How do Therapists Become Empathic? Another Question You were Afraid to Ask Your Therapist


Several weeks back, Spacefreedomlove sparked my interest by posting questions she’d been afraid to ask her therapist. Though not her counselor, I answered those queries here. I also requested her readers to offer their own. I’ll respond to one such today and more in the future. I don’t promise any other retired therapist would answer as I do.

This question comes from Possibly Penny, with my thanks:

“What is your story? What helps you to appear empathetic toward what can seem like trivial external triggers?”

Several things. I was a sensitive little boy, both sensitive in the way most children are (to their own injuries) and sensitive to the many moods I encountered in my home. As the first born and first grandchild of my mother’s parents, I received lots of attention, especially for the four-plus years before my brother Eddie (and later Jack) arrived. So, I knew love and loving at the start.

I think my family was happier in my first few years than at any other time. No, it wasn’t due to being wonderful, but because a first child who fits the household’s expectations creates parental bliss. A progeny of three active boys (my brothers only one year apart) demands more than a solo flyer. Moreover, Milton Stein and Jeanette Fabian married in 1940 and, not long after, the future-dad found himself in a European war zone. I was conceived in the joyous heat of his return from the defeat of the Nazis. The intensity of their desire to be together is reflected in his Love Letters. Their world was new with promise. The hardship of the time apart got repaid in a metaphorical second honeymoon upon dad’s return. I doubtless benefited.

I think my identification with the underdog derives from several roots. While the extended family held mild prejudices in private, they gave everyone respect in the world of lived public experience. I listened to many stories from my folks about their lives prior to marriage (during the Great Depression). Mom was malnourished and humiliated by her family’s poverty and her father’s alcoholism. I identified with her pain because I loved her.

Both sets of grandparents were secular Jews. Outside I received the occasional anti-Semitic slur, but nothing more. Nonetheless, I intuitively understood discrimination, not only against Jews, could lead to horrors beyond imagining. From dad’s mother came eye-witness stories of Russian pogroms. By high school I’d made friends whose parents had numbered tattoos on their arms, casting indelible shadows on all of their lives.

Uncle Sam, mom’s brother, owned a business in which he employed both black men and women. This was prior to civil rights legislation, a period when lynchings still occurred in the South. During high school — in summers and after class — I worked with them side-by-side.  Experience confirmed my expectations having to do with their basic decency, intelligence, and kindness — neither inferior nor superior to whites. They deserved better than to be “other.” One of my two best friends in first year college was a bright, funny black young man named Lou Sterling. We did things out of school (including at my house) at a time when blacks and whites socializing in public still was uncommon.

I grew from an uninhibited small boy to a smart, but introverted teen with interests I thought few others cared for (like classical music). The sweet child who worshiped my mom was replaced by a stranger (still me) who saw enough of her flaws and unresolved anger to judge her and struggle with her. In other words, I knew the role of the outsider even within the family. Time passed before I understood what was required to work through the psychological after effects. Fortunately, I found a terrific group of high school buddies who reconnected many years after graduation to give college scholarships to disadvantaged teens of varied races and religions. We still maintain contact.

My wife, the finest person ever, is a model of kindness and consideration. I’ve had the boundless good fortune of having two female children of whom I am immensely proud. More pertinent to Possibly Penny’s question, I learned from them, experiencing by osmosis the big and little hurts each suffered when they were small. These three women showed me a side of life I didn’t experience growing up in a home of one female and four males.


I’ve had a lucky life, but one (from an early time) that permitted me to peer into what it could have been had I been a young man in the Great Depression or a malnourished, ashamed teenaged girl or a Jew caught in the Holocaust or a black person before civil rights reforms. My empathy, to the extent it exists, is due to this and all the lives I’ve been permitted to enter. Whatever compassion I have works to counteract my judgmental tendencies, with less or more success, depending…

One other element of Possibly Penny’s question: she wonders how empathy is possible in response to “what can seem like trivial external triggers.” She is, I believe, referring to a patient’s overreaction to an event that appears small to an outsider, but reminds the client of something associated with trauma.

My answer is simple. It consists in knowing a triggering stimulus, however trivial, can be psychologically powerful. The capacity to be empathic follows from understanding how you (the therapist) overreact in your own life, even if you never were as traumatized as the patient. You must look through your client’s eyes back at yourself to understand his viewpoint.

Therapists are people. Patients often put them on a pedestal and sometimes underneath one! In both spots are flawed human beings. We mental health professionals strive to rise above our limitations, for ourselves and our clients. And we do care about our patients, although not in the same way we relate to spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends. We endeavor to find whatever is best in them all. We don’t always succeed.

Every one of us in a clinic office is swimming upstream, some with more success. My job in therapy was occasionally to give my patients just a little push against the current. Looking back, I think I got the better of the deal. As I said, call me lucky.

The first image is the Compassion Logo of Projekts der Schulstiftung der Erdiözere by Schulstiftung. The photo is called Taking Care of the Heart by Enver Rahmanov.