When a potential client calls Live Oak and speaks to our intake staff, we ask a host of questions to connect the client with one of our therapists who, based on the client’s concerns, is the most appropriate and best fit we can find. We’ll ask about reasons for seeking therapy and we’ll ask if the client has a preference in terms of therapist gender, therapist areas of expertise, and any other preferences.
Some of our callers will also specify a preference for a therapist’s culture, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. These questions, I believe, are an attempt at ensuring a therapist will “get it” based on shared experience and/or shared identities. There was a time when I automatically assumed this as well, without question. Now I find that “getting it” is less about exact shared historical experience and more about the shared present moment.
Looking for Differences
During my first meeting with Rochelle, she sat in a chair that was as far away from me as she could get, given my office was, at most, 80 square feet. She spoke in a slow, quiet, and halting way as she described her reasons for seeking therapy. A recent experience of sexual assault while on what was supposed to be a typical first date, had left her feeling ashamed, confused, scared, anxious, and angry. She went on to say that this had happened to her once before and she had told no one.
Initially we focused on developing strategies for managing extreme anxiety and fear Rochelle was experiencing on a daily basis. It was so intense at times she was unable to leave her apartment to go to work or go grocery shopping. As her anxiety lessened and her life settled back into a more predictable rhythm, we were able to look at historical concerns and themes, which included a childhood filled with emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother.
During one session, as we were talking about the lack of safety she experienced in her childhood and how unsafe she often felt in her adult life, I asked about the extent to which she experienced safety with me. Without hesitation, she told me that she felt safer in the room with me than she did in most places in her life. She went on to tell me that she specifically chose me as her therapist because she thought this might be the case. “I got as much information about you as I could,” she explained. “And I found out you were gay, much older than I am, and in a relationship.”
I was a little thrown off about her knowing I was in a relationship, until she shared that an acquaintance of hers was a colleague of my partner. More importantly, however, I was interested in how many aspects of my identity were dissimilar to Rochelle’s. It seemed as though it was our differences, rather than our similarities, that were the impetus for her first call to me.
As we continued to talk about this more, she carefully explained that by knowing I was gay, she believed she would be free from sexual tension or sexual exploitation in our therapy relationship. My age too, she explained, made her feel safer being in a room with me. The fact that I was in a relationship added to her sense of safety, knowing I had the capacity to connect with someone in an on-going manner. I was struck by how our current identities were so dissimilar.
I thought about Rochelle often between sessions. I remember distinctly the moment she walked into a session and sat on the couch, which was much closer to my chair than the place she usually occupied. We had an explicit conversation about this change, which felt like a symbolic and tangible shift in our relationship. This is when we began to explore in more depth the shame Rochelle carried with her through the years, from her childhood and into her adulthood. We spoke of the secrets she carried with her that she had only shared with me, and we spoke of her of never having a long term relationship, and never being able to accept herself and her experiences.
And then it came to me. Yes, we had so many points of obvious and visible dissimilarities. But underneath these differences, there were also many points of connection. As our relationship developed, I realized that my own experiences of shame allowed me to better understand Rochelle’s. My own experiences of secrecy made me more sensitive to hers. And my own fears about being alone in my life allowed Rochelle to more fully share hers. While the circumstances were different, and so many aspects of our identity and life experiences were different, there were many shared emotional and present moment experiences. We never discussed these explicitly, but I have come to believe that the safety in our relationship developed as a result.
Looking for Similarities
When I used to facilitate groups for survivors of sexual abuse, before the series of group sessions started, I would have an individual meeting with each prospective group member. The purpose of the meeting was to provide information about the group, gain information about the prospective group member, and then together discuss to what extent joining the group felt like a good fit. During each period of initial interviews, there was always at least one person who would ask me: “So, are you a survivor?” Which was followed by an expectant look, though for each person who asked, I had a sense that the expectation differed.
The terrain of possible answers to this question felt steeped with invisible land mines. Answering either affirmatively or negatively held unpredictable consequences for the prospective group member. I also knew that if I answered the question directly with one person, I would need to be explicit about giving the other group members the same information. I did not want to start the group with some people having information about me that other group members did not. It was important to start this group—a survivor group—with no one feeling like they had information that was “secret” about me. Having some people know and others not know felt like I was immediately fostering the development of subgroups within the larger group, setting the group up for premature conflict.
I typically breathe deeply before I answer this question, and whether my clients know it or not, I notice a fluttering in my stomach accompanied by a very slight quivering in my voice. And I respond: “That is a question I typically choose not to answer,” and I see frustrated expressions and looks of uneasiness. “But let me tell you why,” I explain. “If I tell you I am a survivor, you may automatically assume I know exactly what you are going through, when my experience may be very different than yours.” “Or,” I continue, “you may fear that if I am a survivor, I may not have dealt with my own experiences or I may not be able to keep my own experiences separate from yours.” I am still met with a bit of skepticism.
“If I tell you I am not a survivor, you may believe that I’ll have the ability to be extremely objective because I have not had an experience like yours. Or you may feel just the opposite. You may feel that because I am not a survivor, there is no way I will be able to understand your experiences. And there is no way you’ll be able to get your needs met in a group like this.” Usually, I see a little relief as I share this piece of information.
And then I conclude my response to the initial question about whether or not I am a survivor. “I think what you are really asking is if I am going to ‘get it.’ Will I understand? Will I be able to be with you in your experience? Will I be able to support you? Will I be sensitive to parts of your life that you may not have told others? Can I be there for you? “
And as I allow some of this to percolate, I finish: “I don’t think you’ll be able to know any of that about me by my answering the question about whether or not I am a survivor. You’ll only be able to know if I ‘get it’ through knowing me, seeing how I respond to you and others, and by experiencing me in each session and in the moment. Whether or not I ‘get it’ can’t be assessed by the answer to one question or by the extent to which I share or don’t share your same life experience. You’ll know, by knowing me, whether or not I am someone you can trust and someone who will understand.” To date, after 17 groups and 125 group members, I’ve not had anyone push for more information.
Do You See What I See?
This may sound so obvious. Of course the gradual and on-going experience of empathy builds connections in relationships. We learn that in our everyday relationships as much as we do in relationships with our therapist. Still, there are so many of us who believe that in order to fully understand another’s experience, we must have also experienced it. If I am a man, I may search for a male therapist. If I am a woman, I may search for a female therapist. If I am Jewish, I may search for a Jewish therapist—and the list goes on. What we don’t consider enough, is how despite these obvious similarities, one person’s experience of being a woman may be entirely different than another’s. And one person’s experience of being Jewish may be entirely different than another’s.
I’ve also heard some therapists say they can’t work with someone who is different than they are. They cannot work with “a perpetrator” because they can’t relate to that identity, not considering the many times in life when they have unintentionally or intentionally caused pain to another person. Or I’ve heard others say they could not effectively work with someone who has children when they have not had children, not considering times in their lives when they have felt responsible for the welfare of another. Or I’ve heard therapists say they cannot work with someone who has experienced significant trauma when they have not experienced such trauma, not considering how their own painful life experiences have changed how they see themselves, their relationships, and the world.
I know that I also make assumptions based on shared aspects of identity. It’s natural. I walk into a room and I look for others I think are like me. When I find such people, I feel less alone and feel less pressure to be the spokesperson for an entire group of people like me. I don’t know that I always consider how other people in a room who are like me in one aspect of my identity, may be entirely unlike me in many other ways. And just because someone is like me, it doesn’t mean we share the same life experiences or that any person with my shared identity will de facto “get it.”
The Shared Present Moment
Empathy arises from our ability to pull from our own lives, feelings that are the same or close to the feelings of another, even when we are different on many other dimensions. On the surface, Rochelle chose me because she thought I was different than she was and different than others in her life. While these differences fostered an initial sense of safety, our relationship was strengthened by our shared emotional experiences and our shared present experiences.
And the many people who were in the groups I facilitated for survivors of childhood sexual abuse didn’t know whether the experiences in my life paralleled theirs, or if I had a life that was entirely different. I invited them to consider, over time, whether or not they felt like I was someone who could validate, understand, and share their feelings.
I think it’s natural to want to short-circuit the path to feeling safe with someone else. The most obvious way to do this is to look for others who look like us and/or who we assume have had our same experiences. And the corollary is to assume that others who don’t look like us, or others who don’t share our same life experiences, will not be safe and will not understand us.
In it’s pure form, empathy develops and exists not because of the extent to which we are like someone else or share someone else’s experience. This may enhance the development of empathy and connection, however empathy arises when we are able to imagine ourselves in the place of another, to consider another’s experience, to draw from our own experiences times when we have had similar feelings, and to communicate that understanding. “Getting it” takes on new meaning when we consider shared emotional experience and the shared present experience—in the moment—as a better predictor of empathy.
As we think about those with whom we have the deepest connections, we can certainly consider our points of similarity. I hope, however, we also consider that beneath points of visible difference, we have potential to share feelings that transcend our differences and allow us to “get it.”
If we can find someone who has earned the right to hear our story, we need to tell it.
By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS