Trembling with the other: How empathy is constructed by therapists who practice mindfulness

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Millon, G. (2017)

Understandings and usages of empathy have long been contested between different schools of the psychoanalytic tradition; empathy has been constructed as a form of projective identification, a means of healing narcissistic injury, and a defence against otherness. As teachings and practices from Buddhism have become increasingly integrated into Western therapeutic approaches, the practice of mindfulness may be informing how therapists experience and make sense of empathy. In exploring how mindfulness practitioners construct the process of empathy within the therapeutic relationship, this study aims to address some of the gaps in current understanding. 14 therapists who practiced mindfulness were interviewed about their empathic experiences, and the data was analysed using a social constructionist grounded theory methodology. The grounded theory constructed from the data suggested two categories involved in the process of empathy: Defending a fragile self and Trembling with the other. Defending a fragile self was constructed as an identification with an empathic ideal and a struggle to remain separate, while Trembling with the other was characterised by participants acknowledging their own lack, realising interconnectedness and being willing to meet the unknown. The implications for therapists’ practice regarding the therapeutic relationship are discussed, as are some considerations regarding counselling psychology research more generally.
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