Empathy, Tolerance, and Diversity in Therapy

Empathy is a huge word in therapy. It is touted as the cornerstone of emotional intelligence—a key ingredient in developing and maintaining satisfying relationships. Therapists need empathy for clients. Clients often intentionally or secondarily develop empathy for other people in their lives.  

 [image description: Two babies, with different skin colors, are sitting near each other. The baby on the left is crying. The baby on the right is reaching out to the distressed baby, placing a hand on the upset baby's shoulder. Thanks  Scary Mommy .]

[image description: Two babies, with different skin colors, are sitting near each other. The baby on the left is crying. The baby on the right is reaching out to the distressed baby, placing a hand on the upset baby's shoulder. Thanks Scary Mommy.]

Empathy may very well be the driving force behind why some people choose a career in the mental health field. It is a great quality that predicts many positive outcomes. It is inversely related with perceived levels of loneliness, and highly correlated with prosocial behavior. Empathy helps us connect deeply with others. And when it comes to long-term change in therapy, empathy isn’t enough. 

Andrew Solomon’s book, Far from the Tree, contains great evidence that empathy and understanding does not cross all areas of difference. Even while our own experiences of oppression, isolation, bullying, and marginalization can develop our capacity for empathy and enhance our ability to see parallels in pain, our pains are not the same. Empathy is not our end goal. It is not our last stop. 

Almost everyone I interviewed was to some degree put off by the chapters in this book other than his or her own. Deaf people didn’t want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs; criminals couldn’t abide the idea that they had anything in common with transgender people. The prodigies and their families objected to being in a book with the severely disabled, and some children of rape felt that their emotional struggle was trivialized when they were compared to gay activists. People with autism often pointed out that Down syndrome entailed a categorically lower intelligence than theirs. The compulsion to build such hierarchies persists even among these people, all of whom have been harmed by them.
— Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree

Empathy depends on our existing capacity to understand another person. It depends on having enough personal experiences which we can compare to another person's experiences. Regardless of how skillful we are with empathy, we can never fully understand another person's experience. For example, a pregnancy can be a cause for great celebration, great despair, or anything in between. A loss of a job may be experienced as liberating. Our emotions are often complex and layered. We experience things uniquely. A woman may experience various degrees of sexism and sexual harassment, just as a Person of Color may experience various degrees of racism and systematic oppression. These experiences vary and sting in different ways. Empathy is great for having compassion and tolerance for differences--especially in the people we already love. And even in the people we love, we can misunderstand and miss their pain entirely.

Positive social emotions like compassion and empathy are generally good for us, and we want to encourage them. But do we know how to most reliably raise children to care about the suffering of other people? I’m not sure we do.
— Sam Harris

But what about acquaintances and strangers? Empathy is much harder to activate for a random passerby. Imagine the person who cut you off on your commute today, or the person you saw kicking their dog or yelling at their child. Imagine the person in the wheelchair with a can in their hand on the street corner, or the traveling musician busking for money downtown. Imagine someone with schizophrenia or autism or pedophilia. Imagine someone so different from you that you feel that twinge of aversion and repulsion. Does your empathy still reach that person?

Relying on empathy means black people faced with horrific levels of police brutality must make white people “feel our pain.” It forces us to stream the bodies of our dead sons and daughters on a loop. It requires there to be dead sons and daughters in the first place. It always demands more spectacles of pain.
— Hari Ziyad

If therapy's aim is to provide healing, then we must consider where empathy falls short. We must look at the lines we do not cross regarding power, privilege, and oppression. We must explore the spectrum of rejection, tolerance, and celebration. Then we can begin to address the intergenerational trauma that is carried from oppressive experiences like racism and the Holocaust--both of which have demonstrated long-term negative health and mental health impacts. Undoubtedly, audism (yes, that is spelled correctly), transphobia, and mental health stigma can have similar impacts.

 [image description: Cartoon image with caption, "EMPATHY would this help?" In the image, a person is sitting on a street corner in tattered clothes with a hat in front in order to collect money. The person is holding a mirror in front of his/her/zir face in order for the person walking by to see his/her/zir own reflection. Thanks  Axis of Logic .]

[image description: Cartoon image with caption, "EMPATHY would this help?" In the image, a person is sitting on a street corner in tattered clothes with a hat in front in order to collect money. The person is holding a mirror in front of his/her/zir face in order for the person walking by to see his/her/zir own reflection. Thanks Axis of Logic.]

As a therapist I make a point to read articles and blogs by people from various backgrounds and perspectives. It is a practice that helps me develop my understanding and empathy for people with experiences outside my own reality. Theoretically, this will enhance my capacity to sit with any client who comes into my office. Ideally, understanding and listening to various perspectives and experiences will enable me to conduct sessions non-judgementally, regardless of any conglomeration of symptoms, complaints, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that a client presents. A couple of weeks ago, I read this article on why empathy won't save us in the fight against oppression. 

Here, Hari Ziyad (also quoted above) points out
But the belief that empathy can solve the world’s ills relies on the idea that we are all similar enough that someone else’s pain can be understood through the understanding of our own.

What happens when we do not understand our own pain? What happens when we really are different, and substantially so? What happens when those differences cannot be understood? Or, at least, what happens before those differences can be understood?

 [image description: The Pain Measurement Scale, which is often used in doctor's offices. A scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable) with correlating faces, smiling to miserably crying.]

[image description: The Pain Measurement Scale, which is often used in doctor's offices. A scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable) with correlating faces, smiling to miserably crying.]

Hopefully, in this case, you can see a counselor who has exceptional practice in his/her/zir own pain and the capacity to be with someone else's pain without denying it, minimizing it, or judging it. Hopefully, you can find someone who will believe your pain, even if they do not comprehend it.

 [image description: There are five lines of text that are all crossed out. They read "It's not that bad", "Just be happy", "Don't be sad", "You'll get over it", and "You're overreacting". The final line of text is clear: "I believe you."]

[image description: There are five lines of text that are all crossed out. They read "It's not that bad", "Just be happy", "Don't be sad", "You'll get over it", and "You're overreacting". The final line of text is clear: "I believe you."]

Whether you are a therapist, a therapist-in-training, a client in therapy, or a human interested in self-growth, empathy is a critical part of your ongoing emotional intelligence. It is also critical to continue to examine and challenge your assumptions, biases, fears, and internalized stigmas regarding who has value and what makes them valuable. As Michelle Alexander addresses is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which of your values and judgments justify legal, social, and economic boundaries between “us” and “them”? Remember that person you called to mind earlier, the one who elicited your aversion? This is when our empathy takes a back seat, no longer activating our mirror neurons

 [image description: A graphic art image of two human shapes looking at each other. Inside their heads, there are blasts of color, representing neural activity. Some of those blasts of color (neural activity) are bridging the physical gap between the two people, representing mirror neurons. Thanks Psychology Today.]

[image description: A graphic art image of two human shapes looking at each other. Inside their heads, there are blasts of color, representing neural activity. Some of those blasts of color (neural activity) are bridging the physical gap between the two people, representing mirror neurons. Thanks Psychology Today.]

Luckily, mirror neurons are activated through consistent interaction and eye contact. Therapy, therefore, can be a be a new frontier for moving beyond empathy. When you are in a therapy office, sitting across from another human, you have a unique opportunity to engage with someone who is entirely similar and entirely different from you. Whether you are therapist or client, take this opportunity to breathe and to engage with the humanity in the person across from you. Regardless of the difference, confusion, frustration, joy, relief, and support that arises in the therapeutic relationship, return to the humanity in yourself and the person across from you again, and again. It is an art and a practice. Breathe, notice, and return.

*Note for clients: If your therapist does not have the capacity to stay present with your pain, especially if you identify with one or more marginalized identities, call them out and/or find a new therapist.
*Note for therapists: If your client identifies with one or more marginalized identities and expresses a lot of anger and pain, it is not personal. If it is too much for you, get supervision and/or refer them to another therapist.

Transitions: On Breaking Open

One of the most common catalysts for starting therapy is the need for additional support during a major transition. A big change is happening, and you realize you cannot do it alone. It may even become a "dark night of the soul." And poof, you find yourself sitting in a therapist’s office. Perhaps that big change is a divorce, a move, an accident, a career change, a pregnancy, a return to school, or some other intentional or unintentional shift. Perhaps it is coming out as gay or queer or trans*. Maybe it is navigating a cancer diagnosis, or the reality of having a child who is Deaf* or hard-of-hearing. Some transitions feel bigger and more daunting than others. Sometimes multiple transitions are piled on top of each other, causing overwhelm. Some changes cause you to leave nearly everything you knew behind, like in Cheryl Strayed's Wild or in Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

 [image description: Two fish bowls are side-by-side. The bowl on the right is empty. The bowl on the left has several goldfish. One goldfish is leaping out of the left bowl towards the right bowl. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: Two fish bowls are side-by-side. The bowl on the right is empty. The bowl on the left has several goldfish. One goldfish is leaping out of the left bowl towards the right bowl. Thanks Google images.]

In this state, we oftentimes just want to cope. Or for that "bad" thing to go away so that we can go back to how things were before. We would like the magic elixir that helps soothe the intense sensations in our chest as we are broken open. It can feel as though we are dying (because some old part of us, or old way of being, is ending). But what happens if we stay with it? What happens if we lean in? What happens if we honor the pain and the emotions that come with transition?

This process of self-discovery is not easy; it may involve suffering, doubt, dismay. But we must not shrink from the fullness of our being in attempting to reduce the pain.
— John O'Donohue, Anam Cara

Regardless of our degree of choice in the transitions happening, change has a way of inducing fear—even terror. Regardless of our ability to anticipate change, transitions have a way of confronting us with the unknown. We find ourselves asking questions like, “Who am I without my husband?” or “What worth do I have without my job?” or "How can I endure this experience?"

 [image description: A multi-directional sign with arrows pointing different ways. Each arrow has a different word: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Questions, Answers. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: A multi-directional sign with arrows pointing different ways. Each arrow has a different word: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Questions, Answers. Thanks Google images.]

Big transitions are obvious, and sometimes sneak up on us. For example, we might feel the itch to change jobs for years before acting on that desire. Something holds us back for a while. We doubt. We question. We let the idea incubate. 

In reality, we are constantly changing, constantly experiencing transition. Our bodies change with time and with the seasons and with the cycles of the moon. Each day is different than the previous one and includes its own set of unpredictable factors and opportunities. We oftentimes overlook the pervasiveness of change, because we find ease in the familiar; we find safety in predictability.

We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem.
— Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

When we find ourselves experiencing discomfort and fear in the face of a big transition, we oftentimes feel as though we are being broken open. We feel raw. We feel vulnerable. The things in which we sought familiarity and safety is no longer present and we feel a sense of pervasive risk. The good news is that this is a great opportunity. It is precisely through adversity, challenge, and change that we develop our strengths and our gifts.

Consider this selection from Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet:

“The clear night sky tried to prepare me for
what it knew would someday happen;

it began to show me ever deeper aspects of
its splendor, and then one evening just directly
asked, Will you be able to withstand your own
magnificence?

I thought I was just hearing things, until
a spring orchard I was passing my days with
at the height of its glory burst into song,
about our—every human’s—destiny to burn
with radiance.

Still I felt my ears were playing tricks on me
until the morning came when God tore apart
my chest… needing more room to bloom
inside.”

-via Daniel Ladinsky

First your chest must be torn apart, then there will be enough room to bloom. Simultaneously beautiful and not at all comforting. 

Another way to approach transitions is through stories. Many of our favorite stories, movies, and myths follow this pathway. A period of transition is often recognized at a point which feels traumatic and devastating. The "call to adventure" (number 2 below) may be prompted after the death of a loved one. Or the "test" (number 6 below) may be after a period of smooth-sailing on your journey. Then character builds, obstacles are navigated, demons are slain, there is triumph, and the hero returns with new courage and new skills due to the experience. The hero’s journey. The heroine’s journey. The heroic journey. When reading, watching, or listening to these stories, we have awe, respect, and admiration. We repeatedly fall in love with these characters. Consider Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or Homer and the Odyssey. Or Elsa in Frozen.

 [image description: A circular representation of the Heroic Journey. It includes four sections, each with details. 1. Call to Action. 2. Supreme Ordeal/Initiation. 3. Unification/Transformation. 4. Road Back/Hero's Return. Thanks Creative Commons.]

[image description: A circular representation of the Heroic Journey. It includes four sections, each with details. 1. Call to Action. 2. Supreme Ordeal/Initiation. 3. Unification/Transformation. 4. Road Back/Hero's Return. Thanks Creative Commons.]

However, when we, as Americans accustomed to instant gratification, receive a calling or a circumstance that catapults us into foreign territory, we oftentimes handle it less gracefully than our favorite heros/heroines. This brings us back to our desire for a magic elixir and the documented explosion in anti-depressant use. We aren't very comfortable with discomfort. We feel unsettled, confused, scared, stuck, hopeless, and helpless. We need support to move through the experience and develop our strengths and our gifts. Just like our favorite characters, we need mentors and allies--which may or may not include a therapist who is trained in the journey of transitions.

So, as you navigate life’s predictable and unpredictable changes, are you ready to bloom? When faced with the unknown and the crossroads between your old life and your new life, Will you be able to withstand your own magnificence?

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
— Maya Angelou
 [image description: a compiled series of photographs combined. Along one stick, there is a progression from caterpillar, to cocoon, to butterfly emerging, to a full Monarch butterfly. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: a compiled series of photographs combined. Along one stick, there is a progression from caterpillar, to cocoon, to butterfly emerging, to a full Monarch butterfly. Thanks Google images.]

"Natural Wisdom"

When I was considering the name of my counseling practice, I wanted something that integrated my approach to counseling with a concept that highlighted human potential. Natural Wisdom seemed to hold both. 

 [image: The logo for Natural Wisdom Counseling. A green deciduous tree with the trunk in the shape of a person--feet rooted down and arms branching up.]

[image: The logo for Natural Wisdom Counseling. A green deciduous tree with the trunk in the shape of a person--feet rooted down and arms branching up.]

So, what is Natural Wisdom, anyway? In my perspective, it is a multi-dimensional concept that guides therapeutic work, and ultimately enhances client growth and life satisfaction. It has at least three components: Personal, Nature, and the Divine.

Personal

We each have access to our own Natural Wisdom. On a metaphysical level, we have gut feelings, intuition, and hunches. On a biological and physiological level, our bodies are brimming with information, constantly informing us of what we need, as well as what works for us and what does not work for us. Some people get a stomachache after eating dairy. Some people get headaches when they have not slept enough or when they are dehydrated. Some people get anxious before going to work in the morning. There are innumerable ways in which your body is constantly informing you about how your actions and your environment are impacting you. Are you familiar with your body’s Natural Wisdom?

If you are not familiar with your body’s Natural Wisdom, you are not alone. Many of us were implicitly and explicitly taught to ignore some of our body’s signals—especially if they were inconvenient in some way. Perhaps your mom never noticed the correlation between dairy and your digestive issues, just giving you some Tums or Pepto when you happened to get a stomachache. It is possible you have to work evening and night shifts in order to pay your bills, and figure that a little loss of sleep and the secondary headache are worth it. Maybe you have not noticed that your morning anxiety is pre-work anxiety connected to your interactions with your over-bearing, micro-managing boss. We all have lots of reasons to ignore or minimize the signals our bodies are giving us. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for those “little things” that we ignore to build up and become chronic or debilitating. Tapping into your body and your own Natural Wisdom will help you find and treat the cause of the symptom, rather than just the band-aid the symptom itself.

Your Natural Wisdom is entirely unique to you. Fostering it will help you recognize and act on your own truths. Getting familiar with your truths can give you information and tools to make decisions that help you thrive. You have the potential to be empowered and revitalized by your personal Natural Wisdom.

   Expansion , by Paige Bradley  [image: A statue of a naked woman meditating in lotus position sits in front of a city skyline. The statue is cracked in multiple places, with light glowing from within in, shining through the cracks.]

Expansion, by Paige Bradley
[image: A statue of a naked woman meditating in lotus position sits in front of a city skyline. The statue is cracked in multiple places, with light glowing from within in, shining through the cracks.]

Nature

The Earth and its smorgasbord of inhabitants are a great example of Natural Wisdom. When you look at a plant or an animal, it is easy to see that it is pursuing life and accepting each stage of life gracefully. Each living being is doing the best it can to not only survive, but also to thrive. As a therapist, Nature is one of my best teachers for how to foster growth and resiliency. Whether I am explicitly using a nature-based intervention or not, the natural world is constantly informing my therapeutic lens. Plants, animals, insects, and the weather create unlimited metaphors and opportunities for us.   

When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.
— Ram Dass, https://www.ramdass.org/ram-dass-on-self-judgement/]

From Darwin’s finches to the way that a sunflower will follow the sun, it is clear that there is purpose and adaptation in even the most bewildering behaviors. 

 [image: A graphic art design of an anglerfish, glowing deep underwater. It has light hanging in front of its head with its mouth open, showing long pointed teeth.] Thank you Google Images

[image: A graphic art design of an anglerfish, glowing deep underwater. It has light hanging in front of its head with its mouth open, showing long pointed teeth.] Thank you Google Images

We, too, have changed and evolved from different experiences, stimuli, and stories. We, too, are doing the best we can with the information that we have received in our short lives. Sometimes, the way we adapt causes us pain and discomfort, even though we are trying our best. Sometimes Nature can give us some sage advice on how to adapt more effectively. 

The Divine

God, the Universe, the Great Spirit…whatever term you use for the Indefinable, the mysterious Energy, the Divine also plays a role in our experience of Natural Wisdom. Since time immemorial, humans have sought spiritual guidance. We have bowed down in awe to forces greater than ourselves. We have been moved by unnamable entities and gleaned insights and wisdom while practicing spiritual traditions.  

 [image: There is a black silhouette of a human walking forward. Light is radiating out from the chest towards the edges of the image, which looks like stars strewn through the Universe.] Thank you Google Images

[image: There is a black silhouette of a human walking forward. Light is radiating out from the chest towards the edges of the image, which looks like stars strewn through the Universe.] Thank you Google Images

Natural Wisdom may come to us in mysterious or mystical ways. The rhythms and cycles of life, along with its triumphs and tragedies, are not always easily explained. Sometimes they cannot be verbalized. Regardless, including your spiritual practices in the therapeutic process will bolster your development of Natural Wisdom.

Counseling and Natural Wisdom

Are you at a loss for how to access personal, natural, and/or spiritual components of Natural Wisdom? Holistic counseling can help you bridge that gap. Through Natural Wisdom Counseling, you can enhance your sense of empowerment, take ownership or your personal truths, and use your life experiences to help you adapt to current and future situations with grace and confidence.