Empathy and Buber’s I-thou contact

I do not fully agree with Schmid’s implication that empathy is about “try(ing) to understand, as exactly as possible, the accurate meaning of what goes on inside another person in the very moment”. This is the common understanding of empathy, but it actually contradicts the principle of Buber’s (1970) I-Thou contact. “Trying to un­derstand” is a process of someone doing something with an aim to furnish a need in oneself. In this case, it is the need to understand “as exactly as possible”. If a therapist has this kind of goal, his/her goal may become a blockage to contact because he/she is distracted by the need to interpret and the need to establish his/her identification as therapist in the relationship. 

Wouldn’t this amount to using the client to find-out-something-so-that-I-can-do­my-therapist-job? This kind of objectifying the Other in the relationship leaves room for transference and countertransference neurosis. If empathy is as what is generally under­stood as described above, it is then not part of the I-Thou relationship, because the I­Thou relationship excludes objectification. 

The I-Thou contact requires seeing the Other first, and not seeing the other in re­lation to oneself. This movement towards the other first is what Emmanuel Levinas considers the ethical movement (Schmid, 2001). 

Schmid clarifies this disparity later in the article in stating the difference between Roger’s and Buber’s comprehension of the activity of making empathic contact. Be­sides what is mentioned, Rogers also believes that it is necessary “to put one’s own un-derstanding completely apart” if one wants to enter the world of another person empath­ically. Buber, on the other hand believes in the mutuality of the process. 

That which lies beneath the I-thou contact is not empathy but something more than empathy. Buber (1970) uses the word, Umfassung, a phenomenon of embracing, which is “more than empathy”. This process requires the recognition of 2 poles, in en­countering the other “as a partner in a bipolar situation” (p. 178). This implies a dynam­ic relationship of “swinging into” (einschwingen) into the experience of the other and at the same time maintain one’s own reality of the self. It shows a dynamic process of be­ing existentially affected by the other, and including the other person into one’s own existence (Schmid, 2001). 

This is not the same as to “trying to understand someone as exactly as possible”, or to step into someone’s shoes. It is rather about me being me, seeing you, and show­ing you how you affect me— at this present moment. 

This way of relating in the present moment is what Buber calls, personale Vergegenwärtigung. It is an elementary way of relating and means to expose oneself to the presence of the other. This is a personal way of becoming aware of, a way of ac­ceptance instead of perception, a way of acknowledgment instead of knowledge (Schmid, 2001). 

The I-Thou relationship is basic existential relationship without the complications of identity and needs. The healing power of this relationship is in the confirming of the other for who he/she is. Buber is quoted to use the word Realphantasie, which indicates that what is happening is that “the Other’s reality is touched” (ibid.). What is experi­enced through this form of relationship is the transpersonal, intersubjective acknowl­edgment of the other, affirming the identity of the other through the presence of the self. Both partners in the relationship attains affirmation of the self. This benefit is mutual, and the relationship is symmetric. What happens in this mutual exchange, Staemmler (2009, p. 96) explains is not a “fusion of horizons”—which happens with just empathy alone— but a widening of each other’s horizons in such a way that that it is integrated with each other’s personal background.


Buber, M. (1936). Ich und Du. Berlin: Schocken. 

Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (Kindle ed.). (W. Kaufman, Trans.) Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Gadamer, H. G. (1975/1960). Truth and method . (G. Barden, & J. Cumming, Trans.) NY: Seabury. 

Schmid, P. F. (2001). Comprehension: the art of not-knowing. Dialogical and ethical perspectives on empathy as dialogue in personal and person-centred relationships. Empathy, 53-71.

Staemmler, F.-M. (2009). The willingness to be uncertain: Preliminary thoughts about intepretation and understanding in Gestalt Therapy. In L. J. Hycner (Ed.), Relational approaches in Gestalt Therapy (pp. 65-110). NY: Gestalt Press.

Levels of Gestalt Therapy Treatment Methods

A client who has just started therapy will experience different kind of session as a client who has been with the therapist for a longer period of time. Similarly, clients who experience psychosis would benefit from different style of therapy than clients who have issues based on neurosis. Then there are clients who seek therapy because they are facing really difficult existential issues in their lives. Their therapy would be experienced differently.

Gestalt therapy is known for its multi-variant techniques. However, what is seen as techniques is not Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is the principles that lie under these techniques, within the dialogue between patient and therapists.

Different people, different needs at different times.

Level 1: Being present for the Client

The basis of all good therapy work is work with empathy, listening and validating. Being present, attentive, authentic and connecting with the client and inviting the client to be in contact. Contact work as such is healing, as it works towards reducing anxiety and loneliness that comes with it. Being present is really about the therapist putting aside prejudices, need to help, self-evaluation, analyzing the client or giving advise.  This is very important fundamental attitude for therapists in the session. It is also the most challenging.

This is also the only way to help clients who are psychologically very fragile and fragmented heal.

Irvin Yalom, in his biography, talks about one of his first clients, Sarah B., the wife of a business tycoon who suffered catatonic schizophrenia, who existed in a frozen state, not able to react to stimuli. Being a new in the profession, he was at a loss for what to do. He decided, during his rounds at the hospital ward, to converse with his non-reacting patient. He spent these 15 or so minutes talking to her about his day, the headlines etc. It was not till new neuroleptics came to existence did Sarah B. was able to move again. When she came around, the author mentioned to her of his multitude of doubts that he was of help to her in all those hours. She answered, “but Dr. Yalom, you were my bread and butter.”

Level 2: Phenomenology and Body Awareness

As the therapy progresses, and depending on the client, more work is done on the awareness of the body. This is not bodywork, but the momentarily focus on tension in the muscles and breathing. This is done in a dialogical way.

The more stable client would get sessions that looks like a play of being present. Looking at the phenomenon of the moment. What is going on, how the interaction feels like in the moment. What comes to mind now, etc. is discussed.

Level 3: Use of Creative Media

The use of creative medium, like art and music is useful at this stage for self reflection and sharing one’s internal structure with the therapist.

Further into the course of therapy, the client gets to work on relationships intra-psychic and external. Gestalt therapy is known for it’s two-chair work.

Level 4: Confrontation and Frustration

Very stable, self-sustaining clients who need therapy for self-awareness, who already have months or years of sessions with the therapist, may appreciate the challenge  that involves frustration of resistances, etc. This is done with all the first three levels intact. Gestalt therapy is never without level 1 !

What is being “frustrated” is the clients tendency to deprive him/herself of his/her need. For example, a client feels loneliness and longs to ask a lady for a date. He  is, however, so fearful of being rejected that he keeps to himself rather than calling her. The therapeutic frustration here is the confrontation of his fear of rejection.

At the end of the day, empathy is the most important aspect of therapy. 

Most therapy with clients do not reach the confrontative stage, and most sessions of gestalt therapy do not involve empty chair work. All clients at all stages of therapy are served best at the first level. It is also the most challenging part of the work.

Bollas: Psycho-Pharmaceutical use, like war, can impair empathic feelings.

This is not an article against the use of psycho-pharmaceuticals. Antidepressants, antipsychotics etc. use save lives and alleviate suffering but have side effects. The individual is left to choose: work through mental suffering by talking to someone, or use a medication but numb out the possibility to feel human empathy. Ultimately the use of these drugs leads us to dependency and destroys our ability to interact with others in a contact-ful way. The result is existential loneliness.

Christopher Bollas, in the Q&A session of this lecture recorded in video below, gave a thought provoking opinion on how psycho-pharmaceuticals like antidepressants, anxiety drugs, and pain killers reduces a persons capacity for empathy.

Empathy and Your Loved Ones

Empathy is what make a person human. It helps us to have relationships and build bonds of love with others. If  one of your loved ones –spouse, children, siblings, etc.– suddenly loses his/her empathy, you have lost that bond with that person, because this person is no longer able to relate to you as another human being. At best, to this person, you are but an object. He/she is not able to feel for you or care for you.

Taking painkillers, according to Bollas, does just that: strips off the empathic nature of a person. He cites an interesting article of a study written by Mischkowski et.al (2016) entitled From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain, to illustrate this fact.

Bollas says that taking psycho-pharmecuticals is not the same as taking medicine for physical ailments. If one has a problems related to the mental state, talking to another person is the cure. The challenge is to find someone who would care to listen without judging or controlling you. Such a professional is called a psychotherapist.

ADHD Diagnosis Robs Children of their Capacity for Empathy

People do have the right to take medications to alleviate their suffering. Bollas is, however, concerned by people giving medications to children for psychological disorders. Children have no rights to decide if they want to be incapacitated in a way that they can no longer feel emotions. Not feeling emotions free us from unpleasant feelings, and it also causes us to live in a lonely paranoid world stripped of feelings of being loved. The person may have people loving him, but he cannot feel the love. In turn he will not be able to love back, and end up losing relationships.

When children get diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), the child is suffering NOT because of the disorder itself. The child is reacting to stressors in his life and environment that causes him suffering.  In fact, it is the parents who suffer as a result of the child’s behavior, and many are desperate for the fix… which they can get through diagnosis of ADHD. The drug erases that child’s ability to feel the suffering, and wipes out his ability to feel empathy as well.

Bollas believes that the children are victims of stress put on them by society’s expectation and the educational system.

War Kill the Humane Part of the Soldier

Military training and work… boot camp turns you into a killer. In combat, you also kill people. If you keep doing it, you’re going to be shattered. It is called ptsd. this is the consequence of sending people to war. When you send people to war, you kill off the the humane parts of the personality. At war, if one is empathic or thinks too much one becomes a danger to one’s unit.

“(W)e need to continue a kind of a political cultural anthropology that consistently deconstructs our social delusions in a way that we as societies continue to cover up our own destructive processes, because most societies have parts that are extremely destructive.”




Bollas, C. (2016). Christopher Bollas: Mental Pain. Video on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9Frb4wMifw Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Mischkowski, D., Crocker, J., Way, B. (2016).  From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 11, Issue 9, 1 September 2016, Pages 1345–1353, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw057 Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/11/9/1345/2224135