The Balancing Act of Empathy and Distance and Maintaining a Lifeline of Hope

By Monica A. Ross, LPC

When a person comes into therapy sometimes it’s all they can do to utter the words that bring them in.  Oftentimes those words are linked to tragedy or emotional distress. “I was raped,” “I had an affair,” “My mother passed away,” "I hate my job," “I’m so deeply sad or anxious I can barely get out of bed.” 

We as therapists hear these words every day.  We hear tales of abuse, tales of shortcomings, and tales of disconnect.  It takes a combination of things to balance out the low energy that these thoughts and feelings come with. 

While it’s important to have a measure of empathy, it’s also important to have a measure of distance. We each individual need I think to have a measure of distance from our own inner pain and we as clinicians I would argue need to have a measure of distance from our client’s emotional pain.

It is possible to have both empathy and distance.  It’s a balancing act.

The empathy helps with connection and the distance to a certain extent keeps us sane and practicing. I’ll never forget walking into the lobby of the community health clinic that I was working at and seeing one client who had the obvious appearance of having just had major surgery. My first thought as I saw the client and the nature of the injury and where it was located was that they had been the victim of violence by their own hands. 

That instinct was right. That particular individual had attempted suicide. That was not the first individual that I saw that came into the clinic having attempted to commit suicide in a violent manner. To pull back a client like that and enter into a conversation about mental health with someone who had stared down death at one point takes a measure of distance.

Because to lean too far into someone else’s pain risks losing professionalism and composure and the counterbalance that it takes to be a lifeline of hope. This is no different really than any other of the roles that a physician, a nurse, or any other type of healthcare provider might provide. People come seeking better health often because they are in some sort of pain, discomfort, or distress.

But that pain, discomfort, and distress is unique and separate although it's our shared connection to pain and suffering in general that helps with empathy. Want I guess I’m addressing today is the delicate nature of this job.  On the one hand, we as therapists are called daily to practice empathy and understanding.  I do my best to do that.  I get asked all the time, “How do you what you do?  I could never do that.” 

Well, actually I absolutely love what I do.  I love going into work every day and keeping this space for people to share their stories and hopefully find some kind of relief and buffer from the world.  And it’s not all tears and boxes of Kleenex.  It’s often also laughter and joy and celebration.

Quite often I get clients who come in having complained about something that a previous therapist did or said that was off-putting and I have no doubt that I at a moment of weakness may have rubbed someone the wrong way inadvertently. This does not make any of us bad practitioners.

There’s so much that goes into a delivery of a service especially when that service is intangible in some sense and the process is that of collaboration and co-creation. Perhaps there are times I think when I have tried to rush the process or introduce another perspective at a time it wasn’t in sync with a clients’ emotional needs.  That is an example of how an issue of timing can come across perhaps as a lack of empathy.

It’s hard for anyone to be good at what they do 100% of the time.  I’m not sure what my error rate is, but hopefully fairly low.  Lol.  So, when I get a client who comes in having had a bad experience with therapy I have both empathy for the client and the client’s former therapist who had they known would have likely tried to rectify their mistake. 

Clients have a right to terminate their therapy at any time and for any reason.  Though we suggest that if possible it’s good to try to work out whatever issues arise through the process of therapy within the therapy process itself.  It’s okay to be pissed off by something your therapist says and then walk in the next week and bring it up or gain clarification or what have you. It’s just part of the process.  But then there are other times when maybe it truly is time to move on and find a therapist who is a better fit.