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It's Called Empathy

Here is an old joke I heard first in my internship, and I'm getting ready to make a royal mess of it:

"Doctor, doctor!!", says the patient, "when I do this, it really hurts!!"

"Well, then, don't do THIS", instructs the doctor, before leaving the examination room.

The joke is as much about the doctor's crotchety bedside manner, as it is about the patient's hysterical lack of self-awareness. I have never been quite sure which was the original intention. A major assumption I have always held about this story is that the patient is furiously shaking his hand or bending some joint in an awkward manner. That just makes the situation a bit ridiculous. Why would someone complain about something that was so obviously self-inflicted? Ok, now I can giggle. I sure can sympathize with the doctor now. I sort of hope he doesn't have to deal with that sort of thing all day long.

Then I put the proverbial shoe on the other foot... What about the doctor's duty to help his patient? Why would the doctor be so cold and short with someone without really understanding the complaint fully? Just as much as the patient's condition seems ridiculous and self-inflicted, it is an equally difficult thing to grasp that perhaps we just don't understand and make this assumption out of selfish convenience rather than from an interest in learning truth. Perhaps we have to step out of ourselves a little to fully understand this fellow and his odd behavior. What seems so obvious about this patient's suffering might not be so.

I could speculate about how the back story actually goes and offer fifteen or twenty different twists and turns. It might actually turn out to be a decent story, but it would definitely be more interesting than a man complaining about a problem that doesn't even seem to exist. It just wouldn't be as funny. But sometimes in our lives and those of others we love, stories are quiet complex. I might even say, a truly detailed story is often very complex.

Maybe the story is very complex, and the portion we hear is only funny because we aren't exposed to a detail that helps us relate or even sympathize with the patient. Most readers probably don't feel for either of the characters. We just observe and laugh at the apparent ridiculousness...and probably the abrupt solution offered by the doctor.

I will add a little detail to the story here to change the flavor a bit. Note the change in the doctor's tone:

"Tell me more", says the doctor, intrigued with the complaint.

"Well...How much more specific can I be!? It hurts! It really hurts when I shake my arm like this [shaking arm again]!!"

Although he is no longer certain why, the doctor continues his careful inquiry, "I was hoping to learn when it began."

"It started after this massive blackout. I fell down, smacked my head, and ended up straining my arm. I haven't felt right since then, although I can only reproduce the feeling in my arm when I shake it like this...Trust me, Doc, it doesn't feel as it should."

"You blacked out? Were you alone?"

"Yeah. I'm not sure what happened, and frankly the whole week is sort of foggy before that. I woke up on the floor, sore all over, and I think I must have lay there all night. My daughter called and was worried sick."

"Sir, you have been through an ordeal. I really need to get to the bottom of this, but trust that we will take some time to figure it out", replies the doctor, alarmed.

I think I am painting a vague picture at least of something more serious in nature than the first scene, but also much more friendly and warm. The point I am making is that by persisting a little longer and trying to stay focused on a real understanding of the patient's experience, the doctor became much more helpful. When the patient's initial complaint didn't make sense, he was not dismissive. He dug deeper, which is a characteristically different approach to helping or understanding than most of us see every day.

I did not use this example to pick on medical professionals at all. I used it because everyone gives and receives help at different times. We all interact with other people, and many of us have busy schedules that test our patience. To complete the metaphor, we are sometimes doctor and sometimes patient.

I used this example to show that when others bring us problems, we have an option to be either dismissive or to exercise patience and concern for even the most frustrating issues.

I used this example because many of us need help from time to time. Sometimes we may look for help from people who are too often ready to give advice...Those who have lots of it always seem willing to give it. Or even some of our closest friends and family may dismiss our complaints as merely the result of our own stupidity. They may not intend to be insensitive, but they certainly aren't helping.

Whether we are the giver or receiver of help at any particular time, helping relationships can benefit from the practice of sensitivity and patience. it can heal, it can give hope, and give strength in trying times. It might not be easy, and we might have to forgive others, but in order to be the maker and not the breaker, it takes practice. It takes patience. It is called EMPATHY.

Brock Caffee, LCMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist, licensed in California and Kansas. He has over a decade of practice experience. He has a private practice in Lawrence, KS. At home he has three children, three dogs, and a very patient wife.


The views expressed in this blog are meant to help foster perspective, to entertain, and to be fun when possible. Any intent to regard the blog as counseling or therapy constitutes misuse. Advice offered in the blog should be considered only if consistent with your family values and with advice given by your own mental health professionals. Please seek consultation with a mental health professional in your area if you experience distress or feel you are in crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

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