Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Resisting Emotional Over involvement

Tibor R. Machan

Among the innumerable missteps professionals can take, getting emotionally over involved with their clients is one of the major ones. Yet there is no consensus about this. In fact in some professions, such as medicine, it is often argued that professionals need greater emotional involvement with their patients who, in turn, often praise doctors and nurses who have “good bedside manners,” something that suggests serious empathy and fellow feeling for patients.

Even as a college teacher I have at times heard the call for greater personal involvement in my students’ lives. Instead of merely considering their work, it is argued that who they are, where they come from, their families, hobbies and such need to be attended to in order to serve them properly. And there is something to this. After all, students, like patients and clients of other professionals, are human beings with a wide breath of experiences and influences upon their lives, including their work. To encourage them, to understand why they are doing this or that way with their assignments, to have a sense of just what may be expected of them—all these could benefit from a teacher’s greater involvement. And so could the well being of patients gain something from medical professionals who are closely attuned to them.

However, there is an obstacle that stands in the way of such greater involvement by professionals in their clients’ lives. No, it isn’t the problem of losing their objectivity when they have feelings about them, although that is a possibility. The more important problem is with the professional’s emotional capacity.

Doctors, teachers, attorneys, plumbers, car mechanics and all other professionals who deal with clients simply could not become emotionally close to all of their clients. Indeed, most of us find it difficult if not impossible to have more than a few really close friends who may freely count on our attention to their lives. This is actually a major problem with utopian politics, especially the kind forged by communist thinkers, since they envision a society in which we are all intimately related to one another. Their so called humanitarianism is actually a misconceived transference of personal intimacies into the social and political realm. By their vision, everyone will be emotionally involved with everyone else, in that communal fashion that has been the dream of the likes of Rousseau and maybe many hippies.

What’s wrong with this is that friends are demanding creatures so that friendship simply cannot be spread out to great numbers. Just think of this simple thought experiment: if you have more than a dozen really close friends, how could you take part in their joys and sorrows, since they would all have these all the time and you simply couldn’t be a part of it all. Putting it a bit crudely, one would need to pay heed to all these people’s significant events—births, funerals, weddings, promotions, bankruptcies, and divorces—all at once. One’s emotional reservoir would always be depleted, one would be exhausted and in the end able to maintain only the most superficial relationships, ones that do not demand serious emotional involvements.

If doctors took the general malady as distinct from the illness of every one of their patients’ to heart, what about their own family and friends with whom they have a primary connection? Sometimes this issue arises in very practical, concrete terms, as when professionals become estranged from their intimates. No dinners, no breakfasts, no quality personal time because they spread themselves too thin. And this can begin to impinge upon their professional preparedness, in the end, so that what started out to be a gesture of good will toward clients slowly turns into incompetence.

Of course, different people have different capacities for involvement in the lives of others and often those others wish for just a bit of extra attention rather than constant coddling. So generalizations here, as in many other areas, are risky. Still, there is wisdom in the idea of the division of labor—even if it’s the division of the labor of love.

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