Struggles with empathy and optimal responsiveness : an intersubjective view

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This dissertation reviews the psychotherapeutic techniques of empathy and optimal responsiveness from within a Self Psychology framework. Self Psychologists view these techniques as essential for the activation of the selfobject experience, the core requirement for the restoration of a cohesive sense of self. However, numerous factors arising in the therapeutic situation mitigate against empathic listening, and there is no real consensus amongst Self Psychologists about what constitutes an optimal response. This presents a particular difficulty for trainee therapists who seek guidelines in how to use these techniques. This dissertation aims to demonstrate that empathy and optimal responsiveness are inextricably bound up with the intersubjective field, an inclusive system of which each individual is a part. A psychoanalytically informed clinical study of the intersubjective field is used to illustrate this notion. Through analysis of the patient's responses and the therapist's countertransference responses, it is shown that empathy and optimal responsiveness arise from the interface between the subjective experiences of both therapist and patient and thus include the dynamics of both. Retrospective analysis which has enabled the author to grow as a psychotherapist, is highlighted, with the hope that this may be useful to future trainee therapists.

Includes bibliography.