as undue pampering, choosing strength and determination above all else. Yes, I definitely have my own harsh voices.

But from my place of self-awareness, I leave my harsh voices behind and then experience Kevin as the helpless, little boy he once was, the little boy who looked to his father for approval and instead received rejection and contempt, the little boy who is tired of taking care of everyone else and wants to be taken care of himself.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry that you feel so burdened.”

“Why did you say that?” Kevin spits out as me.

I’m taken aback.

“That makes me angry,” he says.

I almost answer with a sarcastic, “Obviously!” but I catch myself. To respond sarcastically would be to be drawn into the negative internal dialog that goes on in Kevin’s head.

Instead, I ask, “Why would you feel angered by a compassionate response on my part?”

“It makes me feel like you pity me, like you see me as weak.”

“Is it ever possible to take in empathy without feeling weak?” I ask.  “Is it ever possible to take in compassion or be compassionate towards yourself?”

I can see Kevin bristling, for I’m sure, at least at this point in his treatment that the answer is “no.” It is not possible for him to take in compassion without feeling like a weak, vulnerable little boy. The problem is that just like each of us, part of Kevin is a vulnerable little boy, a little boy who yearns for his father’s love and caring and feels hurt and injured by its absence. But he cannot accept what he experiences as such “weakness,” especially since the internal voice of his father condemns him.

I am reminded today of why therapy takes such a long time, and of why compassion and empathy are not enough to bring about lasting change. A person like Kevin whose mind is burdened by recriminations and self-loathing, cannot simply reverse course and take whatever kind words I might have to offer. Kevin cannot simply renounce his father’s voice, not only because he would have to acknowledge his own vulnerability, but also because moving away from that voice means leaving behind the only father he ever had, a process that involves much pain and mourning.

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