There is an art to kindness. In its most healing form it is an empathic joining. This deeper connection can only come about if a person’s internal motives are in the right place. It is easy for kindness to become “helping” in a patronizing sense. A vehicle for the self gratification of the helper. Sometimes this happens in therapy, even though mostly it doesn’t.
Kindness can be a form of judgement: determining if the other person is deserving of an empathic response. Sometimes there is a determination that what is needed is confrontation or criticism disguised as interpretation. This can happen in therapy also, but mostly it doesn’t.
There could be an argument that empathy is not the best avenue for healing. Perhaps it accesses our own experience rather than being attuned to the experience of the other person. Perhaps it compromises our capacity to truly hear the other person’s explanation because we are assuming too much that it is like our own.
Fundamentally, though, it is our own experience with dilemmas and emotions and connections that informs our understanding of another person’s experience. Just as we see green and we know the other person sees something like color just like we see green even if their green is a little bit different from our green, we feel losses, pain, anger, love, and joy and we know what it means to feel something.
From the point of view of the explainer, there is a deep need to be understood. Not patronized, not “helped” so much as understood in a deep way. We can join another person in their inner world to the extent that we can feel the experience in our own. If we are committed to a kind of open availability, those moments can happen and they are deeply therapeutic.
I am writing this today because this actually happened to me yesterday. I had an awkward moment with someone and decided to try to explain it. Was my explanation self serving? Trying to make my motives look better than they were? His response was something like this: “Do not worry, I did not misunderstand what happened, but I know what you mean. Sometimes you can be unsure of how another person feels about something.”
The kindness of his response was striking and profound. It is that understanding and joining that makes psychotherapy work so well. It takes time for two people to create a relationship in which these moments have the impact of building inner structure, but once that relationship is built, it has a healing strength that is awe inspiring.