Why Empathy Is More Helpful Than Sympathy for My Patients

Sirosh Masuood, MD


June 29, 2022

Growing up, I never felt comforted when someone expressed their sympathy to me when I was in a difficult situation. And I have never been good at expressing sympathy for others. When we feel sympathy for someone, we feel pity or sorrow for their situation. But we don't understand what it is like to be them. It was only through working with patients that I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy, and how important empathy is to being a good doctor.

In my psychiatry training, we needed at least one therapy patient with whom we had to work for at least 2 years. I started working with my therapy patient in my third year of residency and continued working with him until  I finished my training. He was a married man with a successful career and young kids but was struggling with the early years of marriage and parenthood. As we were taught at that time, I did not share any personal information with him. I was trained to emotionally detach from my patients so my personal situation wouldn't interfere with treatment, and also to prevent any countertransference that could develop during our interactions.

The patient used to bring up his childcare issues and tell me how it was putting a strain on his marriage. He would often add, "Doctor, you wouldn't understand; you're not in my situation." I never corrected him. I never told him that I was a mother of a 4-year-old child myself, and that my life with the kid and training was also pretty difficult.

It was the month of October when my patient lost his father. He traveled back to his native country and returned after a few months. He was devastated with the loss. I continued to work with him until January of the following year when I was going on maternity leave. I informed him of my leave. He took it well. As it turned out, I had to go on my leave a week early as my father passed away.

When I returned after 6 weeks, my patient was still struggling with grief. This time he made a comment about how I would never understand what it means to lose a father. I started to feel conflicted as I was dealing with my own grief, but of course he had no knowledge of it.

I discussed the situation with my psychotherapy supervisor. I told him that I was having a difficult time with the patient due to my own sorrow. He suggested that if disclosing information about personal loss would help the patient and progress of therapy, then I should not hesitate.

I anxiously waited for our next session and spent the whole week preparing to disclose my father's death. I feared I would begin to cry and I did not want to do so in front of the patient. I rehearsed my lines several times before the appointment.

During the session he again mentioned how he was feeling about his loss and made the same remark about me being unable to understand his situation. At that moment, I told him that I had also lost my father. I shared that I am also a mother and a wife, and had a lot of similar challenges.

It has been more than 10 years since we had that therapy session. I still remember that my patient could not look into my eyes. He had become tearful. The room had become silent.

That day, I was at peace because my patient saw me as a human just like him. I also learned the true meaning of empathy. My therapy sessions became more productive. My patient felt more connected with me, as he knew I could relate to his feelings. I could walk in his shoes. 

I left my training hospital for a year of fellowship in another hospital and returned as an attending in the same outpatient practice. I had a new caseload. One of my residents was taking care of that patient of mine. The patient saw me and asked the resident if he could switch care to me. His request gave me a sense of satisfaction that after 2 years of work with him I did make a difference in his life. 

My father’s death made me connect with the patients in a very different way. Having tough conversations with families of sick parents has become my strength. I recognize the struggles those families go through when they have a new diagnosis for their parent, or when there is a discussion about end-of-life decisions. I am glad that I can help those families by practicing empathy.

Empathy is a learnable skill, which one develops by practicing repeatedly. It helped me become a better doctor, a better person.

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About Dr Sirosh Masuood
Dr Masuood is a board-certified psychiatrist. She completed her general psychiatry training at Mount Sinai/Icahn School of Medicine in New York where she was chief resident. She pursued fellowship training in consultation and liaison (C&L) psychiatry at Long Island Jewish/North Shore Hospital in New York. She has vast experience in outpatient practice and C&L psychiatry. She has worked at Shady Grove Medical Center, Adventist Health Care, where she established the C&L service and served as medical director. Currently she is a partner in a private practice, Excel Psychiatric Consultation, in Germantown, Maryland, where she offers medication management and TMS. Dr Masuood has a special interest in physician well-being and offers psychotherapy and coaching to physicians.

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