The other night I sat down and thought over the difficult day I had at work. I am a nurse practitioner in an internal medicine office. That day, I only saw a handful of patients, each one with a problem that I could not fix with a pat on the back, a word of encouragement, or a prescription for the magic drug. All I could do was to let each patient know that I will work with them to come up with a diagnosis and plan of care. I also assured them that that I will be with them throughout the process. I have been in each of those patients’ shoes, not knowing my diagnosis and feeling scared. I have an abundant amount of empathy and at times I feel it is a curse and not a blessing.
Empathy is the ability to step into the shoe of someone else and understand and share in those same feelings. This is different from sympathy which means to feel bad or pity someone’s misfortune. Why do some people lack empathy while others have a wealth of it? I do not know the answer but I believe most people are born with the capacity for empathy which further develops by nurturing and life experiences. I also believe empathy can be learned. For example, when a child is hurt, sad, or scared and having someone to comfort them helps that child learn to comfort others in distress. Discussing with children when someone is being victimized or discussing how that person must feel also helps cultivate this important trait in facilitating a successful personal and professional life.
Maybe I was born with a gigantic capacity for empathy but I also know my life experiences only furthered its development. When I was young I was made fun of because I had red hair and I wore glasses at a young age–kids can be so mean. When I see/hear bullying I still get a pit in my stomach. I worked in my father’s podiatry office when I was growing up, I loved helping people and knew that medicine was my calling.
Being a health care provider and seeing so much in my career further fostered my empathy, however, having my own health issues and enduring the frustration of medicine as a patient was probably most significant influence to me. When I see my patients looking scared and feeling alone…I understand those feelings, I have been there, and I just want to help. I wish I had the magic wand, I wish I could “fix” it but I am not always able to. What I can do is let them know they are not alone and that I understand. While it may not cure them, it does offer comfort.
I stated earlier that sometimes I am cursed by having too much empathy. Yes, there are times I wish I could not “feel” so much, however, this is who I am and I would not change it. Sometimes it takes a toll on my mental health but then I remind myself that I am blessed to have empathy. I am not perfect, I do not always have the answers, but I able to understand the feelings of others which makes me a better mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and provider. While some of my life experiences have been difficult, I would never trade them because they have made me who I am today, and I am okay with that.
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