Do You Need an Empathectomy?

Do You Need an Empathectomy?

Just two months after Hugh’s crash, I was helping him get ready to go for a walk with his friend, Kevin. Kevin is one of Hugh’s best friends and he also happens to be a physical therapist. He saw me putting on Hugh’s sneakers and asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m putting on his sneakers,” I said. “He can’t do it because he’s not flexible and it makes him dizzy to look down.”

“Of course he can do it,” Kevin said. He showed Hugh how to put his foot on a chair to put his sneaker on. This relieved the pressure on his hamstring and Hugh did not get dizzy because he was looking across rather than down.

I sat there stunned. Later, Kevin told me I should let Hugh do more things for himself rather than stepping in all the time to help. “He’s a tough guy!” he assured me.

On another occasion, while I was telling a friend about how sad I was that Hugh could not do the things he wanted, she said, “You need an empathectomy!” There’s no such word, but there is now! She was right. I was lucky enough to have friends who spoke the truth to me and encouraged me to find ways to help Hugh become independent. I needed to cut out some of this empathy. It was tearing me apart and not helping him. I was wallowing in Hugh’s misery when he needed me to be steady. Before Hugh could feel confident trying new things, he had to hear me say, “You can do this,” rather than, “You can’t do that. I’ll do it for you.”

How do you know if you need an empathectomy?

  1. Do you feel your loved one’s exhaustion, heaviness, and weight of his injury?
  2. Do you step in and take over because you can’t bear to see your loved one struggle with simple activities?
  3. Do you feel your loved one’s pain and sense of loss like it’s happening to you?

Empathy is the ability to understand another’s feelings so deeply that you “walk in that person’s shoes.” It is a wonderful quality that helps people connect through compassion. But too much empathy doesn’t help in a caregiving situation when it affects the care you give. Too much empathy can cause a caregiver to wallow in self-pity while perpetuating a victim mindset, and it could even spill over into commiseration punctuated by a silent message to the person with the TBI that says: I can’t do anything. I won’t improve. I’ll never get better.

A caregiver who is reasonably empathetic, but who follows a more therapeutic approach will wait as long as it takes for a loved one to master each small step while offering verbal encouragement, compensatory strategies, and tips for success. This kind of coaching usually results in both parties feeling a sense of connection and accomplishment, and these small successes, over time, will boost each person’s emotional sense of well-being.

There’s another reason that over-empathizing can get sticky. As caregivers, we may want to fix everything for the one we love, but that may be impossible. If we submerse ourselves too deeply into our loved one’s world, we may be in danger of losing our own independence, our own individuality, and eventually, ourselves. To best care for the ones we love, we must find our own solid center from which to give and receive in healthy ways.

Comments (5)

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Absolutely! 'Helping' the patient do daily tasks translates to them that they aren't/can't/won't do anything correctly. They must trust themselves even if the caregiver doesn't. If you don't practise you will never get better.
Rosemary, Our paths are so similar. Do you think you will do any book tours in the Northwest anytime soon?
I literally feel some close family members pain. I have felt chest pains when my Dad has had heart attacks, excrutiating pain in my foot at the same time my brother broke his. Almost called 911 one day I had such pain in my stomach. It went away abruptly. A half hour later I got the call my brother had died. I REALLY feel their pain or sorrow.
Thank you for these comments. I don't have plans for a book tour as of now, but in the new year, after the launch of the hardcover version of Learning by Accident, I will probably be touring more...I do, however, travel to give talks when organizations request me, so that is a possibility in the future. Thank you for your kind words.
i work with people who are BI survivors and their families how to deal with a ever changing world. I demonstrate dignity and respect as a two-way street when relating to a BI survivor. Everyone wants it so they might value to give dignity and respect to feel a part of the family unit. This example of allowing people to fail but also to learn how to be independent is rewarding. In my own case my neurosurgeon told me to use my right hand all that i can hopefully the function would return, praise God it has.