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Empathy in Client-Centered Therapy

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  • Category: Empathy

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“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another” –Alfred Adler. In the early 1900’s, therapy treatment methods were mostly “counselor-centered”. This practical approach focused on the teachings, suggestions, mentoring, and influencing skills of the counselor. It remained pretty much the only way until client-centered therapy was introduced by Carl Rogers in the 1930’s. In the beginning, he called his method non-directive therapy, and today, it is known as the Rogerian Theory or person-centered therapy. He was convinced that building a close relationship, in a compassionate and caring setting with the client, would allow for the real potential of personal growth. Rogers understood that the best way to achieve fruitful therapy sessions wasn’t based on the education of the therapist but on three consistent aspects of their attitude: congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy.

While client-centered therapy is a secular practice, its main points are honest functions of biblical truth. “Congruence refers to the therapist’s openness and genuineness—the willingness to relate to clients without hiding behind a professional façade” (Strickland, 2001, pp. 125). Being genuine may, at first, be a scary thought but this point isn’t telling the therapist to be open with their own issues, it’s suggesting that the therapist is open and wholesome towards the client. The bible says, ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is holy…” (Philippians 4:8, ESV).

The second aspect is when a therapist shows unconditional positive regard. This means “they are accepting the client totally for who he or she is without evaluating or censoring, and without disapproving of particular feelings, actions, or characteristics” (Strickland, 2001, pp. 125). A great example of this comes from the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. After the son confesses to his father of sinning against him and heaven and how he is no longer worthy of to be called his son. However, Luke states that “his father saw him and felt compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15: 20, ESV) before his son even approached. A therapist can show unconditional positive regard, just like the father, by not interrupting, not being judgmental, and even by not offering guidance. With the client feeling safe and

comfortable without the fear of judgement, Rogers believes they will be much more willing to open up and share all of their emotions.

The final attitude aspect for client-centered therapy is empathy. This is shown when the therapist attempts to “appreciate the client’s situation from the client’s point of view, showing an emotional understanding of and sensitivity to the client’s feelings throughout the therapy session” (Strickland, 2001, pp. 125). This can be applied in many ways such as such as eye contact while the client is speaking, listening to what they are saying and actually trying to understand their perspective. A great way to do this is by reflection. This entails “paraphrasing and/or summarizing what a client has just said” (Strickland, 2001, pp. 125). “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11: 29-29, ESV). Jesus shows empathy to everyone and we should also.

Although there are biblical truths that support client-centered therapy, there are also limitations that can cause spiritual health problems. The positive aspect of congruence has boundaries because although the therapist is supposed to have an open heart, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV). The Bible encourages authenticity but being open is much easier to say than to actually do.

There is a limitation to unconditional positive regard as well. We are called to love others based on the way God loves us. There’s even a popular saying, “love the sinner, hate the sin”. This aspect could easily trick a therapist! Christians are to love everyone, just as Christ did. However, we do not have to accept all of their actions. Sometimes, we have to permit punishment of those we care for. Just as Jezebel said to Elijah, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of the one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19: 2)

Showing empathy towards another person should have no boundaries. But the goal of fruitful therapy could get seriously off track if the client focuses too much on themselves. Just as the prodigal son stated, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me” (Luke 15:12, ESV). This statement is showing a lack of empathy from the son, who is being completely selfish, which is a sin in of itself, but it also shows the heartbreaking side of empathy in the next part when the Bible states, “And the father divided his property between his two sons” (Luke 15:12, ESV). A therapist would be doing their client a complete disservice by helping them become so self-focused, all in an effort to remain empathetic.

Carl Rogers created an amazing baseline for therapists to lay a foundation of congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy with their clients. However, that’s just it. It’s a great starting point. As Christians, we are called to be genuine, non-judgmental, and empathetic towards others. We are called to love others but a sin is still a sin and should still be branded as such. Rogers’ theory behind client-centered therapy is a reminder that we are all God’s people and He created each of us with a purpose. Maybe instead of having the client seek through their own lives to see what God’s plan is, as Christian counselors, we should walk alongside them to help them seek God to be healed. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6, ESV).

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