On Empathy

It was a rainy and gloomy day, but a day I was so excited about: my first day as a clinical trainee. Here I am, among colleagues with a similar mission (so I hoped): alleviating the pain of those suffering.

The distressed lady sat there with eyes gazing in disbelief at an awkward situation she found herself in. A dozen other pair of eyes scanning her; waiting in silence until she pours out what she had burning inside. Medical students, other clinical trainees, one main interviewer located next to her, and an expert therapist heading the closed meeting.

Assuring her of utmost confidentiality, the main interviewer proceeded in trying to find what was behind the insomnia the lady was struggling with. Gently he probed in dissecting the circumstances she was facing and inquiring about any piece of information that could unravel the main causes of her discomfort.

With great unease, the lady spoke. In a tone smothered by humiliation she shared her most personal fears, problems, experiences, & most embarrassing life incidents. She tried hard to stay focused on communicating her message while late comers arrived to the meeting. Repeatedly another medical student would squeak open the door; thus, breaking the silence of her attempts to collect her dim thoughts from everywhere.

One observation struck me. One of the medical students came in late with a rather wide smile on his face. I thought he had a cheerful character, or he was merely trying to greet everyone, or even maybe attempting to apologize for his lateness. I expected that smile to gradually fade. To my surprise, it stayed there, as he started exploring the faces around him. I assumed he was keeping track of what that lady was saying. I was so wrong. He couldn’t have been listening; probably hearing voices, but not listening. I was so sure he wasn’t because that smile persisted. I refrained myself from frowning at him several times. I wished I could yell at him to STOP! Show some EMPATHY! Are you mentally there???? I’m happy that you’re so joyful, but can you PLEASE postpone showing that? How about having the heart to show some concern to the lady’s distress?!!

I noticed myself trying to exaggerate my empathetic facial expression, and even shaking my head in disapproval of her sad circumstances as she kept talking about her misery. I was trying to counteract that smile in any appropriate means possible.

The interview came to an end after a series of questions from the audience. That smile would always compete and win over a very brief enforced grim. As everybody started leaving, I wanted to do something, draw his attention, remind him that empathy is one tool he lacks for successful therapy; but he left before I could take action. Did I stop there? No, I expressed my concerns to the main interviewer & hoped the latter liaises my message to “smiley face”. I bet he will hate me for the rest of my life, but I just couldn’t be inactive.

What does it take to show some empathy? Veeeery little effort. How would it feel to you if you were put in the others’ shoes? You can’t undo that past, so what would you do now if you were that person, and held all that person’s values? Just reflecting the same concerns, in many instances, would constitute 50% of therapy. A fact many would miss….

Update: I ran across “Smiley face” two times before my second session; and in both times he had that smile on his face. This made me realize that, indeed, he just had a cheerful character. At the beginning of my second session, I saw his colleagues (among which was the main interviewer I talked to earlier); and asked whether my message was delivered. Their reply was “yes”, but time didn’t allow further discussion.

Again, “Smiley face” came in wearing that wide smile, and the session started. He sat next to where I was, and I expected to smell some hatred or negativity towards me, but I didn’t. Towards the end of the session, I opened up again and shared my genuine concern regarding his attitude towards those distressed patients. I just wanted to assure that I was not criticizing. Amazingly, he kept smiling. I reasoned that in such a profession, empathy wanes gradually as therapists become sensitized while encountering an increasingly greater number of distressed cases.

What did I conclude then? I warned myself not to lose sight of the uniqueness of each suffering case. I also predicted that life just cannot beat “Smiley face”. He simply cannot help his overwhelming positive attitude. But would he succeed as a psychiatrist? I doubt he would ever choose to end up along that path. As a physician, he’d be brilliant at any other specialty requiring great guts. One that cannot breed intimidation no matter how high the risks were….

Categories: Therapy
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: