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Empathy, Improvisation and the Growth of the Therapist

Therapists, more often than they might wish, find themselves trying to be empathetic with people they would not otherwise spend time with. This often means being open to the thoughts and experiences of very difficult people who may have been terribly damaged. This necessary attempt at an empathic engagement often evokes the therapist’s own vulnerability, the sort of feelings he or she would not open up or consider except with trusted companions.

Especially for the new or young therapist, this confrontation with vulnerability has important consequences. Simply asked, does the therapist acquire a greater capacity for toleration and self-reflection, or close off and avoid what is too tender and painful to acknowledge? In my own practice, I know I have done both. This is an important lesson I offer my students, since it remains a work in progress for myself, and a vital concern of theirs.


I start the lesson, hopefully enough, with the promise that the work they will do will make them better people. A more honest correction, with its attendant “unless clauses,” will come later. Not all of them will mature with an increased toleration and capacity for understanding, but many will. Most will discover where this growth is possible and desirable and where it is not. If they are lucky and careful, this self-knowledge will guide their careers.


Why do I confidently start with the claim that the ordeal of conducting intensive psychotherapy will make the therapist a better person? Again, simply put, because to engage in such a relationship, to accept the openness to the other that therapeutic improvisation requires, necessarily means both participants, the client and the therapist, will change. Both will acquire a degree of new competence and knowledge that would not have been achieved had they not entered into this otherwise unlikely arrangement. At least for the therapist, there might have been no need to.


Data indicates that there are several important outcomes of psychoanalytic psychotherapy: The client becomes somewhat more insightful about him or herself, considerably more insightful about their intimates and neighbors, and generally more tolerant.

I am sure this is the case for all of the intensive, non-directive therapies where the therapist is deliberately mindful about the expression of judgment. Therapists become experts in the many ways a person can be accepted or degraded. Clients, too, become aware of this beneficial attitude and method of understanding and may acquire the ability to practice it with others. I think it is reasonable to say the world is a better place when this is possible.


I am suggesting that therapy improves the world. In an intensive psychotherapy, the client learns how to handle difficult emotions, relationships and thoughts, because he or she repeatedly practices this in the company of the therapist. The therapist’s non-coercive and empathetic attention to the boundaries of toleration make this practice possible. The client becomes more competent in thinking over difficult issues.

If the practice is sufficient, the client is now in a better position to make informed choices with less desperation, or perhaps no desperation at all. Basically, the client achieves the needed skill to manage and accept what does not actually violate his or her integrity, now knowing what is a real violation and what is not.


I think all of this holds for the therapist as well. Therapy’s required openings, this necessity to affirm and incorporate a client’s exploration of suffering and difficulty into an ongoing improvisation, means the therapist, too, has encountered and handled something difficult they might have avoided. By not escaping into avoidance, the therapist develops empathy and compassion and becomes a better person.

Empathy, Improvisation and the Growth of the Therapist