Empathetic Healing

When chronic pain enters the picture, everyone is affected. Few places is this more true than with the role of a caretaker. A caretaker can feel someone else’s pain on an emotional level in ways equal to similar to the physical pain. But a caretaker also has at his or her disposal the amazing healing power of empathy.

Knowing the difference between the two and finding ways to deliver empathy can provide transformative benefits to a person with chronic pain.

Empathy and sympathy can be comparable in handling a person’s emotional state but there are key differences in the methods and outcomes in taking care of the person in need. Sympathy works to alleviate problems and involves an outside perspective on a person’s emotional state. Using sympathy to help a chronic pain patient can prove to be unsuccessful because it aims to fix an issue, and chronic pain cannot be easily fixed with words alone. Being sympathetic – making an excuse for a person’s pain like, “At least you can walk” – does not allow for actual emotional connection but rather tries to create a quick fix for a complex problem.

In contrast, empathy fuels emotional connection. Empathy requires one to release all judgments, acknowledge the feelings of the other person and completely understands what they are going through as if you are going through it yourself. Instead of providing conversational solutions, empathy creates paths that bridge mutual understanding. In my experiences, this is often the missing link of healing, a missing link that’s desperately needed in treating people with chronic pain.

Chronic pain is a widely misunderstood condition and is under constant questioning by the media, doctors, prescription providers, and sometimes loved ones. Between one-third and three-quarters of people with chronic pain also struggle with depression, caused by the isolating nature of the disease and a general lack of understanding from participants in a person with chronic pain’s life.

Management of chronic pain may require medication and alternative therapies to make a patient feel physically better, but relationships built on empathy are what sustains the resiliences of people with pain . Empathy from family members, friends and other loved ones reminds a patient that they are heard, listened to and that someone shares and understands their pain. They realize they are not alone and that can make all the difference.

The battle with chronic pain may continue for years or never cease at all, but having a support system of people who believe you  makes the burden of chronic pain, a little easier to carry.

This post was adapted from my forthcoming book, “The Painful Truth,” which will be available in September 2015.

Leave a Comment