Empathy Is An Emotional Muscle You Can Develop

Skills psychotherapy teaches us to improve connections with others

Margaret, a friend of the family, visited us this past week. While her presence started off as an annoying house guest, she became one of my greatest lessons on how to build empathy for others.

When you think of a loud, raspy-voiced woman, this is Margaret. Decades of heavy nicotine and liquor use and abuse have left their battle scars. Margaret ends each sentence with a high pitched intonation at a frequency that hurt my ears. She also has a way of cutting off people’s sentences to ensure her voice gets heard. Margaret’s in her late sixties, yet, her partner Scott is my age; in his early forties. The couple moved into our home for a week to help my step-dad reinforce cement walls in his workshop. While it wasn’t my intent to be rude to Margaret, I chose to keep our interactions to the bare minimum and wore a poker face to hide my genuine emotions rather than show a perpetual irritable state. Whe Margaret arrived, I didn’t know much about her, except that her dishevelled appearance and constant sneezing provided me with the belief she’d lived a hard life and wasn’t physically well. Despite this knowledge, at the onset of Margaret’s time with us, I felt little compassion. And this bothered me. I became curious:

  • Why did I withhold care toward our house guest?
  • Will I make a terrible psychotherapist?
  • What will it take for me to feel empathy towards Margaret?

The I/Thou Relationship

Coincidence — or not, during the same time of our house guest’s stay, I attended the Gestalt Psychotherapy year two of five retreat for four full consecutive days via Zoom (this year, we met remote due to Covid-19). The objective of the online retreat was to conclude the valuable inner personal work of years one and two and prepare ourselves to initiate working with others from years three to five onward. Gestalt calls the relationship between oneself and another as ‘I/Thou’. Martin Buber, (1878–1965), a German Jewish Existentialist philosopher and theologian, heavily influenced the founders of Gestalt, Laura and Fritz Perls, and was the originator of the:

I–Thou’ (‘Ich und Du’ in German) relationship as a genuine meeting between two unique people in which both openly respect the essential humanity of the other

Buber was a proponent of the idea when two people relate to each other; they have a choice to treat one other as objects, thus creating an I/It relationship. Or they can have a real person-to-person connection in the form of an I/Thou relationship. And it is only through the I/Thou relationship can people form the maximum power to heal.

Martin Buber | Image from Wikipedia

In the book Fritz Perls, by Petruska Clarkson and Jennifer Mackewn, (pg. 167, 1993), the father of Gestalt Psychotherapy contented:

Such a healing relationship develops when two people, each with his separate existence and personal needs, contact each other recognizing and allowing the differences between them. This is more than a combination of two monologues between two people in meaningful exchange.

The I/Thou concept in practice

First, I recognized our differences, real and imagined. We possessed different ages, habits, social-economic status etc. Creating a mental walk-through of the list felt easy, although ensured a distance remained between us.

Next, I focused attention on discerning the similarities between Margaret and I. We share a mutual affection of nature and gravitate towards the comical side of life. The second exercise took far more time and effort than the former process. I noticed an internal shift. My curiosity intensified, I became further engaged in our conversation, sparked by an authentic desire to get to know Margaret better. The more I became involved and present, the more I was invested in making contact with her. My poker facade dissolved, and I stayed in her presence for more extended periods. Sure, there were moments when the high frequency of Margaret’s voice continued to break sound barriers; however, I endured and persevered. As the week progressed, the original differences felt at the onset didn’t seem to matter as much anymore. Our distinctions made us unique, and I became more accepting of the divergences between us. Through staying with Margaret, I was able to feel the emotion in my heart and care for her. The sensation was empathy.

There is a reason Gestalt Psychotherapy school is a five-year program. In the first two years, we work in a group dynamic. Each of us faces our own personal Margaret’s in the room, people whom we may never have met or associated with otherwise. During this time, we perform that deep internal work first and develop the awareness of who triggers us, always looking inward, discovering why we are the way we are — at the moment.

The gift of suffering

Does my initial interaction and judgement of Margaret mean I’ll make a terrible psychotherapist? No. I will have countless opportunities to establish contact with a hundred Margaret’s using the I/Thou concept before entering the world with an established private practice. But she was important because my experience with Margaret proved valuable; we both endured pain in our lives.

Margaret had been married three times and now, in retirement, lived on the south shore of Lake Simcoe in a cabin, freezing wind whistling through the boards in the winter. She carried her distress in the lines of her face. When I look back on my own life, I endured hurt from parental divorce and later faced a dark period from a failed relationship. The agony lingered within me for too long before I sought therapy and found freedom.

When we know what it is like to suffer and have come through the other side healed, we can hold more capacity for others and be empathetic. I believe reconciliation allowed me to find a way to be open to Margaret. Otherwise, misery loves company.

Developing your empathetic muscle

Next time you’re confronted with your own personal Margaret, take a few moments and consider what you have in common. If this is too difficult, seek a fragment of sameness. I recognize this is not an easy task given our current hyper-politicized environment. Maybe it means starting with the basics, your humanness, or of possessing the same range of emotions. Hang onto these thoughts and see if you can sit slightly longer with the other in patience and understanding. When you work through the pattern of holding, you will build the emotional connection of empathy.

After Margaret left our home, my Mom shook her head in amazement, commenting, “I can’t believe that woman holds a Masters in Psychology!”


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Lisa Bradburn
Lisa Bradburn
Lisa is a student of Gestalt Psychotherapy in her third year of five. Spanning a twenty-year career, she has worked with Fortune 500 companies and start-ups coaching technology teams to be empowered, accountable, and purpose-driven. Lisa is naturally drawn to themes close to her heart; leadership, socialization, adoption, and conflict resolution. Today she lives at Rice Lake in the beautiful Kawartha area of Southern Ontario, Canada, with her German Jagd-Terrier dog Astor.


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Lisa currently studies Gestalt psychotherapy and is entering her third year of five. She works for Fortune 500 corporations and coaches technology teams to be empowered, accountable, and purpose-driven. Lisa is naturally drawn to themes close to her heart; tech addictions, adoption, socialization, conflict resolution.

Lisa is also a part of the Medika Life family. She is an assistant editor with Medika, offering invaluable assistance with Medika's social media platforms and the editorial process for BeingWell, our Medium publication. Connect with Lisa and follow her below.


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