The Empathy Exams: A Micro-Review

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empathy-examsIn that first essay of her recent book, The Empathy Exams: Essays, Leslie Jamison describes her work as a medical actor, helping to train medical students how to diagnose maladies while also relating to their “patients” in empathetic ways. Who knew there was such a career? Jamison tells the story of what these actors do, and how they do it, very engagingly.

What impressed me most, however, was the manner in which she analyzed the subject of empathy, especially from the perspective of one who is paid to watch for it, and to respond to it, in others. She writes:

“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?”

She weaves in her own personal story as a woman who required heart surgery after just having had an abortion. She tells of experiencing a certain empathy from her surgeon as she faced the procedure, but she also experienced something else from him: assurance.

“Empathy is a kind of care but it is not the only kind of care, and it’s not always enough. I want to think that’s what Dr. G was thinking. I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not it’s echo.”

Not it’s echo—a telling realization, no?

For those of us who strive to be empathetic, and even make a living doing it, Jamison’s words are worth remembering. There will be times when empathy will not be enough. Then what else will be useful? What else will we be prepared to offer?

Jamison reports on a study that found a high correlation between four personality traits in people who are naturally empathetic: sensitivity, nonconformity, even-temperedness, and social self-confidence. She writes that the last characteristic, which she initially found surprising, “gives a person the courage to enter the interpersonal world and practice empathetic skills,” quoting from that 1983 study. There is a sense, therefore, in which empathy, as much as an act of sensitivity, is an act of boldness.

The author notes that empathy is not something that simply happens to us. “It’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” We do this for a reason, and for ourselves as well as for the other person. As she eloquently puts it, “I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better selves.”

In the end Jamison wants the world to know about the vital power of empathy, and also to make clear that it takes real effort to do this important work. And it’s worth every exertion. That’s true for everyone, not just physicians.

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