CLARIFYING CHARACTERISTICS OF EMPATHY AND COMPASSION
a 65-year-old patient with a European accent who is independent , feisty and stubborn . I got to meet his son for the first time at a recent office visit . The patient noted some vague GI symptoms ; his son elaborated to reveal additional important information . As I palpated the abdominal mass in his epigastric area and informed him of the need for further evaluation and management , I sensed he was trying to avoid thinking or talking about possible cancer . The son was very respectful and cooperative . He helped me navigate the conversation and plan forward with his father , with love and finesse . As I sent them both off to the hospital , I let them know I was close by and would be looking forward to opportunities to walk with them on whatever path was chosen . The biopsy results soon confirmed pancreatic cancer , and the patient and his son told me they wanted to fight this ugly disease . His treatment options were limited to chemotherapy . He wanted to fight because it ’ s in his blood , it ’ s what he does , it ’ s what he knows . I knew they really wanted me to be present with them during this difficult time in their lives and to fight alongside them . So , I advocated to move forward with the only option he had . I expressed this heartfelt desire to the oncologist who compassionately agreed to proceed with treatment . After his first visit with the oncologist , they came back in to report to me . I was grateful to spend another day fighting for them and with them . His skin was jaundiced , and he was rapidly declining and becoming weak . He asked for help with his lower extremity edema so I adjusted his diuretic , although I could tell this is not why he came to see me . As we stood next to him providing him reassurance that we were fully with him , amazingly , he had a content and peaceful look on his face . I wish I could say I had as much inner peace about his situation as I saw him expressing from deep within . It was very sad to know the patient would be leaving this world soon , but beautiful to see the peace that he found and was carrying with him .
Empathy is a hot topic in today ’ s world . It is being discussed around the globe . Empathy is being extensively reviewed , researched and debated . In 1873 , the German philosopher Robert
4 LOUISVILLE MEDICINE
Vischer , PhD , in his dissertation on aesthetics , first coined the term “ Einfuhlung ” ( pronounced EIN-fhoo-loong ) which means “ in feeling ” or “ feeling into .” Empathy came into our language in 1909 as a translation of the word “ Einfuhlung .” 1
A 1958 Journal of the American Medical Association article stated , “ The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another is known as sympathy . Empathy , on the other hand , not only is an identification of sorts but also connotes an awareness of one ’ s separateness from the observed . One of the most difficult tasks put upon man is reflective commitment to another ’ s problem while maintaining his own identity .” 2 Merriam-Webster ’ s definition of empathy is : “ the action of understanding , being aware of , being sensitive to , and vicariously experiencing the feelings , thoughts , and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings , thoughts , and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner .”
It is interesting that this definition clearly states there is action oriented within the context of vicarious experience but clarifies the action is not communicated in an objectively explicit manner . This is where compassion picks up .
Empathy is part of your personal and professional life and is a fundamental component of your social and emotional skills . Definitions are being crafted and reformulated regularly . Karla McLaren , M . Ed , the first self-proclaimed empath ( in the late 1970s ) and one of the world ’ s leading experts on empathy , says “ Empathy is a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions , circumstances , intentions , thoughts and needs of others , such that we can offer sensitive , perceptive and appropriate communication and support .” We all give and receive empathy in our everyday lives , but only some of us are empaths . Empaths are people who are aware and intent to notice emotions , nuances and intentions in situations .
In her book , The Art of Empathy , Karla McLaren professes six essential aspects of empathy :