Empathy and non-judgment lie at the heart of the therapeutic experience. “Strength and brokenness are not opposites.”
Halfway into my first meeting with him, Eric’s head was hanging to his knees. His voice grew more distressed as he summarized why he had decided to try therapy: “I’ve been through three marriages, I’m estranged from my children, I’m a workaholic. What a @#$! mess I’ve made of my life!” Then he paused, lifted his head, looked me in the eyes and said with a softer tone: “How can you sit there and not judge me?”
“It’s not difficult to give you non-judgment because I know my own brokenness,” I said.
I told Eric about the conference where I heard a well-regarded psychologist refer to himself as “polymorphously pathological.” It was his way of saying that he had experienced at least a touch of many of the mental health conditions he treats. Even though I’m in a 35-year marriage, am not estranged from any of my children, and have never considered myself to be a workaholic, I’ve been through deep, soul-crushing depression—the kind that leaves you wondering if anyone you know will ever see you as a full human being again. That kind of brokenness came with an unexpected gift: my inclination to judge brokenness in others dropped to near zero. (I say “near zero” instead of “zero” because the toughest place to practice non-judgment of others is in the private, inner circle of our lives. The personal sphere we hope is a haven in a harsh world is the place we are most easily triggered into hurt and judgment.)
People come to therapy for various life problems, but all are in need of the same therapeutic experience: to be met with empathy and non-judgment when they risk talking about the brokenness in their lives. Empathy and non-judgment are relevant even when a therapist needs to tell someone that her or his behaviors are addictive or abusive. People respond better to a therapist’s strong challenge when they know it’s coming not from condemnation but from authentic clarity about the dignity and worth of every human being.
I grew up Christian and I occasionally reference stories from that tradition if my patient is familiar with them. The power of non-judgment enabled Jesus to leave his critics speechless when he told a crowd gathered to stone a woman to death for committing adultery: “Let those who have never sinned go ahead and throw their stones.” As the story goes, everyone put down their rocks and walked away.
An important detail in the story is that before delivering his classic statement of non-judgment, he paused, knelt down, and doodled in the sand. I see this as a mindfulness break, a slowing down to put a gap between stimulus and response. By standing for radical non-judgment of human brokenness he delivered a deeper and more far-reaching challenge than if he had directly condemned the inhumanity of killing someone for a sexual mistake.
Many years ago a couple in therapy told me that their usual pattern was to go to church every Sunday and then visit an establishment that facilitated group sex. “Tell me more about how that is working for you,” I said, feeling no urge to judge the apparent contradiction of churchgoing and group sex. Their very presence in my office suggested a brokenness that needed my empathic understanding more than any reactive judgment of how they had structured their lives. When I look back at 35 years of listening to people, I’ve never counseled a human being with the courage to tell me about their brokenness who needed a verbal hail of judgment from me.
Several years ago a woman met with me only a few days after the trauma of interrupting her husband’s suicide attempt. “I need to suck it up and get back to being strong,” she told me. It was clear that she felt shattered by what she had been through and what it might mean for her future.
The words “stay broken” came immediately to my mind and I shared them with her. I certainly wanted to help her summon her strength for dealing with the shock that had occurred in her life, but I didn’t want her to miss the gift that could come with awareness of deep brokenness. My hope was to give her permission to be broken without feeling like a failure if she could not put the shards of her life back together quickly. Strength and brokenness are not opposites. Compassionate awareness of our brokenness can make us into people capable of standing with others in difficult situations with empathy and non-judgment.
I think often of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s insight: When we are mindful, we try not to judge, and when we judge, we try not to judge the judging. There is no perfection in giving ourselves or others non-judgment. But awareness of our deepest experiences of brokenness can transform us into wounded healers who practice not judging daily and who try not to judge our judging.