Reflexive Embodied Empathy Essay

Paper for 2005 Methods issue #4 The Humanistic Psychologist ‘Reflexive embodied empathy’: a phenomenology of participant-researcher intersubjectivity By: Linda Finlay Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks go to Scott Churchill for reminding me to return to Husserl’s work on intersubjectivity to better anchor my concept of ‘reflexive embodied empathy’. I am also indebted to Maree Burns who first drew my attention to the idea of embodied reflexivity. Address for correspondence: 29 Blenheim Terrace, Scarborough, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom, YO12 7HD Tel: + 44 1723 501833

Email: L. H. [email protected] ac. uk Abstract In this paper I’m advocating a research process which involves engaging, reflexively, with the embodied intersubjective relationship we have with participants. I call this practice ‘reflexive embodied empathy’. First, I explicate the concept of empathy through exploring ideas from the philosophical phenomenological literature. I then apply this theory to practice and offer examples of reflexive analysis of embodied empathy taken from various hermeneutic phenomenological research projects.

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Three interpenetrating layers of reflexivity are described, each involving different but coexisting dimensions of embodied intersubjectivity. The first layer – connecting-of – demonstrates how we can tune into another’s bodily way of being through using our own embodied reactions. The second layer – acting-into – focuses on empathy as imaginative self-transposal and calls our attention to the way existences (beings) are intertwined in a dynamic of doubling and mirroring. The third layer – merging-with – involves a “reciprocal insertion and intertwining” of others in ourselves and of us in them (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p. 38), where self-understanding and other-understanding unite in mutual transformation. Through different examples of reflexive analysis from my research, I’ve tried to show how our intersubjective corporeal commonality enables the possibility of empathy and how, in turn, empathy enables both understanding of the Other and self-understanding. I discuss how the co-existing layers of empathy and the resultant understandings can be enabled through hermeneutic reflection and collaborative research methods. ‘Reflexive embodied empathy’: a phenomenology of participant-researcher intersubjectivity

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person, My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe. (Whitman, 1917) “The body is the vehicle of being in the world”, says Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962, p 82). More than this, the body is the vehicle for understanding the world, he argues. It is through our own embodied consciousness that we gain an understanding of the Other. In his later work he elaborates this idea to argue for ‘incorporeal being’, an intersubjective intertwining.

Using the metaphor of the chiasm – criss-crossing – he suggests that a kind of corporeal reflexivity is the foundation upon which self-reflection and personal identity rests. Applying Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of embodiment, understanding and self-reflection to the phenomenological research process, I argue that empathy is not just about emotional knowing, it is a felt, embodied, intersubjective experience. It is also an experience which underpins our ability to understand our participants. For this reason we need to learn to read and interrogate our body’s response to, and relationship with, the body of our research participant (the Other).

Firstly, as we study a person’s life world, their sense of embodiment is a significant existential dimension that requires our fullest attention. We need to try to grasp something of the Other as a ‘living, lived body’. Secondly, we also should attend to our own bodies as researchers – specifically the body that is in relationship with our participant. I’m therefore advocating a research process which involves engaging, reflexively, with the participant’s lived body, our own body and our embodied intersubjective relationship with the participant. I call this practice ‘reflexive embodied empathy’.

To define and explicate this concept, I start by exploring some of the literature on empathy. There is an extensive empirical literature on empathy in the fields of neuroscience (see Thompson, 2001) and social psychology (see Davis, 1994). However, I confine my discussion here to the equally extensive (though sometimes overlooked) literature from phenomenology. Here, I draw on a range of theoretical ideas but the philosophical ideas of Husserl (1928/1989) on intersubjectivity and of Merleau-Ponty (1964/1968) on ‘embodiment as intertwining’ are particularly influential.

While the focus in this literature review is on empathy, concepts related to embodiment and reflexivity are integral. The literature review is followed by an analysis of the concept of reflexive embodied empathy in practice. I use three examples of significant moments from various hermeneutic phenomenological research projects to demonstrate reflexive analysis of my own embodied, intersubjective relationships with participants. I characterize these moments of reflective involvement with the data as fluid, interpermeating ‘layers’ whereby different dimensions of experience are called to the fore.

Three co-existing layers of reflexivity are described: • connecting-of the Other’s embodiment to our own • acting-into the Other’s bodily experience • merging-with the Other’s bodily experience. A discussion section develops this layered understanding of reflexive embodied empathy: There is a fluid movement from using one’s own experience as a way of understanding another’s embodiment to exploring the relational intersubjective empathic space between participant and researcher where self-understanding and other-understanding are intertwined.

The implications of this for the practice of reflexivity in research are explored and elaborated. Phenomenological conceptions of empathy Defining empathy The term ‘empathy’ is the English translation of the German term Einfuehlung, which means ‘feeling into’ or gently sensing another person or an object in the process of trying to appreciate it.

In 1897, Lipps introduced the concept of Einfuehlung into his writing on aesthetics: An observer is stimulated by the sight of an object…soon the observer feels himself into the object, loses consciousness of himself, and experiences the object as if his own identity had disappeared…The observer sees a mountain…As his gaze moves upward to the peak of the mountain, his own neck muscles tense and for the moment there is a sensation of rising. (Lipps, cited in Peloquin, 1995, p. 25). When this idea is applied to the human world, empathy is generally understood as ‘entering another’s world’.

Carl Rogers offers the benchmark definition: It means entering the private world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment to moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person…It means temporarily living in his/her life, moving about in it delicately without making judgements…as you look with fresh and unfrightened eyes…” (1975, p. 3) Empathy in these terms is linked to the Rogerian counselling technique of reflecting back clients’ meanings. Done well, it involves much more than simply repeating clients’ words and empathically representing what has been said.

Instead, it is a relational process. Empathy here involves being a safe and steady human presence, being one who is willing to ‘be-with’ the client whatever comes up. When clients go into therapy, usually they are able to articulate only a little of their troubles; much more is felt and sensed in what can be called an embodied and ‘more-than-verbal’ way (Gendlin, 1981). Through their attempt to reflect back what clients seem to be saying and meaning (not arguing or shifting agendas), therapists go with their clients precisely to the spot at which this inner more-than-verbal space is opening.

Todres (1990) picks up this point when he describes four modalities of being-with, arguing that these demonstrate the intersubjective foundation of psychotherapy. O’Hara (1997) also argues for a ‘relational empathy’, though her concern is to focus on sociocentric, rather than Western egocentric, understandings. Empathy, she argues, needs to be understood as “an essential feature of human, relational connectedness, an expansion of a person’s consciousness to include in their perceptual field the other as an individual and the relationship with the other which he or she is a part” (1997, p. 313).

Levin (1988) also draws on these transpersonal themes, viewing empathy as in part a form of ‘transpersonal identification’. Referring to Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’ (an extract from which is quoted at the start of this paper), he explains: What he is describing are experiences of bonding, of cross-identification, experiences in which his identity is inseparably intertwined with the other, and in which, to an extent, he becomes the other. His own separate identity is transcended; while remaining “himself,” he feels “inside” the other, lives in, and inhabits, the other. (1988, p. 299).

Levin goes on to argue that if our identity is intertwined with that of others, there is hope that, through compassion, we can build a new society based on cultivating, learning and teaching this reciprocal sociality: The transpersonal fulfilment of our initial, prepersonally organized intercorporeality is not a confusion of identities, but rather a deeply felt compassion – an openness and readiness to be moved by compassion – and an uncompromising respect for the other as other, the other as different, but for whose difference one is capable, nonetheless, of feeling some bodily grounded sympathy (Levin, 1988, p. 01). Explicating the experience of empathy If we understand empathy as openness, presence and relational interconnectivity, how can we make sense of the process taking place at this moment? This question has been explored by a number of phenomenological philosophers. Edith Stein’s (1916/1989) doctoral dissertation ‘On the problem of empathy’ (which she produced as Husserl’s assistant and under his direction) is particularly notable. Following Husserl’s work in Ideas, Stein, explicates empathy as a unique and irreducible kind of intentional experience.

When we combine embodied sense perception and cognitive inference, she argues, we experience another person as a unified whole through empathy. Pursuing this idea, she critiques previous conceptions of empathy which had a narrower focus. She describes empathy as the experience of feeling led by an experience beyond oneself and goes on to delineate how this is enacted through different modalities of accomplishment. First, the experience of the Other emerges before me: “it arises before me all at once, it faces me as an object (such as the sadness I “read in another’s face”)” (1916/1989, p. 10).

Then, I imaginatively put myself in the place of the Other – reproducing the form of their experience in my own imagination. Finally, as the Other’s experience has been clarified, the experience faces me again in a richer, fully explicated way. Stein describes these levels as: “(1) the emergence of the experience, (2) the fulfilling explication, and (3) the comprehensive objectification of the explained experience” (1916/1989, p. 10). In tandem with Stein, Husserl developed these ideas of empathy in his exploration of intersubjectivity – a topic he revisited several times over his career (notably in Ideas II).

Husserl was concerned not so much with particular understanding of others but with the transcendental conditions that make possible such understanding. Specifically, he sought to know the ‘aesthesiological layer’ of the Other: how we come to apprehend the Other’s body as a ‘lived body’ – an understanding that is empathy. His argument is that intersubjectivity (co-subjectivity) is present prior to my concrete perceptual encounter with another and that it is intersubjectivity which allows empathy.

Husserl saw empathy both as constitutive of the other and as the condition of possible knowledge of an existing outer world. Through experiencing an Other’s experience of the world (through empathy), I see the world from outside my own subjectivity and can then experience that world as objective and real: “the objective world, depends upon the transcendence of foreign subjectivity” (Husserl, 1959 cited in Zahavi, 2001, p. 159). Without the Other, I cannot properly know who I am and I cannot understand that the world is larger than my experience of it.

As Husserl presents it, the constitution of ‘true transcendence’ occurs through empathy. “All Objectivity, in this sense, is related back constitutively to what does not belong to the Ego proper, to the other-than-my-Ego’s-own in the form, ‘someone else’ – that is to say: the non-Ego in the form, ‘another Ego’” (Husserl, 1974, cited in Zahavi, p. 159). Husserl then offers some more concrete advice about how to gain an experience of an Other through the meditation of empathy.

He suggests that we need to imaginatively transpose ourselves to the other’s place to follow them. I secure [the person’s] motivations by placing myself in his situation, [with] his level of education, his development as a youth, etc. , and to do so I must needs share in that situation; I not only empathize with his thinking, his feeling, and his action, but I must also follow him in them, his motives becoming my quasi-motives, ones which, however, motivate with insight in the mode of intuitively fulfilling empathy (Husserl, 1928/1989, cited in Davidson, 2003, p. 21). Importantly, the intersubjective process Husserl describes is understood to involve an entirely embodied relationship. “In order to establish a mutual relationship between myself and an other, in order to communicate something to him, a Bodily relation…must be instituted…In empathy I participate in the other’s positing” (Husserl, 1928/1989, p. 176-7). Merleau-Ponty elaborates this emphasis on the body, arguing that it is our corporeal commonality specifically which enables the possibility of real empathy.

As he reminds us, “it is precisely my body which perceives the body of another person” (1945/1962, p. 354). Later, in The Visible and the Invisible, he radicalises this idea to focus on the intersubjective ‘intertwining’, which he describes as “The intertwining of my life with the lives of others, of my body with the visible things, the intersection of my perceptual field with that of others” (1964/1968, p. 49). Here, Merleau-Ponty (1964/1968) calls our attention to the way existences (beings) are intertwined in a dynamic of doubling and mirroring.

In a passage that encapsulates this recognition of reflexivity he states that “The mirror’s ghost lies outside my body, and by the same token my own body’s ‘invisibility’ can invest the other bodies I see. Hence my body can assume segments derived from the body of another, just as my substance passes into them; man is the mirror for man” (Merleau-Ponty, 1961, cited in Churchill, 2000-2001, pp. 29-30). Thompson (2002), drawing on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and in collaboration with Depraz (2001), takes these ideas further by presenting a typology of empathy.

As he sees it, empathy involves 1. “the involuntary coupling or pairing of my living body with your living body in perception and action. 2. The imaginary movement or transposition of myself into your place. 3. The interpretation of you as an Other to me and of me as an Other to you. 4. The ethical and moral perception of you as a person” (Thompson, 2002, p. 5) Thompson emphasises that these four kinds of empathy are not separate. Instead, they occur together in face-to-face intersubjective experience.

In the following passage, Thompson emphasises that the role of empathy is to be mutually constitutive through the intersubjective relationship: They intertwine through the lived body and through language. You imagine yourself in my place on the basis of the expressive similarity of our lived bodies. This experience of yours helps constitute me for myself, for I experience myself as an intersubjective being by empathetically grasping your empathetic experience of me. Conversely, I imagine myself in your place, and this experience of mine helps constitute you for yourself.

As we communicate in language and gesture, we interpret and understand each other dialogically. (Thompson, 2002, p. 11) Embodied empathy applied in research Halling and Goldfarb (1991) explain that there is a need to take embodiment seriously during the research process. Specifically, they argue, as researchers we should be aware of how we are being affected at a bodily level: To take embodiment seriously is to take seriously how one speaks and how one listens to self and other.

The recognition that one is an embodied being includes the acknowledgement that even in a situation of being an observer one is an involved observer – someone who is being affected by and is affecting what is taking place. Being a researcher…requires that one become fully and thoughtfully involved. It is as if one is engaged in a dance of moving forward and moving back: one steps closer and steps away, has an effect and is affected, all as an embodied being” (1991, p. 328) More than just being aware of embodiment we need to attend to the intersubjective relationship between participant and researcher.

As Burn’s (2003, p. 232) points out, a researcher’s own “embodied subjectivity interacts with that of the respondent in the mutual construction of meanings/bodies…no ‘body’ can exist neutrally outside this process of inter-corporeality or inter-subjectivity”. She advocates a critical embodied reflexivity that involves construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of embodied subjectivities, thus providing rich material for analysis. The theoretical literature outlined in the previous section identifies empathy as the basis of our sociality, our intersubjectivity and our capacity to understand an Other.

While descriptions of empathy come mainly from the fields of psychotherapy and philosophy, they seem to have applicability to psychological research. Here, the researcher’s task is not simply to listen to another’s story: the researcher also needs to be open to being-with the participant in a relationship. The researcher needs awareness of how the bodily relationship between participant and researcher is mutually constitutive. The researcher’s capacity to understand can be enhanced through this reflexive awareness.

While the philosophical literature on empathy is rich and compelling, the question of how this co-constituting empathy might be applied in actual research practice has been less well explored. However, Churchill, Davidson and Spiegelberg amongst others offer some valuable guidance. Drawing on phenomenological philosophy, Churchill et al. (1998) recommend an intuitive ‘empathic dwelling’ as the first stage of a phenomenological method. As Husserl says: “A first step is explicitly to be vitally at one with the other person in the intuitive understanding of his experiencing” (1936/1970, p. 28). In this initial stage, the researcher aims to ‘stay with’ the participant’s description, becoming ever-more open to what is being communicated. The empathic dwelling in this instance is enacted alongside the Epoche where the researcher attempts to put aside his or her own understandings in order to see the world anew. In empathy, “I participate in the other’s positioning himself or herself from a unique perspective within a situation…While maintaining one’s own position as researcher, one gradually allows oneself to feel one’s way into the other’s experience” (Churchill et al. 1998, p. 66). Davidson (2003) explains there are no short cuts for the cultivation of such empathic, intuitive understanding – it requires practice, skill, talent and grace. Empathy, he says, is “a highly disciplined and demanding posture involving an active and artful use of all of one’s faculties of memory, imagination, sensitivity, and awareness in coming to understand another person’s experience from his or her own perspective. ” (2003, p. 121).

He draws a loose analogy of an actor learning to assume the role of a new character and suggests researchers might use similar techniques towards building imaginative bridges between their own and participants’ experiences. A specific technique, for instance, might be to recall a similar incident in your own life and use that experience to help you to empathise. Spiegelberg (1975) similarly argues that empathising is not simply about ‘putting oneself in the other’s shoes’.

Instead, we have to leave behind our own context and understandings to imaginatively project ourselves into the Other’s situation in an attempt to see the world through their eyes. Following Husserl, he calls this process imaginative self- transposal. Here, we spontaneously transpose ourselves imaginatively into the Other. I hear your joy that you have ‘fallen in love’ and I feel your joy – transposing them as a possibility for me. I recall a time in my own life when I had felt something similar and, providing I stay focused on your experience and not mine, I am able to feel empathy.

Yet how does this process of imaginative transposal come about in practice? When Husserl discusses this concept (sich Hineinphantasieren) he suggests that it is through an imagined kinaesthetic bodily exchanging that we are able to identify with the Other’s psychic state. This stage is highly embodied as it relies on a “concretely dynamical spatializing of imagining” (Depraz, 2001, p. 173). As researchers it seems that we need to tune into this embodied and imaginative dimension as we feel ‘into’ and ‘with’ the Other.

Examples of ‘reflexive embodied empathy’ in research practice In this section, I attempt to describe co-existing and interpermeating layers of empathy. Drawing on various phenomenological research projects I’ve been involved with, I focus on different examples – moments – of reflexive embodied empathy. The analytical extracts offered are based on notes taken from the reflexive diary I keep when I engage in phenomenological work. Using such extracts offers me the opportunity to engage in a process of hermeneutic reflection (Finlay, 2003a).

Here the researcher’s critical self-reflective involvement with the data allows different facets of the phenomenon to present themselves. Following Gadamer (1975), hermeneutic reflection can be understood as a process of continually reflecting on our experience as researchers, alongside the phenomenon being studied, so as to move beyond the partiality and investments of our previous understandings. Layer 1 ‘Connecting-of’ the Other’s embodiment to our own We could not sense the physical qualities of the world unless we, too, were physical: that is, having the capacity to touch and be touched by the world.

Similarly, we cannot grasp the intentional meanings of another’s gestures if we are not capable of gestural intertwining with the Other. “He who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it, unless he is of it. ” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, pp. 134-135). Our ability to move into the Other’s bodily experience is predicated on our experience of our own body. We can ‘do empathy’ because the Other is both different from and like ourselves. The first example shows how empathetic understanding of an Other’s experience of embodiment is intimately connected to the lived experience of our own.

Here my reactions as an asthmatic in the presence of a patient dying from a lung disease help me to understand how the therapist I am observing is reacting in similarly personal ways to other patients: On one occasion during some participant observation research, I was observing an occupational therapist work with a client who was suffering from the final stages of lung cancer. Although I was supposed to only observe, I found I could not stop myself becoming involved (by asking the patient questions and even intervening at a practical level).

When I reflected on my behaviour, I understood it was my active need to be involved – to do something. I also recognised my own sensitivity as an asthmatic, witnessing someone with breathing problems dying of a lung disease. As I stayed with this patient I could feel my body resonate. I became aware my chest felt tight and I had to remind myself to breath. Once I tuned into these bodily responses I was then able to recognise my identification with the patient. I re-membered my own struggles for life and being near death.

Once I recognised these bodily responses, I was better able to see the bodily responses of the therapist. I could then see she was experiencing similar identifications with some of her other patients. Previously I had interpreted the therapist as being involved with fairly superficial, “irrelevant” tasks – now I could see these tasks had a meaning for her: they were as much for her as the patient. By examining my own embodied responses I could better understand hers.

In my embodied experience, “I discover in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions…As the parts of my body together comprise one system, so my body and the other person’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously” (1962, p. 354). This example shows at least two things. First, it suggests that in order to understand something in another we need to link it to something familiar to ourselves – Stein’s notion of identification. In order to understand a movement, for example, a gesture of pride, I must first “link” it to other similar movements familiar to me” (Stein 1916/1989, p. 59). Second, the example reveals how the world (more specifically, the Other) discloses itself through our own bodily subjectivity. “It is as if the other person’s intention inhabited my body” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. 185). Probing our own embodied responses thus potentially opens up rich understandings of our participants. This kind of self-understanding (grounded in the other’s self-presentation) translates into Other-understanding.

However, in this translation of using ourselves to understand the Other, a critical question is raised: To what extent do we need to be the same as the Other in order to empathise? Stein (1916/1989) grapples with just this point. She notes that empathy can be successful when she looks at men’s and children’s hands and, although they are different from hers, she can see them as a ‘type’: “I can only empathize with physical bodies of this type; only them can I interpret as living bodies” (1916/1989, p. 59).

Even then, she argues, empathy isn’t limited to ‘human physical body’ types as we can empathise – through projection – with an injured animal. (I am reminded here of Paul Gallico’s short novel of Jenny which is a beautiful exploration of the physically embodied world of the cat. ) However, there is a limit here as certain bodily positions and movements cannot be empathised with. They are “empty presentations without the possibility of fulfilment. And the further I deviate from the type “human being” the smaller does the number of possible fulfilment become” (1916/1989, p. 9). When there is too big a difference, the possibility of empathy is compromised. However, to some extent, differences can be transcended through empathy as we imaginatively identify with the Other’s position. The process of imaginatively transposing ourselves into an Other is highlighted in the next example. Here my attention shifts more towards the Other as the process of identification is sustained: this is Husserl’s notion of the Other being made ‘co-present’ as analogue or mirroring of my Self. Layer 2 ‘Acting-into’ the Other’s bodily experience

Merleau-Ponty explains that to experience a structure is “not to receive it into oneself passively: it is to live it, to take it up, assume it [my emphasis] and discover its immanent significance”(1945/1962, p. 258). Understanding therefore comes from somehow taking up, identifying with and then enacting the Other’s experience. As Merleau-Ponty says: “I have only the trace of a consciousness which evades me in its actuality and, when my gaze meets another gaze, I re-enact the alien existence in a sort of reflection [my emphasis]. ” (1945/1962, p. 352).

This notion of re-enacting is reminiscent of Dilthey’s (1927/1977) idea from his essay on ‘Understanding other people and their expressions of life’. Dilthey describes how higher forms of understanding consists of ‘sichhineinversetzen’ (meaning a projecting of oneself into the Other) and ‘nacherleben’ (meaning re-experiencing or re-enacting another’s expressions and experience in order to understand them). According to Dilthey (1911/1977, p. 133), in order to re-experience another’s experience we need to use our imagination to “strengthen or weaken…feelings, strivings, and lines of thought which are contained in our own context-of-life”.

It is necessary to shift attention from self to Other. The next example shows this process of empathy through re-experiencing and re-enacting the Other’s experience. It comes from a group phenomenological study (Finlay et al. , forthcoming) where we explored, via an in-depth interview, the phenomenon of ‘mistrust’ as perceived by one participant – Kath. Kath had the experience of being mistrusted by her colleagues and as a result she felt herself to be attacked by others. She described finding herself becoming a different person – a ‘ghost’ of herself: “I became a different kind of me, a lesser me. In the following extract from my reflexive diary, I reflect on Kath’s changing sense of embodiment: I was struck by the way Kath seemed to have lost the embodied way-of-being she had previously relied upon. Having once been vivacious, bright, open, dynamic and humorous, she was describing the experience of ‘pulling herself in’ and becoming quiet and wary. Where once she had felt herself to be a ‘big’ person – in terms of both her presence and her personality – she was now made to feel ‘reduced’. In the process of being forced to reduce, she had become a different person.

This is how she describes the process: Kath: It was this kind of shift and change and the pulling in and the unsafeness of that environment which before had felt secure, clearly wasn’t. I was shaky. Lots of the sort of firm things that you believed in were now shaky. Does that make sense? Linda: Yes, so, when you say ‘pulling in’ you pulled yourself into yourself Kath: Yes, I withdrew… Linda: It seems like your very way of being is kind of quite open [mmm, mmm] and direct … And here you’ve lost even your way of being. Kath: …that really sums it up actually. I felt the person who left that college was not me.

Or was a paler shade of me…I had to kind of slow down in a sense, not in speed sense but in a kinda closure sense. .. in a protective sense. As Kath was speaking, I was very aware of her ‘big presence’. I had previously known Kath as a ‘big personality’ and as someone who physically embodied a big, attractive presence. Yet, in the course of our interview, she somehow started to ‘fade’ in front of my very eyes. I could feel a strange sensation within myself, a sense of closing down, closing in, shrinking, trying to become smaller, trying to become a ‘paler’ version of myself. Slowly I was disappearing.

Then I realised that, strangely enough, this new reality actually felt safer. If I couldn’t be seen, I wouldn’t be hurt… I dwelt there some more… I could understand and accept Kath’s need to ‘reduce’ and close down. At the same time, I began to feel something else. Losing myself also felt slightly scary. Who would I be and who would I become if I was to disappear to be replaced by a paler-shaded me? I became aware that I felt somehow sad at the loss of my customary embodied way of being. I looked at Kath and she, too, seemed to me to be sad and a little lost – indeed, vulnerable in her loss.

As I was listening to Kath, it seemed that what I was feeling was, in some sense, mirroring something in her. I rode with this idea. If this was the case, one way into understanding Kath’s experience was to try to understand what was happening within me – or, more specifically, within and to my body. With this in mind, during the interview, I shared with Kath what was happening to me. I was aware that this could have had the unfortunate result of re-directing the focus from Kath to me. However, as it happened, I don’t feel that what occurred detracted from Kath’s experience.

Instead, I believe that my attempt to empathise seemed to help her better articulate the pain of being a big woman forced to ‘reduce’. In this example, I show how I momentarily ‘transposed’ myself into Kath’s body. The process involved an act of creativity as I imagined what it would be like to live in her body – a body that was, in reality, quite a bit bigger than my own. A crucial question is raised: to what extent was this imagining my imagining – my invention – as opposed to potentially reflecting something about Kath herself?

Was this imagining simply projective distortion or a moment of genuine identification? This epistemological question is, of course, a critical point of debate for phenomenology. Phenomenologists of a more realist persuasion might be inclined to suggest that if the phenomenology was done well (e. g. effectively performing the epoche) then it should reveal that which is part of the phenomenon itself – in this case, something about ‘mistrust’. Those of a more post-modern relativist persuasion would argue that the idiographic findings are contingent on my style as researcher and y relationship with Kath. Another researcher would have obtained a different story (Finlay et al. , forthcoming). I am poised somewhere between these two poles. I acknowledge the partial and tentative nature of the findings but at the same time I believe that, through empathy, I have glimpsed something of Kath’s perceptions and lifeworld . In the process, however, I may not necessarily have glimpsed any essential structures of the phenomenon of mistrust at a general, as opposed to idiographic, level. This raises the question of whether we can, in fact, ever know anything.

None of us – whether researcher or participant – have privileged access to the ‘reality’ of our lived experience. When, as a participant, we narrate our experience in an interview, or when, as a researcher, we provide a reflexive account, we offer an interpretation that seems to work at that time. We then have to reflect on the evidence, recognising its non-conclusive nature, and try to work with the participant. It was for this reason that I checked out my perceptions with Kath. I shared with her what was happening to me.

Her response of “that sums it up” suggested that I had mirrored something of her experience. “As a mirror…I re-enact the Other’s existence by vesting in the Other’s stance, gesture, expression a lived understanding of human intentions that is my presence to the world. ” (Churchill, 2000-2001, p. 29). The idea of ‘reflection as reversibility’ is developed further in the final example. Layer 3 – ‘Merging-with’ the Other’s bodily experience A key idea developed by Merleau-Ponty is that the toucher and the touched are of the same material – the same flesh.

He uses the example of the touching hand being touched in part as a metaphor for the way body and world are intertwined. “The body-world boundary is a porous one, permitting of unceasing interpenetrability” (Aanstoos, 1991, p. 95). There is, in short, a merging-with. This layer of empathy is shown in the next example where I was analysing an excerpt from an interview with a mental health therapist, Jenny. Jenny had been threatened by a male patient who had a violent sexual history. She described, at some length, her sense of apprehension that one predatory patient would eventually ‘get her’:

Jenny: He’s …extremely creepy. He will come up, want to touch you …He’s a bit predatory in that he will follow you down corridors…He preyed across the gym…crept up behind me… “They [colleagues] can’t watch all of you all the time…I’ll get you. ”…He even does things like, there’s a large observation window, and even if he can’t physically get to you, he’ll stand there and rub his groin and drool… He’ll crawl across the floor to get you. ” In my analysis of this interview, I found myself reading and re-reading the transcript with a growing sense of foreboding in the pit of my stomach.

In the process of hermeneutic reflection, I started to imagine how I would feel in Jenny’s shoes, stalked by this predator. What I experienced was literally an embodied reaction. Here is an extract from my reflexive diary which reveals something of this reaction: Suddenly, the world begins to look different. Everything closes round me and somehow grows darker. I can hear the hollow beating of my heart. I think about the unit Jenny works in, seeing it now in terms of the spaces that are safe versus dangerous. She has to walk down public corridors all the time with full awareness she is not ‘safe’.

I feel her fear, that sense of menace where time is no defence. I experience her loathing, her disgust – my skin creeps in response to his creepiness. I see this same image of a man drooling and clawing at the window to get at me – it won’t go away. It feels real, like it has happened to me. It is as if I have become Jenny. This is the moment I wait for in my phenomenological analysis: the moment where I am so immersed in the data and intertwined with my participant I can no longer separate the pieces. Jenny’s feeling of being stalked and bodily threatened by this creepy patient is also my feeling.

This example shows how I, as researcher, became so thoroughly immersed in my participant’s experience that I (momentarily) lost sight of my own. Merleau-Ponty’s words poetically describe this strange experience I had of merging as researcher-participant: “to the extent that I understand, I no longer know who is speaking and who is listening” (1960/1964, p. 97) Explaining the process of merging, Merleau-Ponty uses the metaphors of flesh (an ontological concept naming the elemental impermeability of our bodily inherence in the field of Being as a whole) and the chiasm (the criss-crossing of body and world). We are the world that thinks itself – or the world is at the heart of our flesh” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 136). Through carnal intersubjectivity “flesh meets flesh in the flesh of the world, and man can now become a living mirror for his fellow [sic] man” (McCleary, 1960/1964, p. 97). With the intertwining we “function as one unique body” (1964/1968, p. 215). The meeting with the Other is a ‘chiasm’ in which we are “two opennesses” (1964/1968, p. 213) and in this crisscrossing a new intercorporeal being can emerge. The world is at the heart of our flesh; Flesh of the world, and myself as flesh, are intertwined.

The world and I are within one another (1964/1968, p. 123). Through this embrace, Merleau-Ponty argues, embodied intersubjectivity opens on to, and discloses the Other. “Others and my body are born together from the original ecstasy” (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964, p. 174). Merleau-Ponty’s metaphor of the intertwining opens up the possibility of empathy being understood as a process where the Other and I become one. For other phenomenological philosophers, however, the dissolution of the boundaries between the Other and I is potentially problematic.

Stein (1916/1989), for example, argues that it is vital that a dissolution of boundaries does not take place. If it did, einfuhlung would no longer entail understanding the Other’s experience from their perspective. Instead, the focus would have shifted back to my subjectivity. “Empathy is not a feeling of oneness” (1916/1989, p. 17), Stein asserts. Understanding comes from perceiving the differences between the Other and I. The selfness of ‘I’, she argues, is “brought into relief in contrast with the otherness of the other” (1916/1989, p. 38).

Husserl’s notion that our experience of the world is an intersubjective one, full of people who are both similar to, and different from, ourselves perhaps offers a compromise. In the intersubjective space we move within and between; we see similarities and differences; sometimes we see ourselves in others and, at other times, we see others in ourselves. Sometimes we touch, at other times we are touched. The ‘intertwining’ encompasses this movement. Applied to the research process, we can see this in practice where we dance between different subjective and intersubjective moments.

Through a process of hermeneutic reflection we can begin to capture the way the Other, the self and the intersubjective space, move in and out of focus (Finlay, 2003a). Through this phenomenological reflection we can begin to disentangle how others present themselves to and through ourselves. Discussion Interpermeating layers and hermeneutic reflection I have offered a layered understanding of ‘reflexive embodied empathy’ as a movement from subjectively feeling into the meanings of another’s embodiment through to an awareness of more thorough-going embodied intersubjectivity.

The first layer – connecting-of -suggests we try to tune into another’s bodily way of being through using our own embodied reactions. The second layer – acting-into – calls our attention to the way existences (beings) are intertwined in a dynamic of doubling and mirroring. The third layer – merging-with – involves a “reciprocal insertion and intertwining” of others in us and of us in them (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 138). Through the web that is intersubjectivity, we come to understand that self-understanding and other-understanding are intimately interwoven.

Taken as a whole, there is a subtle shift from an awareness of the Other’s body as linked to mine to an appreciation of the ‘we’, where world and body are understood to be intertwined with one another. “Once a body-world relationship is recognised, there is a ramification of my body and a ramification of the world and a correspondence between its inside and my outside and my inside and its outside” (Merelau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 136). However, having suggested three layers as somewhat separate levels of empathy, we need also to re-emphasise their interpermeation and co-existence.

We fluidly move in, out and through different depths (or intensities) of empathy during each moment of any relational engagement. They are not sequential – instead, they co-exist as ‘possibilities of experience’. As McCleary (1960/1964, p. xvii) puts it: “My body teaches me to know the simultaneous presence of multiple perspectives”. In one moment, as researchers, we might find ourselves observing our participant and discover some linking experience which enables our empathy. In the next moment, we could be sucked down into the deep, experiencing an intense intertwining with our participant.

Different dimensions of experience and being are called to the fore. We also simultaneously inhabit different layers. For instance, in my mirroring of Kath’s embodied experience (layer 2), I was aware of what my own embodied responses would be in her place (level 1). At the same time, I felt that I was her (layer 3). Here, a moment of ‘acting-into’ is also lived as ‘connecting-of’ and ‘merging-with’. The layers of empathy are thus not mutually exclusive and are perhaps better characterised dynamically as fluid moments of empathic experience.

The challenge for the researcher is to reflexively exploit the opportunities offered by these different layers through an iterative and dialectical process of hermeneutic reflection (Finlay, 2003a). Part of this reflective process involves a dancing in and out of the relational involvement. Todres (1990) makes a similar point in reference to psychotherapy, describing how a therapist might develop a rhythm of ‘interactive being-with’ where closeness and distance are simultaneously maintained. The challenge, as Todres sees it, lies in: being close enough to the immediacy of the situation to experience what is happening, yet also to be able to distance oneself from such immediacy in order to become interested in the quality of interaction as a phenomenon. It is this latter ability that gives the therapist a much needed degree of freedom; a freedom that allows him or her to focus on the quality of the interaction with some degree of empathy” (1990, p. 40). In another extract from my reflexive diary, written as I was immersed in some phenomenological analysis, I show how that sense of closeness and distance combine.

In the extract, I simultaneously inhabit intertwined roles of researcher, participant, therapist, client. It’s like seeing simultaneous reflections in multiple mirrors. As I dwell with the transcripts of conversations between participants and myself, the images become blurred and identities converge. The therapist I am interviewing becomes my client. The ‘I’ who is both researcher and therapist divides and I slide inadvertently into my therapist body. As therapist I feel a familiar sensation in my belly – a stirring of excitement as emotional empathy expands. I experience a sense of ‘humble-power’.

I feel honoured as the participant opens herself, discloses secrets, shares her tears. I know something of the power I have used to ‘facilitate’ this. Yet, simultaneously, I feel powerless and helpless. What can I do in the face of this distress? I am not her therapist. Then, as I witness her strength, wisdom, caring, I am reminded that she is a therapist herself with a capacity and her own ways to cope. Then images converge again and a new relationship comes into focus. Suddenly, I am the client, feeling tears, needing solace, wanting this caring, listening therapist to nurture and reassure me.

Then a point of interest captures my professional attention. The axis spins, and I find myself being the researcher. I can stand back now and draw a cloak of power around me once more as I select what to hear, what to report. I decide how to represent my participants and which stories I tell (Finlay, 2003a, pp. 111-113). This example demonstrates how complex layers of intersubjective understanding emerge out of moments of empathy. Engaged in understanding my participant, I am also engaged in self-understanding. Implications for research method: collaboration and reflexivity

All three layers of empathy operate from and through intersubjectivity. Put another way, echoing Husserl, the relational space between participant and researcher is the site of disclosure of the Other and of any understanding which comes about. This point needs to be taken seriously when we choose our methodology. What methods will allow a glimpse into the relationship between participant-researcher? How can we begin to capture intersubjective meanings? The limitations of simply analysing written research protocols or just focusing on participants’ words in transcripts are clear.

Instead, we need methods with a greater focus on the dialogue between researcher and researched. We also need to encourage a reflexivity in both researchers and participants to attend, as much as possible, to their mutual embodied experiencing (Burns, 2003). Walsh (2004) picks up these points in his discussion of embodied reflexivity. Drawing on Gadamer’s distinction between statements and speculative language, Walsh argues that qualitative research must not lose sight of the discursive foundation upon which reflexivity lies. Such research must explore the ways in which language is itself embodied.

It should be conscious of how we can all too easily disembody our participants through certain positions or procedures. He recommends replacing traditional ‘nondirective’ interviews (where the researcher can – paradoxically – be perceived as critical and judgmental ) with ‘dialogues’ where the participant is an engaged, embodied co-participant. He goes on to recommend explicit researcher reflexivity: I suggest that the phrase, “slackening intentional threads” is a way of characterizing embodied reflexivity, in that it points to both allowing for the play of conversation and to examining the context in which the conversation unfolds.

For interpretive analysis this means that the conversation rather than a participant’s “protocol” is the object of analysis, and that the structure interpreted is intersubjective. Hence the researcher’s indelible presence within the conversation must be made explicit and remain explicit throughout all levels of analysis. (2004, p. ) Burns (forthcoming) makes a similar point in her discussion of interviewing as embodied communication. Here, meanings are seen as the product of reciprocal dynamic ‘physical’ exchanges between researcher and participant. Embodied reflexivity”, she says, “can be deployed to interrogate ethical commitments, guide research discussions, enrich analyses, provide an adjunct corpus of reflexivity data, and contribute to the development of theories of embodied subjectivity”. A number of other collaborative approaches have been developed which focus on the conversation and/or apply reflexivity explicitly. For instance, in a variant of reflexivity known as mutual collaboration (Finlay, 2003b), participants may be enlisted as co-researchers. Also, researchers may themselves become participants as they engage in cycles of mutual reflection and experience.

Adopting this latter method, Ellis et al. (1997, p. 121) offer some fascinating insights into how an empathic research relationship can develop, and in turn shape the findings of the research. In this study, the researchers’ explore their personal experiences of bulimia and their empathy for the other: Lisa and I are masters at intellectualizing bulimia. Through our conversations, I have moved beyond a literal interpretation of bulimia as being only about thinness to thinking about how eating disorders also speak to personal longings. But, it always has been hard for us to focus on emotional issues.

I have come to see this as a relational [my emphasis] problem to which we both contribute…Bulimia is about mess. Lisa and I talk about it, study it, analyze it, and We Do IT! As perfectionists…we craft exteriors that contradict the mess in our lives. Still I know what goes on “behind closed doors” in Lisa’s life, because I know what goes on behind my own closed doors” (1997, pp. 127-8). Mutuality and self-understanding If we understand empathy as arising through an intersubjective relationship, we also need to recognise that a mutual dialectic takes place. In research erms, we are reminded to attend reflexively to our impact on our participants and them on us. Always we both affect and are affected by our participants in a process of reciprocal transformation. As we have a capacity to empathize with the Other, they can empathize with us. In the ‘reciprocal insertion and intertwining’, as Merleau-Ponty has shown us, we are called to the Other in a double-belongingness. Empathy is not a one-way process. It is not just imagining myself in your place. It is understanding you as an Other who, in turn, sees me as an Other in you.

It involves the possibility of seeing myself from your perspective. “I live in the facial expressions of the other, as I feel him living in mine” (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964, p. 146). Here, our mutual intersubjective engagement transcends any first-person singular perspective as it shifts our centre of orientation. Normally, we experience our world in terms of egocentric space. We experience ourselves as being ‘here’ with things around us. When we experience another, they are ‘there’ in relation to our ‘here’.

However, as Husserl recognised, with empathy the orientation shifts as I begin to see the Other’s ‘here’ and I appreciate my orientation is just one among others (Thompson, 2001). Then, having empathetically grasped the Other’s perception of me, my own sense of self-identity is nudged, even challenged. “We are literally what others think of us”, asserts Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. 106). Stein (1916/1989) elaborates this idea in her discussion of what she calls ‘reiterated empathy’. To paraphrase her argument, seeing your empathic experience, I see myself from your perspective of me and I gain another view of myself.

This in turn shapes my self-identity. Husserl makes a similar point: “When I realize that I can be an alter ego for the other just as he can be it for me, a marked change in my own constitutive significance takes place. ” (Husserl, paraphrased by Zahavi, 2003, p. 160). Thompson, too, describes this process: “I experience myself as recognizably sentient ‘from without’, that is, from your perspective, the perspective of another. In this way, one’s sense of self-identity, even at the most fundamental level of embodied agency, is inseparable from recognition by another” (Thompson, 2001, pp. 19-20). Stein (1916/1989) takes the idea further:

At the end of the empathic process…there is a new objectification… now…it has a new dignity because what was presented as empty has found its fulfilment… “I” can become conscious of itself, even though it is not necessarily “awake” (1989, p. 60). When applied to the research process, this mutuality raises a number of questions. When we empathise with our participant just who and what is being revealed? When I ‘merged-with’ Jenny, was it Jenny I saw or was it myself? Perhaps, in the end, intersubjectivity demands that empathic revelation of an Other and reflexive uncovering of self are inseparable. Since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees. There is a fundamental narcissism of all vision” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 138). Conclusion In this paper I have explored the theory and philosophy of empathy from a phenomenological perspective and applied these ideas to the research process. Empathy can be understood as ‘feeling with’ the Other – a reciprocal process where I seek to find ways to allow the Other to present themself to and through me. It involves an intersubjective process of imaginal self-transposition and mutual identification where self-understanding and other-understanding is intertwined.

Through different examples of reflexive analysis from my research, I’ve tried to show how our intersubjective corporeal commonality enables the possibility of empathy and how, in turn, it is that empathy which enables both understanding of the Other and self-understanding. Applying these ideas to research, I emphasise the importance of attending to the relationship with our participants. More specifically, our experience of the embodied intersubjective relationship needs to be probed as part of the process of hermeneutic reflection. Explicitly and consciously engaging n the practice of reflexive embodied empathy in terms of ‘connecting-of’, ‘acting-into’ and ‘merging-with’ offers us a way of capturing something of the interpermeation of body and world. References Aanstoos, C. M. (1991). Embodiment as ecstatic intertwining. In C. M. Aanstoos (Ed. ). Studies in humanistic psychology. Carrollton, GA: West Georgia College. Burns, M. (2003). Interviewing: embodied communication. Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 13(2), 229-236. Burns, M. (forthcoming). Bodies that Speak: Examining the dialogues in research interactions. Qualitative Research in Psychology. Churchill, S. D. (2000-2001).

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In Bohart, A. C. & Greenberg, L. S. (1997). Empathy reconsidered. Washington, D. C. :American Psychological Association. Peloquin, S. M. (1995). The fullness of empathy: reflections and illustrations. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 49, 24-31. Spiegelberg, H. (1975). Doing phenomenology: essays on and in phenomenology, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. Stein, E. (1989). On the problem of empathy, 3rd edition (W. Stein, trans. ). Washington, D. C. : ICS Publications. (Original work published 1916). Thompson, E. (2001). Empathy and consciousness, in E. Thompson (ed. Between ourselves: second-person issues in the study of consciousness. Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic. Thompson, E. (2002). Empathy and human experience, Templeton Research Essay on ‘Science, Religion, and the Human Experience (revised version)’ University of California, Feb 7, 2002 (downloaded from: http://www. yorku. ca/evant/ETSRHEUCSB. pdf ) Todres, L. A. (1990). The rhythm of psychotherapeutic attention: a training model. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 21, 32-45. Walsh, R. (2004). The methodological implications of Gadamer’s distinction between statements and speculative language.

The Humanistic Psychologist, 32 (2), 105-119. Zahavi, D. (2001). Beyond empathy: phenomenological approaches to intersubjectivity, in E. Thompson (ed. ) Between ourselves: second-person issues in the study of consciousness. Imprint Academic. Academic Biography Linda Finlay, PhD is a freelance Academic Consultant. She teaches and writes with the Open University (Milton Keynes, UK) and she supervises post-graduate dissertations at the University of East London (UK). She qualified in 1977 as an occupational therapist and then became an academic psychologist after obtaining her psychology honours degree and PhD with the Open University.

She is best known for her textbooks on occupational therapy, her work on reflexivity in qualitative research and her phenomenological research on the experience of multiple sclerosis. Since 2003 she has published three books: The practice of psychosocial occupational therapy (Nelson Thornes); Challenging choices: qualitative research for therapists (Whurr Publications), a volume co-edited with Claire Ballinger; and Reflexivity: a practical guide for researchers in health and social science (Blackwell Publishing), a volume co-edited with Brendan Gough. Her current research interests include the lived experience of trauma.


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