The Nurse Becoming Podcast 

#017 The Empathy Gap: What it Means to be a Healer

Over the course of my time working in emergency medicine, I noticed something was off — but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. In the midst of the chaos of the emergency room, the shock the patient has undergone, the trauma being incurred as the family sits, distraught, in the waiting room, waiting for answers, emergency responders are stoic, unexcitable, focused on the execution of the task and the flow of the phases of care. 

And that’s the goal, right? To be calm under pressure, to hold it all together even in the middle of a moment of disaster — that’s the goal, isn’t it? Maintaining the revolving door of care is the ideal, but when you find yourself face-to-face with the spouse of a patient in critical condition, remaining totally emotionless just isn’t realistic. It doesn’t demonstrate the kind of care for people that we as caring professionals should show. 

Part of this is a detachment, a dissociation between healthcare providers and the humans we treat, that is often referred to as the empathy gap. A term coined by Carnegie Mellon University psychologist George Lowenstein, his concept, hot-cold empathy, describes how emotions — or lack thereof — often bias perception. 

Lowenstein’s concept serves as a helpful reminder of the humanity of our patients. We need to be in that space with patients, regardless of how many times we’ve seen that complaint. The hot cold empathy gap makes it difficult to understand their lived experience, but showing that we understand them in that moment is, in my opinion, just as powerful as whatever western medicine we facilitate. Being seen, understood, and being given permission to take up space with our feelings is healing.

In this episode, I also talk about perfectionism as the kiss of death for those working in healthcare, authentic versus perceived vulnerability, and the value gap that is often present within organizations. 

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