Empathy in logotherapy

The following is a letter I received from Dr. Teria Shantall related to a discussion we were having in the course about the meaning of empathy in logotherapy:

Two orientations are in question: the purely psychological approach of psychotherapy and the essentially spiritual approach of logotherapy. Psychotherapy, as the name indicates, deals with the psyche, the effort to restore psychological equilibrium and gratification. Logotherapy, as the name indicates, deals with the spiritual, the will to meaning in life.

The typical problem-centered approach of traditional psychotherapy, “sides” itself with the client in his or her distress. A supportive stand is taken with the client against the “unfair” nature of events or circumstances that have caused the emotional trauma. Clients are typically “helped” by strengthening their “self-esteem” and coping strategies and in finding ways to “improve” their circumstances by finding more support for themselves and doing things that will boost their self-confidence and make them feel “much better”.

Frankl refers to this as seeking a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. This is an approach based on the medical model which regards the person as “ill” and in need of “treatment” and the “problems” that the patient “presents” as something that needs “solving” and “fixing”. Underlying this kind of approach, is a mechanistic view of man, devoid of true humanity. What is more, far from securing the vitality of optimal being, feelings of self-pity and anger on the part of the client at his or her state of helplessness in the world and in the face of life that is perceived as cruel and unjust, are being reinforced.

In place of the two fundamentals of Logotherapy, namely:

* the unconditional worth of the person (who has the capacity to turn tragedy into a triumph by learning from it, becoming wiser through it, gaining character and greater feelings of self-respect as a result of it) and

* the unconditional meaningfulness of life (that holds meaning in all, even the worst situations that are presented as challenges and opportunities for growth in human stature and wisdom)

there are in these traditional approaches or psychotherapies the detrimentally opposite:

* the “confidence” gained by the client is a self-defensive type of rebellion or aggressive self-assertiveness

* against life that is seen as basically “unfair.”

Self and world remain in opposition!

The outcome of this type of therapy is infused more by a will to power than a will to meaning. A song made famous by Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way” encapsulates this type of self-righteous defiance towards the world and life in general. You must make your own way, build defenses against that which is only out to harm you. Attack those who attack you and come out of he battle, the winner. This is a far cry from what Frankl called the defiant power of the human spirit in being able to overcome evil with good!

It is, in fact, the philosophy of heathenism. It also finds expression in scientism and philosophical nihilism. Man is on center stage, not God. Or in Frankl’s terminology: What I want is my focus, not what life wants from me.

How radically different the approach in Logotherapy! There is a feeling for, a love of the client that goes very much deeper, to the very spiritual essence of the person. The pain, the anger that the client is experiencing and that the therapist has a deep feeling of identity and kinship with, is of a totally different kind. The distress suffered by the client is seen in a totally different context. It is a spiritual distress, not merely an emotional trauma!

Remember what the client said in the video: “Coming out of depression,” that on the merely psychological level there is only emotionality, devoid of personhood? She put it this way: “In depression all you have is yourself, your inner emotional being.. but when you move away from that state, you begin to grow into a person again, because when you are there you are not a person. You can’t give, you can’t love and you can’t live, because you are always anxious, you’re always worried and you’re always in a state of turmoil.” In focusing on the person “behind” the problem and on the meaning beckoning the client out of the problem, real healing is effected, real ground gained. Logotherapists are not psychologists, we are realists – perhaps you can call us “personologists”!

Logotherapy works exclusively in the human domain, the domain of the spirit, where there is freedom to evaluate and judge, seek out the meaning of an event, draw from your spiritual strength and resourcefulness, the deep fountain of life-giving meaning to be found in yourself, in life, in the total and triumphant union between the two: “I am for life and life is for me” or as David exclaimed in the Psalms: “With My God I leap over a wall!”

Emotions from a merely psychological level of being that threaten to overwhelm us into the fight/flight futility of self-despair, complaint and rebellion, can be addressed (called to task): “Why are you downcast, my soul, and why are your disturbed on my account? Hope to God! For I shall yet thank Him for the salvations of my countenance and because He is my God.” (Tehillim 42:12)

We are to take our souls into possession, not lose them!

Some Frankl quotes from “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning” with reference to the above discussion:

“Human existence is spiritual existence.”

“Psychoanalysis depersonalizes man. The ego in the psychoanalytic view is ultimately a plaything of the drives. Or as Freud himself once said, the ego is not the master in its own house. Psychoanalysis sees man in the final analysis as the automaton of a psychic apparatus.

Logotherapy pits a different concept of man against the psychoanalytic one. It is not focused on the automaton of a psychic apparatus but rather on the autonomy of spiritual existence. Being human is not being driven but deciding what one is going to be.”

“The line between the spiritual and the instinctual cannot be drawn sharply enough.”

(The following comments came a day later)

Logotherapy dips deeper than just into the psychological unconscious (repressed needs and conflicts). It seeks out the spiritual essence of being! “The truth which You desire is in the concealed parts, and in the covered part is the wisdom which You teach me.” (Tehillim 51:8)

Empathy in Logotherapy is always in the context of hope! It lifts the head, it looks towards meaning that is waiting, right there, and straight ahead in the client’s wondrous path of life.


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