What is accurate empathy? It’s two components…
Carl Rogers and Bill Miller describe accurate empathy as “an active interest in, and effort to understand the other’s internal perspective, to see the world through her or his eyes and the conviction it is worthwhile to do so”.
As a dietitian, I understand the concept and though I don’t always understand the person’s perspective, I do have a deep conviction that I want to understand and in fact, it is worthwhile to do so. Last year I found myself in a situation where I could have used some empathy. I know that not all of us naturally possess that quality, but at the very least, each provider should have a kernel of conviction it is “worthwhile” to try to understand the others perspective. Here is my personal story when I was the recipient of a “non-empathic” response and the impact it had on me.
I’d just hung up the phone and never felt so tossed aside. What began as just a small bilateral growth on my neck that I dismissed as “nothing unusual” had turned into one of the most terrifying times in my life. Now I found myself in the unenviable position of waiting for biopsy results. You see, the status of waiting is literally to have your life on hold, either I was in store for the fight of my life or the most profound letting go and acceptance of my own mortality. I was moving toward death as a reality and how would I say goodbye to the love of my life and my treasure jewel.. my only child. I felt so angry, but at what, who? Angry at the first specialist I saw who told me assuredly that “it was nothing” or angry at the second ENT specialist who ordered a C.T. scan and found “something, like lymphomatic process” and ordered a biopsy.
I waited for the biopsy result for over 9 days, each day looking at my own medical record so I’d be the first to know anything. But each time I opened the EMR, nothing, nothing was there, as if this electronic tool was saying “F*** you, wait a little longer!” My frustration turned to anger, anger to sadness, sadness to helplessness. Now I was going to call my doctor and ask him if he’d knew.
With all the bravery I could muster, I paged him. It was late on a Friday afternoon, when he answered. He didn’t even remember my name, as I identified myself. “oh yes, I remember” he said unconvincingly and then asked me to call him back after 5 minutes so he could get change clothes from surgery.
We eventually connected and he pulled up the results : “ they aren’t in the computer” he said with the same level of detachment he’d have when ordering a sandwich. I of course already knew that. “It’s been 9 days” I responded almost apologetically for my impatience. Silence….. I thought I might bring him into my world to at least communicate my desperation, “Surely, you must know how difficult this is” I said.
“Well, these things take time” he said. As if reading from a script. The “ f**er” I thought, using a line like.. “these things take time!”.
I pushed it further without explanation, simply wanting him to know, to know me, “Surely you must know how difficult this is you and know how this feels” I said, almost pleading with him.
All, I got was silence. Then, “these things take time” I could have sworn I heard him chewing on something, like he couldn’t wait to eat dinner, while I suffered with all of my own feelings.
Oh, how desperate for a morsel of “ACCURATE empathy”.
I’d given up that he had an ability to understand my internal frame of reference, but he even lacked the conviction it was worthwhile to do so.
The words I wanted to hear were simply “No, I don’t know, can you tell me?” It wouldn’t have taken more than 2 minutes of his time, but simply the invitation the interest, the conviction it was worthwhile, …healing words to get me through the weekend. My lifeline, narrowed down to a phone call with an unfeeling dweeb, I hung the phone up and cried, not for me, but for him.
I vowed if I came out alive on the other side, I’d share this with whoever wanted to listen, and if possible, provide this as a backdrop, a real-life illustration for my dietetic intern students. That woman, desperately seeking accurate empathy was me. What will you do with this story?
Written by Mary Lou, who is a Registered Dietitian