Helpers Helping Helpers: Empathy

October 03, 2018


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It’s been a while since the last time I posted! I’m excited to explore the next characteristic of Helpers in this post. In case you’re just joining us in this process, the point of this series is to raise awareness and ultimately gain an understanding of what comprises a “Helper” in order to nurture them. This series works to honor the helper by taking the time to not only see them but celebrate them as well!

Now let’s continue discussing the characteristics that Helping professionals appear to have (you can find a full list in past blogs). The third characteristic listed is “Perceived Empathy” and it’s one worthy of its own blog post. It focuses on the Helper’s ability to feel and understand the way their clients and others are feeling. The term “perception” is used here to acknowledge that is hard to determine whether someone is being empathetic or using simple deduction that removes them from their client’s experiences (a subject that raises questions that will not be discussed here).

According to Webster Dictionary, sympathy is “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune…”. While empathy is defined as the “action of understanding, being aware of….and vicariously experiencing the feelings…and experience of another… without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. This description of empathy is one of the best I have come across because it captures the intuitive nature of this quality and recognizes that someone being empathetic can feel what another does.

If Empathy is a common characteristic of those in the helping professions then this implies a sharing of negative or positive feelings between practitioner and patient. This idea could assist us in exploring the struggles that many helpers report having with maintaining healthy boundaries.

Empathy is indeed a great tool for a practitioner who needs to navigate their patient’s emotions in order to be of assistance. However, it can also be a weakness in that it can threaten the quality of life of the helper. The possibility of “feeling too much” and being unable to bring your emotions back to equilibrium are all too real issues for most Helpers.

People with this gift are sometimes called “Emotional Empaths” or “Empaths”. Let’s take some time to discuss and educate ourselves about what exactly empathy looks like and the characteristics of a self identified “Empath”. My research on this subject lead me to different sources including psychiatrist, and NY Times bestselling author.Dr.Judith Orloff’s who has written about empthatic ability in the Psychology Today’s article “Secrets for Sensitive People: Why Emotional Empaths Stay Lonely”. Some of the themes that stood out in her work and the work of others regarding Empaths is the following:

  1. Empaths have this sense of “knowing” and very strong intuition.
  2. Empaths are generally very understanding of other people and their positions.
  3. Empaths are extra sensitive to violence and sadness.
  4. Empaths absorb emotions from others unconsciously.
  5. Empaths feel others feelings.
  6. Negativity overwhelms Empaths.
  7. Empaths don't like narcissists.
  8. Empaths show up with the symptoms of those around them.
  9. Empaths are born with a natural skill of observation.
  10. Empaths put the needs of others before those of their own.

Most of the above is taken Information taken from Tyler Herbert’s “Empath (the Ultra sensitive Being). To find out more about what it means to be an “empath” and evaluate whether you are please read Dr.Judith Orloff’s article about this subject.

Over the past few years neuroscience-based research has begun to investigate empathy. Specifically by looking at mirror neurons as a biological explanation of this process.The American Psychological Association published an article explaining this phenomenon stating: “Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action” (Article link here). In essence, mirror neurons suggest that whether we are experiencing something personally or watching someone else experience it our neurological activity responds the same. Basically, we take the “perspective of the person” being watched through these mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons allow us to imitate and emulate people around us which has great survival implications. Some self proclaimed Empaths believe this suggests that human beings are genetically built to mimic and feel the emotions of others to ensure survival. After all, we tend to take care of and invest in those who resemble us, while disregarding those who we consider to be the least like us. Also, this process speeds up learning greatly because of improved imitation skills (along with other thing). It then isn’t a surprise that the ability to empathize and mimic someone’s emotions/opinions/behaviors would greatly enhance a person’s chance of survival. For those of you who are auditory learners, here is a link to a 7 minute TED talk describing mirror neurons here.

Sometimes it takes fictitious depictions of this quality for it to be seen fully. Empaths are often depicted in popular television shows such as “Charmed”. In one particular episode, one sister Prue accidentally becomes an “Empath”. In this episode we see her experience extreme negative consequences from the debilitating saturation of human emotions she feels constantly. Prue now has the ability to sense others emotions whether directly around her or outside. She unconsciously “picks up” the emotional energy of people three houses down from her and eventually even further. To lessen her emotional pain she barricades herself in the basement and draws a line at which her sisters are forbidden to cross in order to avoid their emotional energy. As viewers, we find out that she will eventually die if she cannot work out a way to control this power.

Charmed honors the standard story line of “the hero rising to the occasion” by making Prue channel her powers to save the day. The most memorable part of this episode is the wisdom from a former Empath who tells Prue in the midst of her pain: “I know how you feel. Your instinct is to pull away. Try to find an inner calm…You’ve been fighting what you feel, that’s natural and it’s wrong. To find your strength as an empath, you must embrace your emotion.”

This charmed episode offers great insight into the struggles of those naturally empathetic. Like Prue, many with empathetic abilities sometimes feel like their internal/emotional world is under attack from external forces. This threat isn’t imaginary but rather a consequence of being unable to manage the overwhelming mix of emotions that are being picked up. This can lead to negative physical and mental consequences alike including: anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, headaches, and stomach pains. Many people who have this talent are unaware of it or suppress it using unhealthy methods including substance abuse. As a helping professional we see first hand the consequences of destructive coping strategies in those we serve.

Although we are focusing on the weaknesses of this trait I want to state plainly that I view empathy as a gift. After all, it is THE number one reason that we have to help. Whether it be a friend who you just know is hurting, or the postman’s sad body language; our ability to understand without being provided with an explicit explanation puts us in a position where we are called to help, even if that help is in the form of bringing things to light by addressing them.

Therefore, Empathy is a gift, a strength to those who possess it. However, this article’s intention is to help us helpers understand that the weaknesses associated with this trait can be detrimental if hidden or not managed.

This can also partially explain the difficulty in adopting good self-care techniques. As someone who has recognized this gift in myself I have tried to make it a point to speak to other helpers in my life about it. Similarities in helper’s experiences began to emerge including the ability to: read people’s feelings without trying, having complete strangers and friends alike gravitate to us for help, cherishing our alone time, feeling emotionally drained after encountering someone with elevated negative emotions even in social settings.

In fact, sometimes social settings can be the most concerning because we are no longer officially under the role of “counselor”, “social worker”, or “psychologist”, yet we can see human complexities and often time feel the emotional conflicts of others. Trying to ignore all of this while having a beer at the bar, or waiting in line at the coffee shop can create a “crazy making” experience where the Helper is unsure of whats happening.

Lets now think of the social ramifications of being empathetic. You will likely foster a sense of being understood and seen in others which will likely cause others to rely on you in the future. You will likely have friends and family contact you when they are unclear about their emotional state since you seem to “know things”. You might become the confidante of other people at your place of employment when they are overwhelmed. Or you might argue with those who are constantly emotionally unaware and become resentful of particular people/places which appear to be void of emotional transparency in high volumes. You might also get overwhelmed and avoid long interactions with large crowds of people and attribute this to simply being an introvert instead of your emotional empathetic abilities. You might also be quick to dislike someone with negative energy and be unable to articulate what exactly is repulsive about this person to others. You might walk into a room ready to facilitate a group therapy session and suddenly get hit with feelings of sadness, indifference, anxiety, relief, grief, and joy at all once.

All of these scenarios make the point that this quality often complicates interactions with others and puts us in a position where others are reliant on us.Therefore the next blog post will discuss the specific ways in which to take care of ourselves.

So for those of us that recognize that we have emotional empathetic abilities, please recognize it as a gift and try to minimize its weaknesses and maximize its strengths. And please, let us learn from the wisdom of the character Father Thomas from Charmed when he says “…my power to ease human suffering lie in my hands….you must channel the empathetic gift into your power…you can do it. You have a once in a lifetime opportunity to feel the world’s emotions. All it means to be human. The good and the bad. Don’t be afraid.”

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