The Multi-Faceted Experience of Empathy in Intellectual Disability Settings: An IPA Study

Prof Doc Thesis

Renton, Ben 2016. The Multi-Faceted Experience of Empathy in Intellectual Disability Settings: An IPA Study. Prof Doc Thesis University of East London Psychology
AuthorsRenton, Ben
TypeProf Doc Thesis

This research thesis explored the concept of empathy. The specific purpose was to further understand the idea of empathy in relation to the experience of male support workers who provide residential care to adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) and challenging behaviour. The thesis aimed to provide some insights into how support workers develop and extract meaning from their experiences of relationships with clients and the impact of this on their own self-care, namely, self-compassion. Since personal accounts of experience were required, a qualitative methodology was employed, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smith, 2004). This methodology was selected as it allows for the exploration and interpretation of idiographic lived experience and meaning making. 8 experienced support workers were interviewed using a semi structured interview. Four superordinate themes emerged from the data. These included: 1. Making sense of the others inner world; 2. Processes that enhance empathic practice; 3. Tensions and conflicts, and 4. Management of distressing feelings. Differing accounts of interpreting the needs of clients were identified which helped participants understand, make sense of their interpersonal experience and participate in their role. These included utilising academic knowledge and senses, particularly sight and hearing, which were seemingly complemented by a level of reflective practice. Additionally, to make sense of the experience of a client, they appeared to put themselves in their position, suggesting a form of empathy. Participants appeared to engage in a process of reflection on their relationships with clients, which helped them think about what they had learned about the person’s needs, moreover, this process enabled them to identify some of their own responses and feelings. However, participants seemed to struggle to recognise the occurrence or impact of distressing emotional experience and to express their feelings, possibly in response to a deep sense of responsibility and fear of transferring emotional distress to others. This dilemma of holding two potentially conflicting views of experience seemed to inhibit self-compassion. Although not specifically testing theories of empathy, from the overall findings, it could be suggested that empathy may be a dynamic, transient process that is influenced by reflexivity, values and context. The context in which participants

discussed their practice, and situated within their accounts, suggested a sense of confusion and uncertainty. Consequently, it is suggested this impacted on how participants understood and related to clients, and to themselves. There were some specific implications for Counselling Psychology practice, mostly concerning training and supervision. These included recommendations for staff training and supervision, systemic organisational intervention, policy development, recommendations for revisions to models of specialist care frameworks and clinical training.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Publication dates
PrintJul 2016
Publication process dates
Deposited19 Oct 2016
Publisher's version
Permalink -

Download files

  • 283
    total views
  • 329
    total downloads
  • 0
    views this month
  • 0
    downloads this month

Export as