When Empathy Turns Harmful
HealthJanuary 06, 2018

When empathy turns harmful

Empathetic nurses connect with patients in a uniquely valuable way and often provide higher quality care because of it. But there's  another side to empathy.

The ability to understand, even share, the feelings of another person can elevate a nurse from an adequate caregiver to an outstanding one. By truly grasping a patient’s situation — and the pain, anxiety, and frustration that inevitably accompany a hospitalization — empathetic nurses connect with patients in a uniquely valuable way and often provide higher quality, more compassionate care because of it.

But there’s another side to empathy.

Nurses and other caregivers who are naturally empathetic (which, for many, is the reason they entered the profession in the first place) run the risk of experiencing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can hit out of the blue and render a person physically and emotionally drained. And, ironically, people experiencing compassion fatigue become less able to empathize.

Other signs of compassion fatigue can include dreading taking care of others but also feeling guilty about it, irritability, anxiety, depersonalization, insomnia, and a diminished sense of career fulfillment, according to an article on the GoodTherapy.org website. All of the above works against the nurse-patient relationship, setting up the nurse for a bevy of professional, legal, and ethical problems, and sticking patients with substandard, potentially dangerous, care.

How can empathetic nurses protect themselves from the quality that makes them so special under normal circumstances? Nurses can guard against compassion fatigue by understanding their risk for it and taking steps to prevent it.

GoodTherapy.org recommends several strategies.

Establish emotional boundaries

Empathetic nurses need to consciously separate themselves from a patient’s pain while still maintaining a caring relationship. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

“Setting emotional boundaries helps maintain a connection while still remembering and honoring the fact that you are a separate person with your own needs,” the article states.

Take time for self care

Establishing emotional boundaries is easier when a person is well rested and well fed. Balanced, healthy meals set the stage for a sound mind and body. Regular exercise and an appropriate work-leisure balance also contribute to better mood and perspective.

Paying attention to personal emotional needs is also essential to self-care.

“Practicing self-care can be a critical method of protecting yourself against compassion fatigue,” GoodTherapy.org explains. “It is not uncommon for those who are constantly concerned with the needs of others to wind up neglecting their own.”

Hobbies and friends

Making time for hobbies and friends outside of work can feed personal joy while providing a healthy separation from the workplace. It can also lower stress.

“Overworking is often at the heart of compassion fatigue and its first cousin: vicarious trauma,” said New York-based holistic psychotherapist Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, in the article.

When it’s difficult to get work off the mind, nurses can ease the situation by picking up a pen and taking a few minutes to write down their thoughts in a personal journal. Journaling frees emotions while feeding self-awareness. It’s a rewarding, healthy habit that can allow empathetic nurses to release the feelings they find building up inside them.

What are your tried and true strategies for preventing compassion fatigue?

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