Empathy and the Mind-Body Connection
What's the connection?
Posted Oct 27, 2015
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. By maintaining attunement with my body and my partner simultaneously, I can see and feel somatic manifestations of the person with whom I am working juxtoposed with my self-awareness. I consult my physical state as I speak and listen in order to do my best to monitor how I am processing information. I often struggle with the effort while it’s happening. It is not an unwavering effort, but my aim is to stay fully engaged, like a surfer, watching the wave, feeling the wave move and change while simultaneously feeling my body as a set of unified parts gripping the board and adjusting. The “wave” is the input of feelings both physical and emotional that move through me during the session, often representing the most significant connection points between myself and my client(s). For several moments throughout a session, I feel a sense of synchronized attunement. The time between those moments is spent in ebb and flow from me to my client. When it’s over, I may experience some relief, and yet I feel energized from the effort also. I find I am more receptive to nonverbal feelings, emotions, and intuitions when I take on this task.
When I started practicing sit and talk therapy, I struggled to describe the “work in the moment” aspect of my process. The conversation sometimes found my colleagues a bit glazed over, Are you talking about body work/massage? Do you move around in session? However, the fluency many therapists now have with mindfulness, EFT, somatic experiencing, and other practices within the realm of psychotherapy that incorporate a focus on experience of sensation in the body, has made it easier for me to contextualize my work and develop a language to more easily describe it.
Any comments or questions on Ms. Sokoll’s approach are welcome! The analogy she draws between a therapist's (or anyone's) connection to the empathic process and a surfer's bond with the sea strikes me as profound and compelling. It highlights the spontaneity of the link in the here-and-now between perception, intuition, thought and emotion. It illustrates the sense in which just "sitting" in a room with another can be likened to actively working to find the internal and interpersonal balance needed to promote human contact.