Embodied Empathy: An Appeal to (Re)Connect through Felt Sense and Mindfulness Practice
By Tegan J Reeves
If you feel resistant to the idea of embodied empathy you probably aren’t alone. As counseling and psychology educators, many of us have had units (if not full classes) on Perception and Sensation or Neurology which assume that human experience is processed only from the neck up. With that lens, incorporating actions like empathy into practice becomes a cognitive process (like reading facial expressions) or a neurological process (like mirror neuron activation). This view of empathy as an effortful process perpetuates the idea that it can make us tired (e.g., compassion fatigue).
By changing the view of empathy as an act into empathy as a sensation, we start to understand its use in counseling practice. And while it is true that our five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch) are all processed inside the brain, embodied empathy suggests a deeper felt sense: a layer of perception that originates and is sometimes processed below the neck. For helping professionals, the optimal approach – for our clients and ourselves – unites body and mind. When disembodied, empathy divides the mind and body, rendering them both less useful (Bordo, 1986). Career resilience may be needed now more than ever, and empathy could be the process to help develop it through reconnection.
The Listening Body
One way to understand the body’s perceptive mechanisms is by looking at the nervous system, specifically, the way a perceived threat leads to action (i.e., fight, flight, freeze). Polyvagal theory (Porges, 2011) explains the embodied response to threat (dorsal) and safety (ventral) as largely unconscious and often social. Branching out of the vagus nerve the nerve-endings receive input from cavernous spaces in the body creating a subtle sensation, like a gut reaction. With practice, awareness of sensation can be increased, giving insight into the subtle signals of communication our clients may be sending.
A neurologist by training, Siegal (2010) discusses these gut reactions to signals of communication as a form of intuitive insight. He connects the integrative functions of the mind/brain to the widely studied field of attachment and attunement to the processes of the brainstem. Siegal invites a nuanced understanding of mindfulness practice as a way to sharpen our perception of social cues. Later, Siegal (2018) proposed that by strengthening our awareness of subtle sensation, we strengthen our capacity to connect to our clients in meaningful, empathetic ways. I also find that the practice helps me pick up my student’s cues in my classes – even on Zoom – and probe for understanding with more depth and personalization.
Expanding our capacity to feel our internal experience of others also has implications for career resilience. Importantly, embedded in mindfulness practices is equanimity, the ability to feel without judgement or reaction is a core mechanism in improvements in wellness and coping outcomes. Yet often, in the helping professions, instead of strengthening our ability to feel embodied empathy without judgement, we make a concerted effort (and sometimes are taught) to avoid inner experience.
The nervous system also learns how to turn off reception when it feels threat or extreme discomfort. For counselors and practitioners, this presents in an all-too-easy habit of dissociating in uncomfortable conversations. In fact, some helping professionals are actively taught to compartmentalize feelings that arise. Nathanson (1996) argued that the affect experienced in a therapeutic setting cannot be separated or owned by two individuals - instead it should be interpreted as a shared affect. If embraced, the intuitive felt sense can be used as an embodied empathy tool to collaboratively build solutions. For example, I train my students in recognizing the layers of affect within an interaction through their felt sense of empathy. We practice moving through the layers; recognizing when it would feel safe to go deeper and when our fight or flight starts to kick in: training our capacity for embodied empathy. When combined with a practice of equanimity, such discomfort does not have to be ignored or mistrusted.
If we educate future practitioners to understand that the body is sensing and experiencing through interaction and connection, then we can introduce insight and intuition as tangible evidence-based tools to use inside the context of therapy. In doing so, the antiquated views of compartmentalization and/or cognitive processing (without embodied recognition) can be avoided. Furthermore, mindfulness practices can train our capacity for embodied empathy while building our resilience – helpful in life and in work – through equanimity.
For those interested in learning more or practicing embodied empathy, I have included two lists to help start the exploration.
Formal Embodied Empathy Mindfulness Practices:
- Open-focus mindfulness
- Loving Kindness meditation
- Wheel of Awareness
Informal Embodied Empathy Tips and Practices:
- Notice: During interaction take note of the sensations that arise or that you might be avoiding - try not to label or judge them; how do they inform you about how the person you are talking to is feeling?
- Embody: Notice the physical posture of the person you are talking to- imagine that you had that posture; how would you be feeling?
- Ritualize Letting Go: Finding a way to proverbially put down the weight of empathetic/compassionate response is helpful. For example, washing your hands after every session, mindfully cleansing the residual affect.
Mindfulness can be an intentional informal awareness of daily activities to formal practices. The first list offers practices that when utilized over expanded amounts of time can develop the ability to recognize and utilize embodied empathy. Mindfulness practices fit into two broad categories: 1) open focused awareness, and 2) closed-focus attention. An open-focus awareness practice can be as simple (and simultaneously complex) as sitting in stillness, setting a timer and noticing what thoughts come up. Mindfulness practices can be found in a myriad of formats from Apps to courses (both synchronous and self-led). A Google search will also yield quite a few options for the practices on the list. The second list offers informal mindfulness practices and tips that can be used during interactions to help us (re)associate with the felt sense of empathy. For more information about any of these tools and/or to discuss incorporating them into your classes please contact the author.
Bordo, S. (1986). The Cartesian masculinization of thought. Signs, 11(3), 439-456.
Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotions, reason, and the human brain. Avon Books.
Ekman, P. (1984). Expression and the nature of emotion. In K. Scherer &P. Ekman (Eds.), Approaches to emotion (pp. 319 –343). Erlbaum.
Nathanson, D. L. (Ed.). (1996). Knowing feeling: Affect, script, and psychotherapy. W. W. Norton & Company.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. W.W. Norton.
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: the new science of personal transformation. Bantam Books.
Siegel, D. J. (2018). Aware: the science and practice of presence. Norton.
Dr. Tegan Jemma Reeves is a researcher and teacher with a mission of bringing the body back into the collective understand learning and resilience. With a background in movement Tegan has been globally recognized for her education programs. She holds a PhD in Educational Psychology, an MS in Instructional Curriculum, an ERYT500 in yoga, and has completed numerous mindfulness-based teacher certifications. Tegan teaches a number of counselor education classes including: Trauma, Stress and Resilience; Spirituality Issues in Counseling; Psychology of Addiction; and Emotion Regulation. She currently works at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital as a research associate and Rhodes College as a part-time assistant professor. She offers public yoga classes, optimal performance training, mindfulness/meditation consulting, and professional development programs. To learn more or contact Tegan visit www.teganreeves.com