The relationship between empathy and sympathy in good health care
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- Svenaeus, F. Med Health Care and Philos (2015) 18: 267. doi:10.1007/s11019-014-9601-x
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Whereas empathy is most often looked upon as a virtue and essential skill in contemporary health care, the relationship to sympathy is more complicated. Empathic approaches that lead to emotional arousal on the part of the health care professional and strong feelings for the individual patient run the risk of becoming unprofessional in nature and having the effect of so-called compassion fatigue or burnout. In this paper I want to show that approaches to empathy in health care that attempt to solve these problems by cutting empathy loose from sympathy—from empathic concern—are mistaken. Instead, I argue, a certain kind of sympathy, which I call professional concern, is a necessary ingredient in good health care. Feeling oneself into the experiences and situation of the patient cannot be pursued without caring for the patient in question if the empathy is going to be successful. Sympathy is not only a thing that empathy makes possible and more or less spontaneously provides a way for but is something that we find at work in connection to empathy itself. In the paper I try to show how empathy is a particular form of emotion in which I feel with, about, and for the other person in developing an interpretation of his predicament. The with and for aspects of the empathy process are typically infused by a sympathy for the person one is empathizing with. Sympathy can be modulated into other ways of feeling with and for the person in the empathy process, but these sympathy-replacement feelings nevertheless always display some form of motivating concern for the target. Such an understanding of empathy is of particular importance for health care and other professions dealing with suffering clients.