A long and rich history recognizes the important role empathy plays in both group
and individual therapy. The discovery of mirror neurons and related systems in the
human brain has initiated renewed interest in the subject. This article deconstructs
empathy in an effort to provide a deeper understanding of its developmental value
as the highest form of emotional intelligence and thus provide a rationale for greater
emphasis on education and training for psychotherapists.
KEYWORDS: Group therapy; empathy; we space; sustained empathic focus; mirror
neuron; emotional intelligence.
We know as therapists that insight is important in terms of making changes in how
one behaves. Imago therapy brings this insight into action right from the first session.
Couples come into our offices with all shapes, forms, and causes of anxiety. One of
the main reasons they’re in a place of “disconnect,” “rupture,” or “flatlining” is that
they haven’t found a way to take in that they’re in a relationship with an “other.” As
a result of the inability to accept that a person’s partner is showing up, not as the
person might prefer, but in the partner’s version of who he or she is, each person’s
unmet needs are activated, and the defensive cycle begins. The anxiety created by
this disconnect is at the core of the rupture.
By unconsciously choosing our imago—the parental introject—we have the choice
of growing up and learning how to be in relationship as an adult or continuing to
act out from our less developed selves. We find partners who help us complete the
unfinished business of childhood. Our adult relationships and struggles feel familiar,
because they remind us of our primary caretakers. These relationships present us
with the opportunity to heal past wounds and find deep relational fulfillment. But
it’s an opportunity, not a guarantee.
Our unconscious need is to have our feelings of aliveness and wholeness restored
by someone who reminds us of our caretakers. In other words, we look for someone
with the same deficits of care and attention that hurt us in the first place.
So when we fall in love, when bells ring and the world seems altogether a better
place, our old brain is telling us that we’ve found someone with whom we can finally
get our needs met. Unfortunately, since we don’t understand what’s going on, we’re
shocked when the awful truth of our beloved surfaces, and our first impulse is to
run screaming in the opposite direction.
An imago session can look like going back to a kindergarten level of learning
how to be in a relationship. Imago therapists teach couples a dialogue process. They
sit face-to-face, knee-to-knee, and learn how to take turns speaking and listening.
There’s something soothing or healing in knowing that you will get your turn to be
the sender. This is a dialogue process and not a monologue. There’s an opportunity to
grow and develop a more mature way of connecting by being the person listening
and containing your version of what the issue is. The dialogue process gives the
couple a structure they can then go into more deeply, gaining insight into what’s
fueling their reactive behavior. Using the dialogue, first in the office and then at
home, helps the couple build a muscle that they can develop. A couple who is able
to dialogue when a conflict arises at home is no longer at the mercy of their wounds,
defenses, and learned ways of dealing with conflicts.
Healing takes place because the anxiety of the rupture and feeling of disconnection
has been replaced with a new and deeper sense of who each of them is. Once
a couple learns to mirror, and can be present to take care of the relationship, they
then move into the depth of the healing process.
Mirroring is the first step in the imago dialogue. You are reflecting back your
partner’s words without editing, analyzing, or interpreting. This step puts the couple
on the same page.
Validation is the second step. Validation is being able to understand your partner’s
truth or point of view, especially if yours is different. It is not about agreeing.
Empathy is the third step. The couple ends the first communication by connecting
empathically and deeply imagining the feelings the other partner was
feeling. When they’re both able to do this, they have moved into a new relational
paradigm—separate but connected.
The artistry of the session comes when the imago therapist is able to be exquisitely
attuned to the dance that the couple is doing on a very subtle, often nonverbal level.
From the very first session, I set the stage for an exchange that helps each person
in the couple take responsibility for what he or she wants in their relationship and
how each would have to stretch himself or herself to manifest the relationship vision
I ask them to think of how their relationship would look if it were exactly as they
wanted it to be. They are asked to make their statements short, positive, and present
tense, about what “we” are doing as if it is happening now: “We are best friends
and we can talk about anything.” After each partner has made three to five of these
statements, I ask them to finish this sentence: “And how I would need to stretch in
order to manifest this in our relationship is . . .” The couple begins to create their
vision from the first session and experiences that the therapy is not about blaming,
shaming, or criticizing the partner; it’s about becoming more conscious and taking
accountability for each person’s part in the “relationship nightmare” or disconnect.
Of course, most of the time, the couple is coming to the therapist with the hope
of complaining about all the things each partner is doing to make the relationship
difficult. They are very surprised when I ask them, “What do you think your partner
would say their frustrations are with you, if I were sitting with them alone?” They
then rank them in order of 1 to 10, depending on what each thinks his or her partner
would say, with 10 being the most frustrating, for example, “My partner would say
that I’m critical . . . and that is a 10.”
After checking out the list and rankings with the partner, the partner gets to add
any 10s that aren’t on the list. Diagnostically, this tells me how aware each is of the
other on a day-to-day basis, and it gives me an idea of what they came in to explore.
I end the session by asking each to list what it was about his or her partner
that made each choose to commit to the other. Ending the session on a positive
note is a new experience for many couples, and they see that this is going to be an
opportunity for them to connect in a different way. The couple leaves with hope
rather than despair.
When the couple comes back, we begin practicing the dialogue process, beginning
with introducing them to the concept of “crossing over the bridge” into the
partner’s world, when one is the listener or the receiver. The person who speaks
first is the sender. I explain that I want to help the person get heard. I ask, “How do
you want to show up?” or “What are your intentions, so that your partner can hear
you?” I give them a list of intentions and ask them to choose any ones on the list
that they believe will help the partner to stay safe and present.
I give them the first one—“I will refrain from shaming, blaming, or being
critical”—and explain that “zero negativity” is the way you talk to your partner; it is
necessary for the partner to be able to stay open. The partner may be able to mirror,
but there will be no emotional connection if he or she is feeling blamed, shamed,
and criticized. I stop the dialogue if this occurs and have the sender reframe his or
her message in a nonblaming, nonshaming way:
sender: My intention is to speak softly without blaming, shaming or criticizing;
My intention is to make eye contact.
The receiver then states his or her intentions, that is, how do you want to show up
so that your partner can feel safe talking to you in a vulnerable, open way?
receiver: My intentions are to contain my reactivity and mirror everything
We make a contract where they agree that I will stop them if they’re not following
their intention, as I want to help them to get heard. I write this down:
“I will talk in a soft voice and have a neutral to friendly face.”
“I will contain my reactivity.”
“I will be accountable for my behavior.”
After I’ve worked with a couple for a while, I might add something else:
“I will talk in short sentences so my partner can mirror.”
“I will refrain from pointing at my partner.”
Intentions for the Receiver
“I will make eye contact.”
“I will contain my reactivity.”
“I will use the pause button to indicate that I want to mirror.”
The couple is learning how to talk to each other so that each can be heard and understood.
The movement is toward connection. The dialogue process provides the
framework for cognitive and heartfelt understanding to occur; the intentions help
to create a deeper connection and intimacy.
The emotional intimacy and deeper connection that come with being heard can
only happen when each partner is able to stay open and present to the partner’s
thoughts and feelings. In the past, I have helped many couples learn the dialogue
process; now I help couples use the dialogue as a starting place to talk to each other
intentionally. My focus is not what you say but how you say it. I get couples to commit
to how they are going to send so that they take into account the impact of how
their way of “showing up” will contribute to the partner’s ability to stay present and
Helping couples learn a new way to talk and listen must include the how and
not just the what. Many components go into the how:
• voice quality (tone, pitch, and volume): I coach partners to soften their voices
so that their partners can take them in and really receive what they’re saying.
• facial expressions: I encourage “neutral to friendly” facial expressions, with
no eye rolling, sighing, and so on.
• body language: Use an open, upright posture, with arms uncrossed.
Joan and George have been working on their how for several months. George
has a harsh delivery, and Joan responds by avoiding eye contact and speaking in
a very soft, whispering voice. The more George raises his volume, the more Joan
disappears emotionally and physically. As George has learned to speak in a softer
voice and contain his reactivity, Joan has been able to sit up and make eye contact
and to stay present emotionally.
Part of the work in imago therapy is helping each member of the couple develop
empathy for the wounds behind his or her partner’s defenses as well as his or her
own. It makes it easier for each person to step into that place when the person can
put down his or her own guard and imagine what it’s like to be his or her partner.
The subtle nuances of body language, vocal tone, facial expression, and even
breathing are underscored to help them become increasingly conscious of how all
of their verbal and nonverbal energy impacts the partner’s ability to stay present
We want to help the couple get back to a place of relaxed joyfulness when they’re
in each other’s presence. This can only happen when each partner feels understood,
loved, and accepted.
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Imago Therapy in Action: Moving From Rupture to Repair
Author(s): Carol Kramer
Source: Group, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Summer 2018), pp. 167-171
Published by: Eastern Group Psychotherapy Society
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13186/group.42.2.0167
Accessed: 10-09-2018 18:29 UTC