Is it even possible to find a more complex and misunderstood word? A word that bridges the gap between human experience, reactive emotion, compassionate thought and altruistic connection.
The idea of empathy was first described in the 1880’s by a German psychologist Theodore Lipps, who coined the term “einfuhlung” (literally, “in-feeling/touch”). For me, this definition of empathy best encompasses the full meaning of the word in neutral context: The process of appreciating and understanding a person’s subjective experience while maintaining some degree of professional or personal distance.
As a physiotherapist or health care provider, having empathy is to be concerned with a much higher order of human relationship and understanding of your patients. For me, empathy has been a crucial and required altruistic communication skill as I am faced on a daily basis with overwhelmed and anxious new moms with their newborns, and scared, devastated and at times unrealistic expecting parents of babies and kids with special needs or medical respiratory problems. Our patients expect a lot from us and trust us with their vulnerability. We have to be careful of becoming too emotionally involved or invested in our patients’ lives and human experiences, as you can loose your professional objectivity and blur the patient-therapist boundaries. It can also lead to emotional burn-out by making you feel like you are responsible for your patients’ happiness and solving all their problems. I am of opinion that maintaining a healthy, altruistic but professional relationship with all your patients is key. By being honest with sensitivity and compassion, listening and observing with all your senses and just taking the extra time to let your patients or their families speak or ask questions, really help to build a trusting patient-therapist relationship and human connection without sacrificing your professional objectivity. Having mild empathy enhances every facet of holistic management and patient outcomes.
In this fast-paced world driven by quantity rather than quality, it often happens that we forget the importance of human compassion and understanding. We have all heard or know of health care professionals with “poor bedside manners”. They often speak using medical jargon, talk down to patients or their loved ones, don’t make eye contact, rush through each consult or therapy session, brush off or interrupt patients asking questions, raising their concerns or discussing aspects of their lives. Many health care professionals consciously choose not to interact with their patients on an emotional level, as they don’t see the point or are unsure of how to deal with it as vulnerability means uncertainty and they only want to focus on objectivity and what they can control. There is a fine line between empathy with professional distance, and sympathy with personal involvement. I believe as human beings and more important as health care professionals, we have the ability and responsibility to expand our perceptions, lean into the discomfort of vulnerability and spend a little more time focusing on others in need by treating them with common decency and respect. Remember, you cannot treat others with compassion if you are not kind to yourself first.
Now the controversy… Can empathy be taught? Some may argue that empathetic engagement in patient care or society can be taught… Some believe that it can be enhanced by various emotional intellect and communication skills training programmes and experiences. Others are of the opinion that empathy comes from altruistic human nature, that it is an inherent emotional communication skill that elicits compassion and sensitivity, as all humans long for connection… But it is still a choice, to engage or not to engage…. Where do you stand?
I’ll leave you with Alanis Morissette:
“…Thank you for seeing me, I feel so less lonely.
Thank you for getting me. I’m healed by your empathy…”