Preserving Your Superpower

The Empathetic Nurse

Empathy. Noun. Definition: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.

Empathy is best described as a superpower that can alleviate suffering, fear, frustration, and anxiety. It can spark hope amid utter despair and reignite a will to live in those struggling to find their own. It is also a complex trait that is difficult to teach. I think we can all agree that our patients benefit immensely from having an empathetic Healthcare Provider (HCP), but what toll might this be taking on us?

Brene Brown on Empathy:

Many of us caregivers became such because we are innately empathetic; we are hard-wired to feel deeply with those around us. We grieve with our hurting patients, celebrate with our victorious ones, and attempt to spur on those who have lost their drive. Caring deeply can make us exceptional caregivers, it can also lead to what is commonly referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’. This can include mental fatigue, burnout, impaired judgement, and strained relationships. Though, compassion fatigue doesn’t only affect HCPs; many of us have experienced an emotionally draining relationship. Perhaps this friend, relative, or client, simply asked for more than you could give.

HCPs, however, face a unique challenge: having to explain to one family that their son’s room on the palliative care unit is ready for him and then moving to the next room to discharge a father home with his family. It can be an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. It’s exhausting and, though we know the impact our compassion has on people, sometimes our empathy well runs dry. Though in some cases, this empathetic response is something we simply cannot turn off. We continue to expend emotional energy that we cannot spare which can result in fatigue and despondency.

Not only does Brown’s ladder analogy provide a remarkable visual representation, but perhaps it also illustrates empathy as a gradient. Maybe we don’t need to climb right into the dark pit to practice empathy. We can empathize with our patients enough to alleviate some of their darkness without plunging ourselves completely into it. I am suggesting that we climb down the empathy ladder; one rung at a time, to a depth we are confident we can emerge from. Maybe that’s three rungs, maybe it’s five, maybe it’s one rung from the bottom. Ultimately, we need to decide for ourselves how much expended empathy is too much for us to recover from.
Establishing this is an aspect of self-care. Pinot and bath bombs are fantastic but setting boundaries for yourself to ensure you’re not spending more emotional currency than you have in the bank is vital.

This is not to discourage you from empathizing deeply with others because, as we’re all very aware, this is an important trait of a great HCP. In fact, this is quite the opposite. This is to remind you that you need to keep your pitcher full so you can continue topping up others’ cups. Sometimes this means showing compassion from an arms length away. We need to preserve our
superpower so we can lead long, compassionate careers and continue to instill hope in the people who need it. It is perfectly acceptable to empathize with boundaries in place.

So, for those of us that need to hear this: you don’t need to step off the ladder.


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