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Description: Empathy is a very challenging concept for Psychology and being empathic is a very challenging thing for many people to figure out how to do. Empathy is challenging Western Psychology because Western Psychology focusses best and most intently on individuals and on their self-understandings and self-management practices. This means that when Psychology trys to understand how people feel with or clearly see exactly how another person is thinking and/or feeling the selfhood and the individuality of the person trying to BE empathic can get in the way of a true or authentic understanding of how the other is thinking or feeling. In other words the individually focused theories that make up much of Western Psychology have trouble getting out of their own ways when they try to account for how we listen to others. A challenge for counsellors and therapists is to mindfully avoid counter transference. If, for example, a therapist has had a lifetime of challenges getting along with their combative brother they have to be cautious about how they listen if a client brings up that they are currently struggling with a disagreement with their own brother in order to ensure that the therapist’s own brother-relationship does not color what they “hear” from the their client. Now, if this sounds more like a problem of philosophy than of psychology you are, I think, looking at the issue properly. Sometimes Psychology needs to go and have a chat with its Philosopher friends about concepts and issues that we find challenging and when we do so we need to really listen to what our Philosophy friends suggest as sometimes they will suggest some conceptual or even theoretic renovations that are needed if Psychology is to stay properly focused on human subjective and relational realities. So, do YOU listen when a friend is talking to you about their current personal experiences or do you, even partially, reflect your own realty onto their account? Think about THAT for a minute and then have a read through the article linked below to see what a Philosophical potential friend has to say on the matter.

Source: Are You Listening? Gordon Marino, Opinion, The Stone, The New York Times.

Date: December 17, 2019


Article Link:

So, do you feel conceptually broadened for having listened carefully to what a Philosopher had to say about listening? It is useful to see how concepts like projection can help to explain the difficulties some people have in truly listening to what others are telling them. It can also help us to see how empathy could be the sort of challenging concept it seems to be when worked with through a Western Psychology focused on individuals and individuality. Philosophy can hp us broaden our thoughts, our theories, or concepts and our Psychology.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why might it be difficult to properly conceptualize empathy within Western Psychology?
  2. What is countertransference and why might it be a challenge or issue for therapists?
  3. How might we define, think about, and/or work with empathy in ways that do not do damage to what the concept could or should do for us both within Psychology, in therapy and in our day to day lives?

References (Read Further):

Smajdor, A., Stöckl, A., & Salter, C. (2011). The limits of empathy: problems in medical education and practice. Journal of medical ethics, 37(6), 380-383.

Walter, H. (2012). Social cognitive neuroscience of empathy: concepts, circuits, and genes. Emotion Review, 4(1), 9-17.

Lather, P. (2008). Against empathy, voice and authenticity. In Voice in qualitative inquiry (pp. 29-38). Routledge.

Cuff, B. M., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2016). Empathy: a review of the concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144-153.