Empathy and Sympathy in Nursing: Do the Boundaries Ever Get Blurred?

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Nursing students must learn the difference between empathy and sympathy; it’s part of the fundamentals of nursing. Empathy is when we can relate to what people feel without getting emotionally affected. As humans, we are capable of feeling sympathy

We can’t help but to be sympathetic with our patients and their families.  When someone dies, it’s hard not to get emotionally affected by it, especially when you took care of him or her over a long period of time. I worked in a nursing home a number of years; those residents became like family to many of the nurses. In fact, the nursing staff was sometimes the only family the residents ever saw.

Some of the residents only had visitors on Easter and Christmas, and the rest of the year they only had the staff to relate to. It was hard not to cry over the loss when a nursing home resident passed away. It was hard not to cry when a child with cancer died on the medical floor. It was hard not to cry when a young teen was killed in a tragic car wreck and brought into the ER dead on arrival. It’s hard not to cry, but you have to do your best to do your job without getting emotionally involved.

An empathetic person understands how another person feels; they may not have experience with what another person experiences, but they use their imagination, if they must to understand what another feels. A sympathetic person may feel sorry for another person or feel pity toward a person or family.

It’s important that nurses don’t show pity, but show understanding. Sometimes the boundaries between feeling sympathy and empathy get blurred. You can’t really help it. You are human. Sometimes you will cry with a family when their loved one dies; that’s all part of being human.

However, it is important to comfort the family and be an effective nurse. At some point you will need to put those feelings to the back of your mind and go take care of your other patients. It’s not good nursing practice to render care while grieving and crying. In other words, reacting in sympathy can undermine your ability to function as a nurse.

You may feel sympathy for the family of an alcoholic patient who repeatedly comes to the hospital with the same diagnosis. You may not approve of the alcoholic’s way of life, and you may not approve of the obvious hardships he or she puts on his or her spouse and family.

You may feel sympathy for one and distaste for the other, but you can’t show it. It’s important that as nurse we don’t pass judgment on our patients and their family members. It is important to be empathetic, even if we haven’t experienced what the patient or family experiences. It’s important to care without getting personally involved with feelings of pity. Sometimes the boundaries of empathy and sympathy do get a little blurred, but we must maintain our objectivity in nursing. Yes, we are human and we have feelings like everyone else; however, if we lose our objectivity we lose our ability to properly serve our patients.



Experience in nursing


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