There are quite a few definitions of empathy, but one definition that stands out to me states; ‘the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties’ (Microsoft Encarta Dictionary, 2010). The word empathy is also one that I featured in a variety of nursing essays while studying nursing full-time in recent years. One of my nursing textbooks provides an analysis of “empathy and sympathy” which is interesting. Hockenberry (2009) states that sympathy is viewed as ‘having feelings or emotions in common with another person, rather than understanding those feelings’, which can be less therapeutic, contributing to being emotionally involved, and increasing the risk of burning out.
If you ever get the chance to watch the movie “Good Will Hunting” staring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams just to name a few, do so because it provides an example of empathy and sympathy being acted out. A quick analysis of the movie is that the counsellor played by Robin Williams could reach out to the troubled Will Hunting played by Matt Damon as the counsellor had lived with and experienced some of the troubled issues that Will was dealing with. The following link provides a movie review of “Good Will Hunting” written by Roger Ebert which will help you to grasp an idea of what happened during the movie http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/good-will-hunting-1997. That being said watching the movie is far more better in gaining the feel of what is being played out.
To delve a little deeper into what empathy is can be seen from research by the late Carl Rogers who was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology. Carl Rogers view was that ‘incongruence makes people feel threatened by realistic feedback about themselves from others’ (Weiten, (2013). I can relate an example of this to when I was nursing in a dementia ward as I would have dementia residents confiding in me saying they feel unstable to what they used to be and worried they won’t be accepted by anyone. If I responded by saying “well you have dementia and with that condition your life will be slowly going downhill from now on” would be stating a fact, but displaying no empathy at all. It is quite possible that negative response by me would have agitated them more and not helping them to overcome their concerns.
My response use to be “well your family all know you are here because they care for you, plus you have all these caring staff around here now to assist you and help you out in whatever you need”. This was backed up by reminding them that their family saw them during the afternoon and will be visiting them again tomorrow. Most times that made them feel at ease and more comfortable in their dementia environment. This approach backs up Carl Rogers research in that the health professional should provide accurate empathy towards their client (Weiten, (2013). Boogaerts, & Merritt, (2011) show in their research that when nurses engage with their patients it will enhance the therapeutic relationship promoting a more positive healing outcome allowing the patient or client more control in their own healthcare.
In conclusion it is important for nurses and health professionals to remind themselves of how their actions can play an important role in the recovery process of their patients, or clients. The ability to understand the benefits of applying “empathy” in their daily relationship with their patients or clients will enable them to develop a stronger rapport which will benefit both of them. Hospitals and health facilities can be stressful environments for patients and clients to which empathy can be the vital communication link to ensure positive potential healing is achieved by the health professional.
Boogaerts, M., & Merritt, A., (2011) Psychosocial care, In Chang, E.,& Johnson, A., Chronic Illness & Disability: Principles for nursing practice, p. 59. Elsevier Australia, Chatswood, NSW, 2067.
Ebert, R., (1997). Good Will Hunting; Review. Retrieved from Robert Ebert.Com website; http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/good-will-hunting-1997
Hockenberry, M., & Wilson, D.,(2009). Communication and Physical Assessment of the Child. Wong’s; Essentials of Pediatric Nursing, (8th ed), p. 101. Mosby Elsevier, St Louis, Missouri.
Microsoft Encarta Dictionary [UK], (2010). Empathy. Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Weiten, W., (2013). Treatment of psychological causes. Psychology: Themes and Variations, (9th ed), p.655. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, www.cengage.com/global. USA