Struggling to Find the Empathy I Once Had

Charlene Marshall avatar

by Charlene Marshall |

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Rediscovering my empathy

younger than 30
This is difficult for me to write.

Since being diagnosed with IPF (Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis), I sometimes struggle to find empathy when others are sick with common ailments such as a cold, sore throat, headache, etc. I really dislike this about myself. In fact, writing about this in an open forum is already bringing tears to my eyes. I am aware of this new struggle, and I am making it a New Year’s resolution to try harder to rediscover the empathy and compassion for which I was once known.

Why is my chronic illness, fatal disease, disability (choose what you wish to call it) more important than someone else’s issues? It’s not. It’s just different.

It hasn’t always been this way for me; I have worked in various social service/therapeutic environments where one of my job descriptions included being empathetic and compassionate for others’ problems and issues. I still am more than capable of doing this in my professional role. However, where my lack of empathy for others’ common sicknesses comes in, is in my personal life.

As you read this, please try to remember that this lack of empathy is in response only to common sicknesses, not bigger problems/needs/concerns. For example, when someone tells me they take excessive amounts of Tylenol in a day due to minor headaches, or that they have had a sore throat for under 24 hours and need to go to the doctor, or that their cold is making them feel exhausted, it is all I can do not to lash out and say all of the thoughts that are inside my head.

I’ll spare you the details of those thoughts, because I am not proud of them. I don’t like that I am feeling this way, and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the question(s): Why am I suddenly like this? And how can I counter these feelings?

As mentioned, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to try harder to counter these feelings. I think subconsciously my newly found lack of empathy actually comes a bit from being envious of people who do not have a life-threatening illness. But it is not their fault they don’t and I do. Subsequently, I think the best way to counter these feelings of being angry when people complain about their common aliments is to try harder to just embrace the fact that I have IPF and get more creative when it comes to modifying and/or finding a good balance for all the things I want to still be able to do. Feeling as if I am missing out, or unable to do something, because of my disease has been the hardest part of this diagnosis. So, the new year seems a perfect time to pursue these new goals.

I talked to a close friend about how I really dislike that I feel this way toward others when they tell me they feel unwell. Her most important advice was: At least I am aware of the fact that I feel this way. Being aware, and not liking how I feel, gives me the power to start working to change and finding more empathy and understanding. After all, those common illnesses aren’t any less important, or any less of a pain in the butt to deal with. Regardless of what is making you feel unwell, being sick, in pain or uncomfortable, just sucks.

Have you experienced the feelings I described, especially after being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness such as pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension or cystic fibrosis (to name only a few)? If so, I’d love to hear your strategies in countering these feelings to ensure your relationships with others stay strong and meaningful. Thanks in advance for your responses.

Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.


Lorraine Martel avatar

Lorraine Martel

Thanks for sharing. I too have IPF and find it very frustrating when someone tells me how sick they feel with a cold, a headache, or some other ailment that will get better. It's not that their illness is less but they minimize mine. I am not looking for sympathy but rather understanding. When I tell someone I have to plan things later in the day because lots of mornings I spend coughing and just don't have the energy to get dressed until later and then they drop by in the early morning it is frustrating. They also say they know how I feel because they have had a cold for a week, it's like no you don't know how I feel, I have had the persistent cough for over two years. It is good to know that others who have serious illnesses also feel the lack of empathy. Makes me feel like I am not alone so Thanks.

Kim Fredrickson avatar

Kim Fredrickson

Charlene and Lorriane thanks so much for sharing what is like to have less empathy than you used to. I often notice feeling this way too. I try to be kind to myself about my reaction because honestly, it is really understandable. Our perspective is different, and it should be. When others share such minor complaints, not only does it remind me of how much I wish their complaint was all I had to deal with, but I also feel more alone in what I'm going through.

I try to be compassionate with myself and say, "yes I'm not feeling very empathetic with Susie because she's had a cold for two weeks. Part of me feels bad about this, but the other part knows that I have a reason to feel this way. A two week cold is vastly different from dealing with a terminal lung disease, hauling around oxygen every day. I think I'll feel a little bad for Susie and a lot bad for me."

Somehow that helps me.

carroll avatar


Thanks for sharing as i was thinking that there had to be something wrong with me. I am trying to change how i feel and it does not always help.
I think that being told you have a terminal condition is hard to come to terms with. i was told i had maybe two years, that was 21 months ago. Ive decided that i would prove them wrong.
With all of this i became very angry with things and like you someone complaining that they had a cold. I use to think "How dare you complain". I found in time that eases and the positivity returns and the caring.
Stay positive and strong.

Carol avatar


Thank you all for bringing this subject forward and sharing your feelings. I also have IFP, along with Lung Cancer, stage 3B. I, unfortunately, feel the same way toward others who complain about short term illness. I say unfortunately because it bothers me that I should feel this way. It is reassuring, however, to know that I am not alone in feeling this way.

Michael Billimore avatar

Michael Billimore

After reading the comments of the above I don't feel so bad. I am 77 year old male I had a life enjoying my children and grandchildren growing up until 3 years ago. Now the sadness kicks in as I can no longer enjoy their fun, I have to make do with all the memories. I am on 24/7 oxygen and as one of the Ladies said its no fun. but I try to stay positive for those around me. I am very lucky I have an extremely caring wife who gives me the support I need with out the sympathy and I find it works. We need to understand stand that we are no different we just have IPF its just another illness like many others. The people who have it ask why me but it dose not matter we are all strong enough. I wish all my fellow suffers a happy New Year and as much good health they can enjoy.

Tim Bossie avatar

Tim Bossie

Thank you Michael for your encouraging words and inspirational story. We, with you, hope that many who suffer with IPF are able to continue to stay strong and endure through the year while making memories with their loves ones. Give your wife an extra long hug and thank her for her love and care.

Sheri Chronister avatar

Sheri Chronister

Thank you for sharing your stories, I was diagnosed with IPF in 2014 after 4 months in the hospital and all kinds of test. I have done pulmonary rehab, which really didn't help me alot. I take prednisone daily, that is has kept me stable.( but made me gain weight) I was diagnosed when I was 47 years old. I was a preschool teacher, but couldn't breath good enough to keep up my job, so I am now disabled and stay at home. I do have a wonderful husband and family that supports me. but its hard not to get depressed because I can't go shopping on my own, I can't even walk through wal-mart, I use a scooter ,and get looks like I am just too lazy to walk. I am stable right now, and hope to learn more about IPF and how others cope with it.

Tami avatar


Sheri, I appreciate your response and agree with your sentiments. I'm so sorry that this hideous disease struck you at such a young age.
I'm 64 and was diagnosed in November (2016) with IPF , am on O2 24/7, & take Prednisone and Esbriet. I'm also on an antidepressant.
I feel so alone in my feelings as Charlene write about. And I'm sick of people saying that "they know how I feel and that tomorrow you'll feel better". I want to scream at them. I know that is so wrong and so horrible of me and I HATE that about me.
I hear many with IPF say that they are still working and going places and not letting this disease stop them.... but it makes me feel like I must be doing something wrong, or I'm not exercising enough (I'm embarrassed to say that walking 10 yards completely tires me out), or that I'm not working at it hard enough. I just feel ALONE.
When my Dr told me that I had IPF that is all he said along with he was signing me up for Esbriet and he would see me back in his office in January. I left his office thinking " well, that's good... I now know what I have, I can take the medicine and get well". I know that I must sound like I'm dumber than a fence post, but I didn't really know anything substantial about PF.... I knew that it involved my lungs and that's about it. THEN, I got home and ... watch out... got on the internet. I rotated between extreme sadness, confusion, and being terribly angry. I go back to the dr this week and would appreciate your knowledge and your suggestions on what questions I should ask.
Thank you all.

Linda Timmerman avatar

Linda Timmerman

I just wish people who know what I have would stay away when they are sick. It like they don't care what they carry it me .

Judi avatar


Hi everyone, I live in Western Australia and have lived with lung disease for twelve months . Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings as it makes me feel less alone.
I maintain that to voice a problem is to give it less power so Charlene thanks for posting your thoughts.
I also have Hashimoto's, Lupus and Sjogrens plus Osteoporosis with fractures and struggle at times to feel empathy for my friends and family who moan about their tiredness after 'burning the candle at both ends'.
Something I try to remember each morning is to practice thankfulness for what I do have. I have a loving husband and adult children and four grandchildren who teach me to live in the present moment.
I really empathize with you Charlene as at your age, life should be carefree and full of joy. Good luck with your visit to Australia. I hope you find friendliness and have fun.


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