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How To Become Empathic

Question:

After having spent many years with different therapists, and the past 2 years in intensive psychoanalysis after 3 years of weekly therapy with the same therapist, we keep coming back to the same problem behavior (that I learned at my mother’s knee): I’ve isolated myself from relationships with people (because relationships are too scary, my ego’s too fragile, I have no empathy for others, I don’t see the point, people don’t really matter, etc.), and will subsequently always be unhappy and chronically dissatisfied. Today she raised the idea that I seem to “rent” people to talk to, complain to, etc. to keep from having “real relationships” with others or make any real changes other than just going through the motions. I’ve probably sensed this for a long time, but never wanted to face it, and now the only solution I can see to my addiction would be to go “cold turkey.” My therapist suggested that we could talk about setting some sort of time limit to therapy, while continuing to work on these issues. I’m so frightened and desperate at the prospect of going without (especially after all these years of dependency), especially now that I’ve just returned to school (after so many years away) to get a graduate degree (which I expressed to her). It all seems like such a Catch-22 situation – how does one really learn to care about relationships and subsequently learn to be less self-absorbed, have more empathy for others, feel less neutral about everything? I feel like such an incredible failure after all of these years of “talking.” Thanks for your help.

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Answer:

You do seem to want relationships with people, need them even. It’s just that you seem to find them too scary when you cannot control them. The big difference between a therapy relationship, and a friendship/romantic relationship is that you (as a patient) have more control over the therapy relationship. You can hire (and fire) a therapist, set your own agenda, and, if one therapist tries to tell you that your behavior is counter-therapeutic and unlikely to help you progress, you can easily find another who will mother you until you cannot pay anymore. If you tried to pull that crap with a friend, you’d lose the friend.

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p> Your therapist is probably doing you a favor to suggest that you have to move beyond the therapy relationship. It is clear that in order to progress past your fears (of what I don’t know), that you have to find a way to make actual friends (who expect reciprocity and all that). But you don’t have any real friends – so you cling to your therapist. Your therapist tries to wean you off of the therapy relationship so as to encourage you to move forward into real friendships, but you are threatened by this (don’t know how? are afraid?) and so you resist the idea. But you do have to move past the resistance.

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p> You don’t’ need to go cold turkey, and in fact, going cold turkey is usually a recipe for failure whether it is applied towards addictions or fears. I would suggest that you work out two things with your therapist: 1) a reduced schedule of therapy (if you were going weekly, work your way down to monthly), and 2) a concrete plan for HOW TO MEET PEOPLE. Both of these are necessary. If you are going to stop leaning on crutches, you will need to have a plan for figuring out how to walk – the alternative is to collapse and that is not in anyone’s interest.

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p> How to develop empathy and to lessen your self-absorption? Easy. Give to others. Volunteer to help others less fortunate than yourself. Dig the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”. Get yourself involved with a good cause. Consciously ask yourself the following question over and over like a mantra, “How could I help this person in front of me”? At first you’ll be going through the motions (but then – that is how you learn to do new things – by going through the motions until you own them yourself). I suspect that you have lived a life dominated by fear. Such a life is cozy, but ultimately paper thin and empty. Hollow. Hence your ‘chronic dissatisfaction’. Through giving to others, you will find spiritual riches – and will become less hollow yourself.

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