Towards a Culture of Relational Empathy: Training Social Skills Through Focusing-Arts

Veröffentlicht am 14. Oktober 2023 um 17:26

There is the idea that Focusing is opening up to self-compassion and compassion for people who are not 'us' likewise. This is true as long as existential needs are covered sufficiently on both sides. It becomes complicated when diversity of culture, gender, religion, nationality or attitude is paired with status, priviledges or power of majority. How can we take into account what is needed from the perspective of 'the other' when our own needs are ignored, our status dimanteld, our attempts for progression cut down non stop?

These questions are burning questions in times when acts of social justice are the call of hour. A series of dreams helped me to forward these questions. One of these dreams depicted an image saying, 'even in times of … there is art'. The dream and exhibitions on persecuted arts brought the term 'Creative Compassion' to consciousness, and I started to create a practice that introduced Creative Compassion first to myself and then to others.


Compassion is known as an attitude rooting in agape (selfless love). Compassion is generally seen as part of moral ethics. The idea of compassion can be symbolised in the image of Sara's circle (Fox, 1999). Sarah's circle is a theological methaphor of the Old Testament standing for connectedness, social justice and inclusion. Compassion is integrative as the circle is. It is not exclusive as the famous dream of Jakob's ladder suggests. The metaphor of Jakob's ladder (Old Testament) tells about the opportunity to live in grace and climb top. Falling out of grace comes with a deep crash.

Individual thriving and orientation towards success seems to stand opposite to the ethics of Sarah's circle: The symbol of the circle has no upwarding spirale for personal agency or progression of the individual. The ethics of the collective seem to be guideline.

It can be attractive to live 'circle' when it comes to emotion and communication or feeling and sensing; and to live 'ladder' when it comes to personal benefits, social priviledges, materialistic advantages or political empowerment. This is the point where Relational Empathy (RE) comes into play.

Relational Empathy (Maureen o´Hara) is the capacity to respond flexible towards individualistic and collective issues depending on the given situation. The capacity for RE implies to be able to pendule between an egocentric and a sociocentric world view. RE enables to tune in to a specific situation and the specific needs of the humans involved from felt empathy.

Relational Empathy offers an alternative to living socially exclusive (with indifference to minorities or the marginalized) or socially inclusive (with indifference to personal thriving or need for individualistic progression). RE is a creative way of polyphoning life's dichotomics symbolized by 'circle' and 'ladder'. RE opens up to multiplicity in terms that the Bigger Picture of life is holding both the life of the individual and the life of the collective with all its complexity of relationships. In such RE is fully life affirming.


Relational Empathy is an attitude that can be learned and trained. Any training needs a format to start with. A Focusing based Creative Compassion practice can offer a user-friendly entry to the basics of RE-attitude.

Practitioners learn to resonate to and hold inside personal preferences and limitations on a symbolic level, the level of arts. They approach artistically what they feel attracted to and easily can identify with - standing for: something of ME HERE (egocentric view). They also approach what they are desinterested in or not attracted to and hesitant to identify with - standing for: something of THE OTHER/of you there. Practitioners learn to creatively process both orientations towards a positive outcome paying  respect to both poles (sociocentric view).

To be able to shift between both world views is a journey of growth. The practitioner is empowered to check from Felt Sense wether the egocentric or the sociocentric view is matching the situation they are in. Getting used to hold both world views the practitioner develops a wider spectrum of self-actualizing.

Taking Focusing and the arts as floor for building basic RE-skills has a lot of advantages. Focusing is a vehicle to connect to the inside allowing a bodily feeling to come as a handle depicting what feels true. The arts can offer a safe container for to process difficult feelings on a symbolic level. They allow to symbolise what cannot be made explicit in words.

Within the arts the practitioner can use canvas and paints to learn about general aspects of life that are dichotomous and seen as exclusive, such as: Inside-out, included-excluded, a part-the whole, top-bottom, calm-dynamic, dark-light, framed-unframed, chaotic-regulated etc. Those dichotomies of life can be represented through artistic forms, lines and colors.

Arts engagement allows to create linear forms (representing private or collective space and protective borderlines) that do not have to be rigid. Those lines can be blurred, exceeded or dissolved. They stand for 'opening up' (sociocentric view) instead of 'blocking off' (egocentric view). Creating and experimenting within the arts the practitioner can master what is difficult to handle in day to day situations.

Exploring dichotomies of life within a mindful embodied art practice has direct impact on the practitioner as person. It can change their understanding of the world. During art activities the body sense of the practitioner is actualised implicitly (Rappaport 2009, 2023), launching its own sense of organismic ethics (the ethics of the life forwarding movement).

Organismic ethics coming from the living body are interactive, positive and supportive. They can become a vibrant source for finding out about one's own socioethical orientation. Art making in itself is ethic-free and can generate a new kind of ethics.


A body sense being actualised makes the practitioner being part of a First Person Science (Gendlin, 2003). The moment their body is operating as an inner laboratory of evidence (that is: truth and validation felt from within), the practitioner gets access to meaning beyond cultural knowledge, cultural habits and cultural relating. This is important, as any ethical standard is culturally structure-bound and dependent on cultural or religious framing.

According to Gendlin any practice of First Person Science is stepping out of cultural frames and concepts. First Person Science is generating embodied meaning that implies more than any already known concept and scheme can reveal. Using the body as an inner laboratory of evidence, the practitioner steps into deconstructing and reconstructing their ideas of culturally bound ethics. They are enabled to rebind to a sense of human connectedness that is beyond already known framing.

The process of sorting out new ideas of how to be in the world from a standpoint of felt humaness is highly self-empowering. Feeling self-empowered is reducing fear and opening up to see other people be empowered too.



The journey of building Relational Empathy takes place in the context of the arts with reference to the body sense. This is what the term 'Creative Compassion' stands for. The practitioner makes their start within an safe framed setting, set up from Focusing attitude. They perceive and reproduce material from the Fine Arts, experience intermodal shifts and find new ways of self-expression through active art making.

The practitioner starts from a stand of indirect creativity that is more common to most of us (receptive arts engagement). From there the practitioner steps towards learning about empathy as a person doing arts, as a person relating to their inner artist and their inner self, and as a person relating to another artist.

How can the practitioner relate to another artist when doing Creative Compassion practice on their own?

When being involved in embodied arts engagment the practitioner is relating to the invisable artist who speaks through the Fine Arts picture of reference. Their message comes through even when the practitioner tries to shut off from it. Interaction between artwork and viewer (Art-View) and  artist-within-the-picture and viewer (Artist-Viewer) is intertwinded and an ongoing multilayered process.

It can happen that the practitioner likes the professional artpiece (or parts of it) and dislikes the artist behind the reference picture. Nevertheless without the artist the artpiece the practitioner feels attracted to would not exist. So wether the practitioner likes the artist or not, relating to someone within the reference picture is happening and part of the process.

In daily life the practitoner may feel uncomfortable relating to significant others, expecially when disliking them or disliking their attitudes, cultural habits or religious practices. In Creative Compassion practice the Inner Artist of the practitioner and their body sense are doing the relational work.

This is of high benefit especially when the personal background of the practitioner contains feelings of isolation, being expelled or bullied, or when the practitioner feels powerless and helpless. Going out into the world and encounter people who are challenging might then be too big a step to do.

Even practitioners with a more stabil personal background can profit from the practice. They might find out that it is okey to be adjunct to or to collaborate with people having opposite habits, moral standards or divergent ideas.

Being enabled to relate to someone else (responding to the artist-within-the-picture) is enlivening. It bridges the gap between the idea of ME HERE (in my atomic zone of perceiving the world) and YOU THERE/THE OTHER (in a world I am not part of or cannot reach out to).

The practice of Creative Compassion is implicitly training interactive skills even when being practiced on its own:

1. The practitioner steps into aesthetic encounter with another human and their artistic life story implictly (encounter with the creator of the reference picture and their historical, social, cultural and artistic framing).

2. Relating artistically, the practitioner is relating in other ways than they relate in daily life, plus they experience Focusing based relating. The crossing of these two different ways of relating is powerful and self-affirming.

3. The practitioner is contained within the field of Focusing and the arts. This field is trauma-informative in terms that the practitioner is revitalised by profound safety guaranteed by the fascilitator. Given a safe environment, curiosity to experiment and try out new things in small doses has the say in every human being. New ways of relating can emerge from this.

Relational Empathy reveals the Bigger Us. Within Creative Compassion practice the Bigger Us is: The art practitioner, their Inner Artist, the professional art piece of reference, the professional artist-within-the-picture and the Experiential Third (Blob, 2022) - what comes up unexpectedly as gift through artistic relating, artistic expression and embodied experiencing in the given situation.



Blob, F. (2022) Das Experienzielle Dritte: Focusing Konzepte für die Kunsttherapie. Abschlussarbeit Wissenschaftliche Weiterbildung Kunsttherapie (Diploma of Advanced Studies) Katholische Universtität Freiburg.

Gendlin, E. T. (2003): Beyond Postmodernism: From Concepts through Experience. In: Frie, R. (Ed.): Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, Routhledge, S. 100-115.

Fox, M. (1999): A Spirituality named Compassion. Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice, 1979/1990/1999, Inner Traditions.

Maureen o´Hara <>

Rappaport L. (2009): Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy. Acessing the Body's Wisdom and Creative Intelligence, Jessica Kingsley.

Rappaport, L. (2023): Focusing-Oriented Expressive Arts Therapy. In: Malchiodi, C. (ed), Handbook of Expressive Arts Therapy, pp.117-141, Guilford.


©Freda Blob

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