Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feeling of another. Kohut (1984) defines empathy as the capacity to think and feel the other’s internal world.

Empathy serves two clinical objectives:

1) Comprehension– the analyst perceives what the patient is experiencing at a particular moment, and communicates in a verbal or non-verbal manner that the patient’s experience is understood.

2) Explication– the analyst uses this comprehension to explain the meaning of the patient’s experience, connecting it with past experiences.

Empathy may be viewed as composed of three continuums:

1) The resonance continuum.

2) The comprehension continuum.

3) The identification of needs continuum. 

It is further proposed that empathy exists in two dimensions:

1) A non-verbal/facial dimension that is timeless, existing only in the here and now.

2) A verbal dimension that is necessarily in time and involves communication.

The birth of empathy

The capacity to empathize is the end product of a long process of sublimation. According to Winnicott (1960: 588), “the infant depends on maternal care that is based on maternal empathy rather than on understanding of what is or could be verbally expressed”. The unity between mother and child is characterized by an emotional interplay and by a mutual sensitivity to the other’s feelings.

From the infant’s point of view, the fusion with the mother is objectively his earliest sensing of another’s feelings, even though subjectively the mother’s feelings are his own.

The mother intuitively begins to realize that the little being, that has been part of her, begins to assert his own personality to which she must now respond and react.

When observing an infant, we are impressed by his genuine probing of facial expressions: smile, cry. This is the beginning of our life-long capacity to interpret facial expressions.

The Three Continuums Theory of Empathy

The Resonance Continuum

Foulkes (1977: 299) describes resonance as “instinctive communication without any message being sent or received, being in fact purely instinctive, and a causal and transpersonal process at the primordial level (deepest unconscious level) in the psychic network of communication, the matrix”.

“It is mental processes, not persons, which interact”. (Foulkes, 1973, p. 228( Experimental evidence indicates that empathy is based on resonance-induction mechanisms and comprises an emotional as well as a cognitive function. Resonance brings forth empathic understanding. Many theoreticians (Mitchell, Winnicott…) see the infant as prepared for harmonic interaction and non-traumatic development.

The resonance phenomenon is part from this harmonic interaction. It is suggested in this paper that the infant develops from interaction and that everything that is seen in the present has its interactional roots in the past.

The quality of development of the resonance can be facilitated or inhibited by the quality of parent-child interaction.

The infant is a keen observer, when the mother’s facial expression shows that something is pleasurable, the infant will reflect it by smiling at her, and later will use words such as “happy”.

The infant has the capacity to note contradictions between his mother’s facial expressions and her true feelings, for example- smiles despite her sadness. (Burlingham, 1967)

The resonance continuum lies entirely in the non-verbal dimension, and is transmitted in the here and now.

In the group matrix, the therapist encourages the participants to reflect on the emotions arising in the here and now. According to Foulkes (1977), the process of resonance is related to transference, projection, introjections, and projective identification.

These mechanisms form part of the process, but the process is not identical with these mechanisms. Resonance is something different and more. (Thygesen, 2008)

Resonance involves a “tuning in” to the unconscious aspects of the group matrix that are taking place. In this process of modification, fantasies, thoughts, imaginations, feelings and themes that are latent or hidden in the group matrix are brought into conscious reflection, furthering the analytic work process. This is the nature of analysis.

The Comprehension Continuum

The tool of empathy is founded on the ability to differentiate between self and other. Empathy develops over time and includes both cognitive and non-cognitive elements. In the beginning there is total fusion with the mother and every external action is interpreted as related to oneself. Then mother’s face appears and disappears and the fusion is gone. Slowly, over time, as mother keeps returning, the infant begins to develop a theory of mind and the absent mother begins to be internalized in his mind and becomes an object. The infant has now acquired the ability to differentiate between self and other, and has taken a crucial step in the development of empathy.

The comprehension continuum of empathy is when the infant begins to understand that he too is an object for mother, and symbolization takes root, enabling the comprehension of self and other. Freud (1921) described the process of empathy: when mental processes take place and the infant is able to put himself in his mother’s place.

Bolognini asserts that “if the conscious is the natural seat of the organization and formalization of experience ‘in the light of the ego,’ the preconscious is the place for the explorations of the experience of one’s own self and that of others (2009: 54).

The Identification of Needs Continuum

The ability to discriminate between self and other is a necessary condition for empathy, albeit insufficient on its own. Competing needs arise at every moment in one’s life. Our ability to empathize with ourselves and others is our ability to relate to the different feelings that arise from these simultaneous needs.

Empathic relatedness occurs when one is able to prioritize one’s needs, postponing gratification through self-regulation. Hence, the ability to prioritize needs is necessarily dependent on the dimension of empathy that is embedded in time.

Zaki et al. (2009) in their study on empathy and the brain found a correlation between empathy and three brain systems.

The first system: helps one understand simple intentions behind simple gestures. The author relates this system to the resonance continuum.

The second system: responsible for interpreting the meaning of those gestures and putting them in context. The author relates this system to the comprehension continuum.

The third system: responsible for the control of shifts of attention to social cues. The author relates this system to the identification of needs continuum and the ability to prioritize needs.

Example from everyday life:

Maya asks her son Guy (aged 5) to finish playing with his toy animals since it is time to take a bath and get ready for bedtime. Guy prefers to return all the animals to the closet and close it before he takes a bath. In contrast to Guy’s need, stands his mother Maya’s need that Guy takes a bath before he return the toys to the closet.  Although Maya understands Guy’s need to clean up the toys, she does not relate to this need empathically. Guy needs the predators to be closed inside the closet before he takes a bath since they are too threatening for him. The mother, however, needs Guy to be clean and ready for bed first.

The Identification of Needs Continuum enables us to set empathy priorities.

An example from the Rorschach inkblot test:

  • The examiner sees a butterfly.
  • The examinee sees a witch riding a broom.
  • The examiner postpones his own perception, and uses empathic exploration to try to see, feel, and comprehend what the examinee is seeing.

The art of empathy in the process of group analysis

Each individual tends to interpret the world through his own personality and culture. In order to have an empathic understanding of the other it is necessary to have shared representations.

These shared representations intensify during the process of free association in analysis and especially in group analysis.

In analysis, attention is brought to the three continuums and two dimensions of empathy:

The three continuums:

  • The resonance continuum- the ability to observe and recognize emotional information transmitted between individuals.
  • The comprehension continuum- the ability to determine what belongs to oneself and what belongs to the other.
  • The identification of needs continuum- the ability to recognize and prioritize between needs both within oneself and in relation to the other.

The two dimensions:

  • The non-verbal dimension- is timeless, existing only in the here and now and is related to the attuned gaze.
  • The verbal dimension- is necessarily in time and involves communication.

To determine whether an individual is empathic or not is too general a statement. It is more precise to ascertain the individual’s strengths and weaknesses regarding the three continuums and two dimensions.

A variety of interpersonal states may arise based on the interactions between the non-verbal dimension and the verbal dimension.

  • My feeling is similar to the feeling I am describing verbally:
  1. a) I feel happy
  2. b) “You look happy “

This interpersonal situation is comforting and empathic since the other feels my true feeling

2) My feeling is different than the feeling I am describing verbally. The other feels my true feeling.

3) My feeling is different than the feeling I am describing verbally. The other reacts to my verbal output and does not feel my true feeling.

4) My feeling is similar to the feeling I am describing verbally. The other reacts to me by a different feeling than the one I feel and express.

5) I do not recognize my feeling. The other recognizes my feeling and interprets it. The other supplies a good enough mirror to my feeling.

6) The optimal interpersonal state is when the other feels my feeling regardless of what I am describing verbally.

Preston and De Waal (2002) undertook an exhaustive study and concluded that empathy can be modified and developed by experience.

In group analysis, this modification takes place through mirroring and resonance.

The empathic matrix of the group creates an expansion and enables the participants to discover needs they are not aware of. These needs come to the surface through the free associations and facial reactions – through resonance. In the group, the participants can examine their priority lists and provide different ways to fulfill these needs.

The group matrix enables developmental reparation through resonance, differentiation between self and other, and examining the needs of both oneself and the other. This process is carried out by simple tools that everyone in the group possesses. The group members may evaluate their ability to feel verbal signs by questions such as: What do I feel? What do I express verbally? What does the other feel and express? It is important for every group member to explore the following questions: How do I perceive the other member and how am I being perceived in the emotional and verbal dimensions?

For example: A says to B that he understands that he is sad. B feels A is angry with him. Individuals who feel empathy both to the inner emotion and the verbal expression and are able to identify the others’ priorities may be considered highly empathic. In the group, an empathic reaction that does not differentiate between the non-verbal/facial and verbal dimensions, and does not recognize the priority of needs, delays development within the therapeutic process.

In conclusion, empathy is an innate characteristic that enables social interpersonal interactions. The strong biological foundation of empathy indicates that human beings are programmed both physically and emotionally to develop relationships and live in groups; the social need is innate. Empathy is in a continuous state of development through interpersonal interactions and is discussed through verbal free associations as well as through the non-verbal/facial dimension inherent in social situations. Various deficiencies in the ability to empathize may be traced to the three continuums and two dimensions outlined above. Thus, treatment that takes this complexity into consideration encourages awareness and the development of these continuums and dimensions.

The three continuums:

  • The resonance continuum.
  • The comprehension continuum.
  • The identification of needs continuum.

The two dimensions:

  • A non-verbal/facial dimension that is timeless, existing only in the here and now.
  • A verbal dimension that is necessarily in time and involves communication.

References:

Bolognini, S. (2009) ‘The Complex Nature of Psychoanalytic Empathy: A Theoretical

and Clinical Exploration’, Fort Da 15: 35–56.

Burlingham, D. (1967) ‘Empathy between infant and mother’, Journal of American

Psychoanalysis Association 15: 764–80.

Foulkes, S.H. (1973) ‘The Group as Matrix of the Individual’s Mental Life’, in

S.H. Foulkes, Selected Papers. London: Karnac, 1990.

Foulkes, S.H. (1977) ‘Notes on the Concept of Resonance’, in S.H. Foulkes, Selected

Papers, pp. 297–305. London: Karnac, 1990.

Freud, S. (1921) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Standard Edition

XVIII London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

Kohut, H (1984) How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago, IL: University of Chicago

Press.

Mitchell, S.A and Margaret J.B. (1995) Freud and beyond: a history of modern

psychoanalytic thought. New York: Basic Books.

Preston, S.D. and de Waal, F.B.M. (2002) ‘Empathy: its ultimate and proximate

bases’, Behav. Brain Sci. 25: 1–72.

Thygesen, B. (2008) ‘Resonance: No Music without Resonance—without Resonance

no Group’, Group Analysis 41(1): 63–83.

Winnicott, D.W. (1960) ‘The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship’, International

Journal of Psycho-Analysis 41: 585–95.

Yogev, H. (2013). ‘The Development of Empathy and Group Analysis.’ Group Analysis 46(1): 61-80.

Zaki, J., Weber, J. Bolger, N. and Ochsner, K. (2009) ‘The neural bases of empathic

accuracy’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(27): 11382–87.

Herzel Yogev is a clinical psychologist and group analyst. His previous works

have been published by the Schizophrenia Bulletin, Schizophrenia Research,

Group analysis and the International Journal of Psychotherapy. He is also a

reviewer for professional journals and member of the International Advisory

Boards. Address: 20 Kiryaty Ramat-Gan, Israel 5222363. Email: herzel.yogev@Gmail.com