I recently heard a Ted Talk by Dr. Brene Brown who talked about the importance of vulnerability. In one of her talks she touched on the subject of empathy which, of course, spurred my interest. After all, empathy is a key element of a good patient experience.
I can’t quote her directly, but the essence of her message is this; there can be no empathy without vulnerability. You have to be vulnerable to step into the emotion. This is profound. You must be vulnerable to be empathetic. In other words you take a personal, emotional risk by being empathetic. You risk feeling something that could be uncomfortable or even painful. Thinking about this, I have to wonder why people take the risk when they could avoid the pain. It’s hard to engage in empathy when the pain is raw and real. I think the answer is twofold. There is fulfillment as well as selflessness. People who can demonstrate empathy gain something in return. They gain the gift of a human connection and fulfillment.
Early in my nursing career, I had the great fortune to work with a nurse who was not only clinically competent but was a master at engaging patients and families on a deep and meaningful level. One day as we worked together I listened as she talked with a family who was dealing with a shocking and grim diagnosis. I was in awe of her ability to connect and help them to open up. She was the poster child for empathy and compassion.
Later I asked her how she could bear having conversations like that. I wanted to know how she kept it from eating at her. She told me that there were times she felt their pain deeply and that pain didn’t always end when she punched out. “But,” she went on to explain. “I’ve learned that my life is richer for having these experiences. It is an honor when people let me in and share their joys and pain. They honor me by allowing me in. Yes, I’m supporting them, but I feel they have given me a gift.”
So there’s the connection. You can’t have empathy without some degree of vulnerability. But when you step into that emotion the rewards outweigh the risk.