Empathy, shame and medical professionals

Last week I went to the second of 3 interdisciplinary workshops on Shame and Medicine. The first workshop was on patients’ shame, and this was on shame and healthcare professionals. In particular, it helped me think about some of the things that are making life so difficult for health professionals at present.

Shame isn’t usually experienced as shame – it is an emotional response including fear, anxiety, and a powerful urge to escape. Shame may be lived as a state of loneliness, or addiction or felt as numbness and chronic pain. It is often so profoundly physical – that people who suffer shame bewilder healthcare professionals and others with symptoms they cannot explain. These feelings can be there all the time, in the case of chronic shame, or arise acutely when something happens that threatens to set off emotions associated with past trauma. Past trauma may be abandonment, loss or abuse in early childhood, belittling or a sense of being unwanted. The trauma embeds the conviction that at some very deep and unalterable level, the person affected is to blame for what has happened. And it is the strength of this conviction, and the strength of the associated emotions that determines the degree of shame, rather than the trauma itself. This is why shame often appears to be disproportionate. This disproportionality can lead to people being ashamed of shame, asking, “but what do I have to be ashamed about?”

To experience shame is practically universal, to recognise it for what it is, is far less common. I wasn’t abused, abandoned or belittled, but I’ve experienced shame. I didn’t understand what it was until I was well into my 40s.

The shame response is triggered by a sensitivity to emotions. Sensitivity to emotions is called ’emotional empathy’ – almost everyone has it, but to different degrees. Some people have a lot more, or a lot less, than others. This sensitivity has many underlying causes. It begins before birth in our genes and in early childhood in the years before we can recall memories, as the video below shows. Having our emotional needs unmet by our parents and carers is a classic example of trauma.

As a parent of two young boys, I have come to realise that it is impossible to respond to all my children’s emotional needs. My ability to respond depends as much on my state of mind as the strength of their needs. If I am exhausted or distracted, angry or reminded of my own weaknesses by their behaviour, it is especially difficult. I’m aware of my autistic traits which can make me slow to recognise what’s going on emotionally. Parents whose own emotional needs are not being met, who are overwhelmed with their own difficulties, struggle especially to meet their children’s emotional needs. The guilt and shame of being a ‘not-good-enough’ parent makes matters worse. Now I’m worrying, especially as the older one is ‘painfully’ shy around other children, I wonder how much I have already traumatised him.

Emotional empathy is a mirroring of emotions – we feel our children’s joy or sadness, anger or anxiety, before we respond. We may respond instinctively by reflecting back joy with joy, or anger with anger. This mirroring of emotions, feeling what others feel, has been shown to occur in a specific part of the brain containing mirror neurons. If the emotions remind us at a subconscious level of similar emotions associated with past trauma, we feel them especially strongly, even before we have had a chance to think about where they come from.

Our sensitivity to emotional empathy is heightened by stress, stigma, humiliation and demoralisation, making our emotional world more intense. In highly-stressed settings emotions run high. In stressful healthcare environments, people who suffer most are those who are most sensitive to trauma. We feel panic and a desire to hide or escape or simply disappear or even cease to exist. When this happens repeatedly we try to protect ourselves by avoiding situations that threaten to trigger emotional empathy: professionals avoid patients who are mentally unwell or dying, relatives who are upset or colleagues who are stressed. We absorb ourselves in the technical aspects of care and retreat behind guidelines rather than engage in messy, uncertain processes of human interaction and shared decision making. This is why we say that, ‘shame drives disconnection’, not only from patients and colleagues, but also from our own emotions. We become afraid of how we feel. If it becomes intolerable, we may cut ourselves off from our emotions with addictive behaviour – whether its alcohol, drugs, eating, exercising or working – we bury ourselves in the addiction and live in fear that if we give it up, we won’t be able to cope with how we feel. The toxic effects of stress are why austerity so undermines compassionate, empathic care.

Another way of understanding the intensity of affective empathy comes comparing shame and pain. In the video below, Lorimer Morlely explains how two identical pain sensations – a light scratch on his ankle, are interpreted completely differently in the light of prior experiences, leading to one scratch being incomparably more painful than the other. Emotions are like pain – the intensity depends on which prior emotions are triggered.

Healthcare is emotional labour. It is never simply an objective clinician-scientist treating diseases with technology, but all care that involves people communicating with one another, is psychodynamic, emotional labour.

Defences against emotional intensity, empathy and shame can operate at institutional as well as individual levels. In 1959, Isabel Menzies Lyth showed how an NHS hospital, faced with a nursing service in which nurses and trainees were overwhelmed with anxiety and stress, developed social defences against anxiety. Having noticed that students and junior nurses were becoming emotionally involved with patients, nursing managers broke up their work into technical tasks and required them to run every decision past their seniors. The result was that everybody – students, juniors, seniors and managers became more anxious. Lyth’s lesson, emphasised repeatedly in the literature on anxiety and shame, is that defences against emotional engagement are counterproductive. Satisfying healthcare is emotionally engaging. Emotionally disengaged healthcare is demoralising and dehumanising for patients and staff.

Emotional labour is hard work, but defences against emotions are harder and more damaging in the long run. We need to be constantly vigilant for situations that threaten to trigger emotions. The hypervigilance makes us tense, suspicious, anxious, tired but unable to sleep. You avoid social situations and become isolated and lonely.

What can we do?

Making sense of emotional empathy requires cognitive empathy, which may also be called ’emotional intelligence’. It is necessary to make sense of the emotional world of others and oneself. It is less innate and more amenable to educational and psychotherapeutic interventions. In my experience of teaching doctors and medical students, cognitive empathy varies enormously, some people have a huge amount and some have very little. It is difficult for people with autistic traits and may be difficult for people with a lot of shame because of the knowledge that making sense of emotions means revisiting past trauma.

People who choose to become healthcare professionals often say that they want to help people. We rarely ever ask them where that desire comes from. We could ask, but dare not, “What formative experiences led you to believe that you would be good at caring?” “What experiences did you have, of caring for others or yourself?” “Did a lack of affection lead you to discover that some of your own emotional needs could be met by focussing attention on others?” “Did your familiarity with and proven ability to survive trauma make you think you had something to offer others?”

I have met many medical students and trainees who have a lot of trauma in their past. Some of them, whose wounds are far from healed, burn out very quickly. In traditional cultures, you couldn’t become a healer until you had to undergone rituals and ceremonies that included deliberate poisoning or wounding. Healers had to know what it was to suffer. In a modern medical education, we also inflict suffering – stress, humiliation and shame but with none of the conscious intent of a traditional healer’s training. Medical education is not simply blind to empathy, trauma and shame, but is deeply ingrained with defences against them and there are cultural hostilities against reflection.

The doctors and students that I have met who have the greatest affective and cognitive empathy are those who are aware of their wounds and have been able to spend time coming to terms with them, with, or without support.
Healthcare is not just about clinician-scientists applying technology to treat disease. It is also people caring for people, it is emotional labour. We need to nurture affective empathy and take down our counterproductive defences. We need to teach cognitive empathy, not as a course to satisfy a minority interest, but as an integrated part of clinical medicine, by asking emotionally intelligent questions about the experiences of care and caregiving. We need wounded healers and we need to care for our wounded healers – we need emotionally intelligent medical education and we need to put intelligent kindness at the heart of healthcare.

Interdisciplinary project on shame and medicine: Shame and Medicine Project

The case for intelligent kindness

Related blog posts:

Shame and redemption

Anxiety and the medical profession

Empathy and Shame

Doctors and empathy

The wounded healers

The emotional labour of care

Resilience and medical professionals



Other reading:

I’m presently reading, and very much affected by Daniella Sieff’s book, Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma. More here: http://www.danielasieff.com/

2 responses to “Empathy, shame and medical professionals

  1. Reblogged this on My World, Your World, One World and commented:
    Every sentence worth reading, e.g. “Shame may be lived as a state of loneliness, or addiction or felt as numbness and chronic pain.”Two very good videos, make sense of the ways we function.

  2. Reblogged this on aspiedoc and commented:
    This resonates so much with me. I have something else I need to do but will definitely revisit this and some of the links!

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