Self Psychology Psychoanalysis

Empathy Misinterpreted

As indicated previously, Kohut was frustrated by the many misinterpretations of empathy and wanted present and future generations to know not only what he meant but also what he did not mean by the term.

For instance, by empathic immersion Kohut is not describing a process by which one guesses, intuits, or magically perceives – that is, it is not some form of extra-sensory perception.

Nor is it the same as we would feel if in a similar circumstance.
For example, if a patient reports the death of a parent, and the analyst has recently experienced the sudden loss of his mother, he cannot assume that his experience of loss is the same as that of his patient.

Empathy is also not the same as "identifying with" or "becoming" the other, so that one is "flooded by" or overwhelmed by the intensity of another's feelings.

On the contrary, in the clinical setting, empathic immersion is a slow and "plodding," "trial and error," "long-term" process by which the self psychologist "tastes" to an attenuated degree the "flavor" of the patient's experience while maintaining his or her objectivity.

Finally, a common error - and one seen more and more frequently in the self psychological literature - is the equation of empathy with an action.

In this regard, Kohut was adamant that empathy cannot be equated with a "deed," "act," or quality in a person's interactions that is commonly identified with love, compassion, or any other intense emotion (Goldberg, 1980).

Yet, Kohut also understood that empathy could only be relevant to human interaction if it results in a response or action (non-response or non-action) that follows direct directly from one's experience-near observations.

Thus Kohut links empathy and action while emphasizing their differences when he states that "introspection and empathy are informers of appropriate action" (1981, p. 529). By this he means that it is only when one is able to step into the shoes of another, to see the world through the other's eyes that one is able to generate a response that is authentic, accurate, and fitting.

The use of empathy in the clinical setting is primarily for the purpose of understanding and explaining what one has observed.
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