When Therapists Misjudge Their Clients’ Emotions

Therapists are, of course, human, and one of the things about being human is that we sometimes misread other people’s emotions.

Psychologists refer to the ability to know what other people are feeling as empathic accuracy. Having high empathic accuracy is useful in many everyday situations, and it’s especially useful for therapists as they help people process emotions.

A new study suggests, though, that even therapists have certain biases when it comes to assessing how other people feel.

According to the research, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, therapists tend to overestimate the extent to which their clients are feeling negative emotions and underestimate the extent to which their clients are feeling positive emotions. The good news here, therapists, is that your clients might not all be struggling as much emotionally as you think!

The study found that, to some extent, clients’ emotions tended to mirror those of their therapists – that is, when therapists reported feeling good, their clients reported feeling good as well. Even in this case, though, therapists tended to overestimate how closely their clients’ emotions tracked their own.

As you might expect, it threw a wrench into the therapeutic process when psychotherapists misjudged their clients’ emotions. The researchers found that when therapists had a less accurate read on what their clients were feeling, their clients’ symptoms were higher in the following session.

Researchers have found at least a couple different factors involved in predicting therapists’ empathic accuracy. For example, one recent study found that therapists who were more flexible about reassessing their empathic judgments had more accurate judgments overall. The same study found that therapists had a harder time getting a read on clients who had wider, less stable ranges of emotions.

It’s not unexpected, really, to find that psychotherapists are only human. Therapists don’t have to be perfect to be helpful. The results certainly don’t give us a reason to all go out and fire our therapists. They do, however, suggest that being aware of these empathic biases might improve training for therapists and that therapists who are flexible in their approach might end up with a better feel for their clients’ emotions.