Nurses range of emotions when caring for patients

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One of the most important tools needed to manage those emotions is empathy.

In this Q&A, we explain how empathy and developing self-compassion have impacted nurses’ career.

Q: Is it easy for healthcare providers to confuse empathy and sympathy?

A: It is, especially in the moment, but I don’t think most do this intentionally. Our typical reaction is to keep some emotional distance because it takes time and investment to truly step into empathy with someone. In a practical sense, we may be very rushed and need to get to the next patient. We simply don’t have the time to go there, so it’s easier to default to feeling bad for someone rather than with them.

Q: What makes empathy so powerful?

A: It’s powerful because it builds connection. People feel heard, supported, cared for and validated when someone is taking the time to truly walk through the steps of empathy with them.

Rarely, if ever, will the perfect words fix the painful situation in which our patients find themselves. We can’t take away the emotional pain with the perfect words, and to think that something we’d say will fix it is … well, unrealistic.

Rather than focus on fixing or making patients and their loved ones feel better, shifting that focus to just feeling with them can be significantly more meaningful.

This includes stopping to take in their unique perspective of the situation, genuinely suspending judgment, attempting to understand another’s feelings and then communicating that understanding. Our patients and their loved ones truly feel cared for when we stop trying to say the perfect thing and embrace simply being there and ensuring people feel heard, understood and validated.

Nurses are there for some of the most challenging days in an individual’s life, and we have a unique ability to provide this powerful support frequently. The caveat is that while it can be rewarding to be able to provide this authentic support to others, it can be difficult to continue to do so without taking specific, intentional steps to care for our own emotional well-being.

Q: Is compassion the same as empathy?

A: No, it is not. I like to explain the major difference like this: sympathy is feeling bad for someone, empathy is feel bad with someone, and compassion is the next step of feeling with someone by taking part in alleviating their suffering.

Only when we’ve been authentically empathetic do we know what compassionate act will best serve the individual. So while empathy can be provided while compassion is being practiced, they are not one in the same.

Q: What resources would you recommend to nurses who want to understand empathy?

A: One of my favorite resources for empathy is Dr. Brene Brown. She has published quite a bit of research and authored many books on the subject. She is able to combine the science of the research with the art of caring, which is something nurses can relate to and appreciate.

Q: What is self-compassion, and why is it important for nurses to practice it?

A: Self-compassion differs greatly from being compassionate for others. It is much more than being kind to ourselves, which is the assumption many make. It essentially consists of three elements:

  1. Being kind to ourselves rather than being overly judgmental.
  2. Recognizing that our challenges/experiences make us part of common humanity rather than isolate us from one another.
  3. Approaching negative emotions in a mindful and balanced way rather than over-identifying with them.

Nurses who practice authentic empathy are at much higher risk for burnout and compassion fatigue, which is not a surprise. However, nurses who practice self-compassion are much less likely to burn out and suffer from compassion fatigue.

It’s a very interesting concept and shown to be somewhat of a protective measure for those of us whose every day at work entails experiencing the trauma of others.

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