Some thoughts on connections between empathy, person-centred therapy, and speculative fiction.
First, a quick definition: according to Collins dictionary, empathy is the ability to understand and imaginatively enter into another person’s feelings.
The 'imaginatively' is important. Sensing the flow of someone's inner life 'as if' it was your own is what separates empathy from emotional contagion.
It's also highly relevant when we're thinking about fiction, because as authors we use language to facilitate empathy. What is a novel if not imaginatively entering into another person's feelings?
The person-centred approach in therapy
I've recently completed a short counselling course, mostly because I wanted to improve my listening skills (I may do another post about that...) but also because I'm fascinated by what's going on under the bonnet of the therapeutic relationship.
I've studied psychology briefly before, so some of the theories we looked at (psychoanalysis, behaviourism) were already familiar to me. One that wasn't, but which I recognised elements of from my own experience of therapy, was the person-centred approach, founded by Carl Rogers in the 1950s.
This modality appealed to me because it positions the client as the expert in their own experience rather than the therapist.
A key aspect of person-centred therapy which has been adopted by therapists and counsellors across almost all modalities is three 'core conditions' through which the therapist can create an environment which will support the client's growth:
- Congruence. The therapist is genuine or 'congruent' within the relationship, they are not performing a role, and can draw on their own authentic feelings and experiences.
- Unconditional Positive Regard. The therapist accepts the client unconditionally and without judgement, offering unconditional positive regard (UPR). This helps the client begin to see themselves more clearly, and correct distorted self worth.
- Empathy. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client's internal world, which helps the client to feel that they are truly seen and known which can enable them to accept the therapist's UPR, and to develop a clearer understanding of their own experiences.
If you'd like to understand how these are put into practice in the counselling room, there is an extraordinary video recording which we watched on the course, of a real counselling session between Carl Rogers and a courageous woman named Gloria which was filmed as part of a series about psychotherapy in 1964:
Carl Rogers on empathy
We also watched a lecture that Carl Rogers gave in 1974 on the subject of empathy, in which he explained that he had come to view empathy as a process, and not a state.
As part of the listening practice we did in class each week I began to get an inkling of what he meant, I think. To stay present with and really follow not only the words that someone is saying to you but to begin to perceive the feelings behind the words - not what you think they are probably feeling, or ought to be feeling, or what you think you would feel - is incredibly hard work. It's fully active.
You can watch the whole lecture below (the most relevant section starts around ten minutes in) but I've pulled out some of the quotes that really illuminated the concept of empathic listening for me.
For Rogers, empathy involves:
"Entering the private, perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear and rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever that he or she is experiencing. It means temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without judgments...
It includes communicating your sensing of the person’s world as you look with fresh and unfrightened eyes at elements of which he or she is fearful... You are a confident companion to the person in his or her inner world.
To be with another in this way means that, for the time being, you lay aside your own values in order to enter another’s world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside your self; this can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange and bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish."
From Rogers, C.R. (1975) Empathic: An unappreciated way of being. The Counselling Psychologist 5(2) 2-10
I'd previously confused empathy and emotional contagion, believing that to empathise with someone was to feel the same as them. In fact, by Rogers' definition, to empathise with someone is to perceive and understand their feelings, to walk with them in their inner world, but to stay always anchored to your own, and your own feelings.
It's this distinction - you are with them, but you are not them - which gives empathic listening its power, as you can lend your strength, your clarity, your "unfrightened eyes" to another.
Strange and bizarre worlds
What truly clicked for me in Rogers' description of empathy was the image of accompanying someone into their inner world, walking beside them through whatever internal weather they are experiencing, sensing their fear or their rage or their joy, but at a little distance. With care, and without judgment.
Of course my imagination immediately started to paint a picture of my own "strange and bizarre" internal landscape, drawing as it usually does from speculative fiction.
I feel at least one reason why we're constantly sending our protagonists to explore deserted space stations, fantastic planets, dark forests, lonely mountains, and haunted houses is because they're such smashing metaphors for that inward journey.
How would those stories shift if the protagonist had a "confident companion", a compassionate equal, who could look at whatever arose without fear? Even if they're not hacking at tentacles or flinging holy water or shooting into the glowing mist, their presence transforms the story. Just like having someone walk fearlessly beside you in your own story, with all its monsters, can transform it.
And where is the author in all this? If the worlds we create and the stories we tell about them build empathy in our readers, are we their companion on the journey or are they ours? Catriona Ward expresses this uncertainty beautifully:
"Reading is a sustained act of telepathy or empathy, and reading horror is even more profound than that: it’s asking people to share real vulnerabilities of yours and open themselves up to their own. It is like going down a tunnel, and hopefully the writer is leading the way with a torch, taking the reader’s hand."
A novel is a collaboration between the author and the reader, after all. Perhaps it's enough just to say that we go into the tunnel together.
PJ Manney sets out some much more detailed and coherent thoughts about empathy and fiction in these two papers:
- Yucky gets yummy: how speculative fiction creates society
- Empathy in the time of technology: how storytelling is the key to empathy
The course I did was the Introduction to Counselling at the University of Warwick Centre for Lifelong Learning.
The Speculative Fiction Academy has a whole course about science fiction and empathy.
Quick shout out to my favourite empath and space therapist!
A quick note on Otherness
When Carl Rogers refers to 'the other' in this article, it's in the sense of 'the other person in the conversation', rather than 'the Other' in the sociological sense.
BUT I do want to quickly highlight that here as it's also extremely relevant to the topic of empathy and fiction.
To empathise is to recognise another person as fully human, as complex and alive as ourselves, and to begin to understand their experiences and emotions. Because of this (and for other reasons) stories which represent and illuminate the worlds and experiences of people with marginalised, excluded, or persecuted identities are an essential part of dismantling the structural inequalities which oppress groups who are Othered by existing hierarchies.