Are You a Desensitized Caregiver Who Lacks Empathy?

Do you find yourself desensitized to your patient's feelings and emotions while caregiving? Do you feel a lack of empathy for the suffering of others? Do you often ask yourself "What is wrong with me? Why don't I sympathize more for the sick? Am I abnormal or are there others in similar situations as mine that feel this way too?"

Truth  Coping  Humor  Emotional  Mind  Wanted  Deeper  Happy  Friendly  Introvert

The Truth

The truth is that this is an all too common symptom for those who often care for others on a regular basis. Why is this? What can we do about it? Should we do something about it? With my many years of experience in the medical field, I will try to answer these questions to the best of my ability.

First of all, let me say that I ask myself these questions more often than I'd like to admit. In fact, there are countless others working in healthcare that have found themselves wondering if they picked the right career path considering how they sometimes feel towards others. As someone who can relate, I am writing this article to not only attempt to help others get to the bottom of their emotions, but to understand mine as well.

A Coping Mechanism

Let's first address the obvious reason for this occurring which is the constant stimulus of the suffering of others. Whether you care for a loved one or work in a facility, you probably see others suffering on a weekly if not daily basis. This has caused you to become calloused over the years to the point of not letting it bother you as much as before.

In a way, this can be a positive trait. Your mind is coping with the idea of other's misfortune. It allows you to do what needs to be done without having a mental breakdown of your own. If we were to physically and emotionally feel everything that others are going through, we would be useless. Our hearts and minds would eat themselves alive to the point of destruction.

So what do we do instead? We allow ourselves to not let situations affect us on such a personal level. This in return sets us free from causing emotional harm to ourselves so we can be there when others need us. It allows us to be strong in order to bear the burdens of the weak. Some define this phenomenon as a coping mechanism of sorts that can easily turn into a more severe, self destructing mindset called compassion fatigue.

Dark Humor

I sometimes chuckle to myself at things that I would have never found humorous before working in the medical field. Some things are intentional funny while others are not. These are the moments where I question whether I am a selfish and uncaring individual who gets a kick out of the struggles and hardships of others. Is there something wrong with me?

Healthcare workers often call this dark humor. It is a way they cope with the harsh environment of pain and suffering constantly surrounding them. If you follow any of them on social media, you may see some posts that are questionably offensive, especially for those who aren't working in the field. I won't bother coming to a verdict as to whether there is anything wrong with this approach but I will say that there is a time and a place for such coping mechanisms.

In front of the patient or their family members is not the time to make light of a situation they find difficult or potentially devastating. However, there are times where you can make unfortunate circumstances more bearable with lighthearted humor but this can be a very slippery slope. Proceed with caution and when in doubt, it is probably best to keep quiet.

With that being said, there are countless opportunities to put humor into caregiving. If you see a chance to make your patient smile, or better still laugh, give it a try. It may be the boost they need to get through the day. There isn't anyone who doesn't enjoy a good laugh. Just be sure it is in good taste. As the old saying goes, laughter is the best medicine.

Getting Emotional

So there's the answer right? This solves the mystery of why we sometimes seem to lack feelings for others right? Well, yes and no. Although this may psychologically answer the question of why we are like this, it doesn't really cover all of the points I'm wanting to address.

There are many levels to these feelings and emotions, or lack thereof. Without even realizing it, we may get to a point where our mindset affects the care we give. When this happens, there lies the problem. To give the best care possible, we have to have empathy and care on an emotional level to a certain extent.

Am I saying we should cry every time we see a patient cry, or feel physical pain every time they are in physical agony? Absolutely not. Although it isn't necessarily wrong to cry with a patient or their family either. Just make sure you can pull yourself back together and not let your emotions keep you from getting things done or prevent you from caring for others.

Allowing yourself to be overwhelmed with grief can cripple you to the point of needing care yourself if you aren't careful. We have to be the strong one in these situations. But at the same time, we need to let these people know that we do in fact care. They want to feel important and wanted just as we would if we were in their situation.

Mind Affecting the Body

Like it or not, how we make our patients feel all too often correlates to how well they heal. Their state of mind can literally make or break them. It has been scientifically proven that our thoughts and emotions drastically affect our health. There have been many cases where people were severely ill with no hope in sight, only to pull through because they changed their thoughts into believing they could with the support of others around them.

I've heard many times that when the mind gives up on life, the body follows suit soon after. I've actually seen this in action with the chronically ill. When someone decides that they aren't going to continue fighting for survival, they often peacefully pass away. This is why loved ones often die alone after their family and friends have left the room. They know they can stop holding on to life for the sake of others.

In fact, I experienced this firsthand with my own grandfather. On his deathbed, he had lots of loving family around him. We were talking, praying, and even singing to him just to let him know we were there for him. We all knew what was inevitably going to happen but we made sure his last few hours were filled with love and support. It wasn't until that night when nobody was in the room with him that he drifted off to sleep forever.

The Need to Feel Wanted

If we make our patients feel like they are a burden to us or as if they don't matter, how does this affect their thoughts? They may feel as if striving to get better is not worth the pain and suffering required. They may ask themselves "Why should I care about myself if others don't?" and "Others are suffering because of me, am I even worth the hassle?" Such thoughts unfortunately lead to many suicides.

Needless to say, we should never cause others to feel this way. We should make them feel like they matter in this world. A human life should never be taken for granted. People simply want to be loved and understood. Too many patients feel all alone when the most important thing they need at that moment is to feel wanted.

You can't always count on the family to do this for the patient either. I've seen many of them be hateful towards each other. There's been plenty of times where I wasn't even sure why they decided to visit their sick relative. They certainly weren't trying to make them feel better. Regardless, it is the duty of everyone who cares for them to make them feel important.

If you search deep inside yourself, you'll find that this need is true for you too. In fact, many of us struggle for the majority of our life to make a difference. We want to feel like we are contributing to society or at the very least, providing for our families. For centuries humans have accomplished great feats because they wanted to be appreciated and remembered by others. It is human nature to find purpose and gratitude.

Going Deeper

So what can we do to make ourselves more empathetic? I'll skim over the tried and true methods we have all heard before such as "putting yourself in their shoes" or "treat them as if they were a member of your own family." In fact, I wouldn't want to be treated like some people treat their family members so that advice varies depending on the individual.

Instead, I want to go deeper. I want to understand why we have these feelings on a personal level. I then want to explore what we can do to change our feelings and in return, our actions. Should you even bother to change them? Most likely if you are still reading this article, you must to a certain degree believe these feelings are indeed something that needs to be addressed. I know for me personally there is always room for improvement.

Are You Happy?

The fact is, many of us are simply unhappy. Let's face it, caring for a loved one or working in the medical field is no easy task. The amount of stress we go through can feel unbearable at times. We are dealing with others when they are at their worst. Our patients are often depressed, hateful, or both. They take their frustration out on anyone and everyone around them often with no remorse of who they hurt.

This in turn can rub off on the individual trying to help. They in turn lash out to the patient, others around them, or even themselves often without even realizing it. I sometimes have to stop myself and bite my tongue when a patient takes their anger out on me. I have to remind myself that they aren't attacking me personally. They are just angry at life itself because of the situation they are in.

Although coming to this realization may seem easy enough, even still, it is often difficult to not let it get you down. Many caregivers enjoy what they do. All they want in life is to help others. Then they get all of their efforts thrown into their faces. This can be crushing to the point of feeling like giving up. All of this stress and heartache can lead to caregiver burnout.

I've found myself questioning whether I should be helping others at all. Why should I work so hard if they aren't even appreciative of my efforts? Am I just wasting my time? Then I remind myself that I am helping them even if they don't see it that way at that very moment. I am also helping everyone that cares about that individual. You can't go wrong trying to help those in need as long as you are truly giving it your all.

Be More Friendly

You may be thinking, "Well yeah, I know all of this but I still struggle even to get up in the morning because I dread being a caregiver. How can I overcome this? Is there any hope for me to turn my feelings around? Why should I even try anymore?" What if I told you that changing how you personally feel and how others see you may be easier than you think?

My advice is to just be more friendly. Treating others as if they are your friend can make all of the difference you could ever need. When you treat others better, you brighten up their day. And when others around you are in a better mood, it affects the way you feel too. Surrounding yourself with positive vibes makes you and everyone around you more caring.

Think about this, you care for your friends and you want what's best for them. You may not always agree and you may even get into conflicts from time to time but in the end, you still look out for each other and enjoy each other's company. A night out with good friends can make you temporarily forget all about your troubles and lift your spirits. Why not try to spread this same feeling to everyone you meet?

You can get mildly personal with your patients but not so personal that you make them feel uncomfortable but don't treat them as a number or an object either. Let them know from your attitude that you see them as a relatable human being. Simply asking them how they are doing or complementing their hair can often turn their initial cranky mood into a friendly encounter.

Even if they treat you poorly, you shouldn't give it right back to them. What will that solve? It just spreads the negativity and allows it to linger around. Instead, do the complete opposite of what they expect and give them positivity. I speak from experience when I say killing them with kindness will more often than not turn their entire attitude around or at the very least, keep you in a better frame of mind.

Even if you aren't in the mood to be friendly to anyone, much less an enraged stranger, doing so will brighten up your day too. Forcing yourself to smile and speak in a positive upbeat tone will often trick yourself into actually having positive emotions. It sounds crazy but if you try it, you may be surprised by how much better you feel on the inside and how much better you look to others on the outside.

I'm preaching to myself here too. I'm not perfect when it comes to being friendly to everyone especially when they are treating me like I'm the devil. But I have found that avoiding giving in to my instincts and not lashing out to others has saved a lot of unnecessary conflict in my life. You may not get that instant "satisfaction" of telling someone how you really feel, but you will instead keep the peace not just to others, but to yourself as well.

But I'm an Introvert

Some of you may be saying, "But I'm an introvert. I don't have the personality to be friendly." I was an introvert too and in many ways, I still am. But being a caregiver all of these years has forced me into becoming more extroverted and I'm so thankful it has. I'm still me on the inside, but I'm a more social and outgoing me. It can be done. I am living proof of that.

That's not to say that I don't have any room for improvement. I still often struggle to put on a happy face and to reach out to others. But I have found that when I do, it can change the entire atmosphere around me. Not only do I feel better myself, people around me get a bit of joy too. It's a win win for everyone.

One amazing book that I've read recently has helped me come out of my shell tremendously is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Although it was originally published all the way back in 1936, it still stands today as one of the best selling and most influential books of all time. I highly recommend reading it if you struggle in social situations or if you just want to better yourself as a person. Here it is on amazon.

What are your thoughts on how to be a more friendly caregiver? Do you have any tips of your own to be more empathetic? Are there any examples of how you turned yourself into a more caring person? How else can we revert our desensitized feelings without making ourselves too vulnerable? Let's have a discussion in the comments section down below.

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Shirley, J., & Carnegie, D. (1968). How to win friends and influence people. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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