Emerge and Spread Your Wings

Cycle of Caring – Empathetic Attachment

“Empathy is a double-edged sword; it is simultaneously your greatest asset and a point of real vulnerability.” D. G. Larson

In my last blog, I explored Skovholt’s Cycle of Caring and its’ contribution to our understanding of how to remain resilient in the caring professions.

The first of the four phases in this model is Empathetic Attachment. We might also refer to this as attaching, caring, or bonding,  and requires us to feel and convey empathy towards our client. While empathising we also need to maintain a level of emotional distance in order to remain objective, reflective and cognisant of our own self-care. We need to be able to care for our client, without being overwhelmed by their situation. In our practice, we are often working with highly stressed and distressed individuals whose own ability to hold healthy boundaries is absent or compromised. That places the responsibility on us to show caring without being swallowed up by our client’s despair. A resilient practitioner treads a fine line between giving out while holding back.

So how do we achieve this balance?

The skills of empathetic attachment may be taught in our professional training and are refined as we gain experience.

These skills may include

  • active listening,
  • taking time to establish rapport,
  • motivational interviewing,
  • checking in that you have the full picture through open-ended questions,
  • respect for other’s cultures and values,
  • the therapeutic use of self,
  • clarity around our role and good communication of this to our clients
  • effective boundary setting
  • acknowledgment of our own self-care needs

The Maori concept of whakawhanaungatanga is “the process of establishing links, making connections and relating to the people one meets by identifying in culturally appropriate ways, whakapapa linkages, past heritages, points of engagement, or other relationships.” 

By approaching with humility and a willingness to explore how my world connects with my client’s world (whether through common backgrounds, interests, acquaintances or shared experiences), I can begin to establish a mutual connection and build a therapeutic relationship.

Newer practitioners may be more vulnerable to “overcaring”, but we all can become less able to differentiate ourselves from others if we are under stress, struggle with maintaining boundaries, are overworked, find it difficult to disengage from work or neglect our own self-care before we face the next client.

When you think about some of your recent clients what do you notice about this phase of empathetic attachment?

Does it feel easy, or a challenge? Do you feel a sense of “here we go again” when you start with new clients?

One of my supervisees recently reflected on the improved success she has had with clients since she deliberately slowed down her initial session, and practiced active listening and engaging. She believed her clients felt “really heard” and as a result, she was better able to get to the bottom of what they needed help with.

In my experience, with a high pressured caseload and quick turn over it can be a challenge to truly engage with new clients. However, in order to build an effective therapeutic relationship, this engagement from a place of empathetic caring is fundamental.

Whether new-to-practice, or changing to a new setting or new specialty, supervision can offer a safe space to explore our success in Empathetic Attachment. Just as important when we have been in our job for a while, it is possible to feel jaded, overwhelmed or stale when facing the need to continuously attach in an empathetic way to new clients. If this is ringing some bells for you, consider bringing this topic to your next supervision session, and gain new perspective and clarity.

As a first step in the cycle of caring for ourselves and others, it is a very important one.