If you’re sick, you need people to empathize with you, right? Maybe not.
Empathy is one of those words with a wide variety of definitions, especially in academic settings.
From Wikipedia: “Empathy … cover[s] a broad spectrum, ranging from feeling a concern for other people that creates a desire to help them, experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other.”
When I was first diagnosed, I needed my husband to understand everything I was going through — physically and emotionally. His sympathizing with my sadness and discomforts helped him respond to me in useful ways.
But it quickly became clear that we both needed him to tone down the empathy. If my pain made him wince, I felt worse. So, too, if my feeling sad made him feel sad.
He needed to know what was happening with me, so I told him: “I’ve had a rough day,” or “My leg pain is acting up.” But I needed him to know without feeling terrible himself.
Obviously, empathy can’t be turned off like a light switch. I couldn’t ask him to feel perfectly fine on days I was struggling.
So I helped him by letting him know I was leaning on good friends. And by making time for him to go out and let go of empathy, he could recharge his own batteries.
Healthy Survivors, make sure empathy is helping them get good care and live as fully as possible.
Wendy S. Harpham is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Dr. Wendy Harpham on Health Survivorship.
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