The Issue of Empathy in Interpretation

Back in August I journalled about something that I had been meaning to get my head around for quite some time, which is the ability to truly empathise with the texts from the men who’ve contributed; especially in terms of whether this is even possible in Yellow Interpretation, having gone through the oft-harrowing experience of engaging with their stories.

This is something I found hard to do in some ways. The reason being was that my first instinct (which I talked to my supervisors about) was of having to, line-by-line, pick apart my interpretations to ‘trace’ – or attempt to trace, rather, where a strong or mild feeling from Red Interpretation had influenced an element of retelling in Yellow. I’ve since come to the conclusion that not only is this unnecessary but not a useful perception if I’m working with the stories as holistically as possible – rather than breaking them apart to trace interpretive genesis of ideas. This might then change the focus from interpreting the stories to interpreting my interpretation of the stories, not a bad thing, given the already inherent double hermeneutic but in which case it would end up being a methodological endeavour, perhaps, rather than an eating disorders experience endeavour.

There is some theoretical debate to be had – and I’ve located some sources to that effect but ultimately here I’m just trying to capture a more personal take on my ability to empathise when being to personally affected by something.

I seem to be imbuing this reflection with too much power. This is perhaps because I want to practise as a counsellor and I’m frightened that if my own experiences do not allow me to empathise, how am I going to be able to work with others in a talking treatment.

I believe that working person-to-text any empathic activity involves an amount of projection. Putting myself into another man’s shoes when I’m only reading his story, so naturally elements are missing and in fiction the reader’s own imagination fills in those elements. My job of telling these men’s stories is exactly that – to arrive at my own version of their story by trying to discern what I think the man has meant, what’s going on for them and even to identify where I would want to know more if we knew one another.

My ability to tune into their story of the text in an ‘empathic way’ feels more like being about my ability to be able to explore, reframe and express their experience in a sensitive and understanding form. I feel that this is made more possible by having processed some of my immediate, visceral emotional reactions first in Red Interpretation; however, I can’t see this as meaning that these feelings are then done, dusted and dealt with. After all, none of my strong emotions can simply be neatly filed away so as to not impugn the empathic reading, but Red Interpretation does at least mean that I’ve had an opportunity to process and feel some of my own issues for myself without needing, having or wanting to tune into the story in its own right.

When I engaged in the empathic retelling, I tried to work on each story separately, i.e. not working on stage in a ‘batch’ in any way. I also decided Yellow’s capturing of my interpretation would be a continuously running telling of my take on what they were saying in their text. I also opted to use ‘you’ as if I could paraphrase and reflect to the text its meaning as I saw it, much like in therapy where a counsellor may rephrase and give back something the client has said, both to show they’ve been heard and to check understanding. In the case of the interpretive work, it allowed me to spend some time thinking about what the text is saying without either lapsing into my experience and yet seeing it as the basis for investigation. There may be questions but that is not the main reason for reading the text at that point.

So, can the man’s text be empathically told? I think yes. I spent the time trying to tune into what is must have felt like for them going through their experiences, I dwelt on what was on the page and what they had gone through, rather than looking for answers or holding on to my own version of a similar or different life event. This leads to a question of whether or not empathy can be achieved with a static text where there is no personal relationship.

I challenge both parts of that statement for different reasons. In the case of empathy, I feel that empathy is something striven for in the interaction – not something that is ‘achieved’ and ‘ticked off the list’. In counselling, the counsellor moves in and out of walking with the person in their shoes, it is not a state that is attained, remained in then moved out of at will. And it is not a single emotion, it is every emotion that someone is feeling and to maintain it the counsellor must do a version of Red Interpretation. They constantly check-in with and explore their own feelings, experiences and responses for intrusions, false similarities, discords, genuine similarities and their own partisan emotional responses to the person speaking: love compassion, pity, revulsion, despair etc.

In terms of trying to tune into a text, I defy anyone to not have a personal relationship with these stories of men’s endurance and personal hardship. Empathy is not a tangible ‘true’ thing that can be measured in terms of whether it is arrived at or not, rather it is a construction between two, one in relationship with another, rather it is when it is not there, not arrived at that it can be noticed.

Much like when we read a novel an hour goes by and we suddenly emerge, having become immersed in the central character’s story, having lost ourselves to them, remaining us but not us as we interacted with the other characters, environments, situations and experiences in the story. Retelling that story, we instantly experience a level of dissociation, the moment is lost. So, Yellow Interpretation is not ‘Empathy’, it is merely empathic. It cannot achieve more than that, and its job is to retell the man’s story, my empathic experience is diminished as soon as I relate it back to itself.