Tag Archives: empathy

When Empathy Hurts

It sucks when your strength is empathy, especially when you are faced with suffering.

I recently took the StrengthsFinder test in my exploration into my life purpose. I discovered that one of my top five strengths is Empathy. Here is the definition of empathy from the book Now, Discover Your Strengths:

handheartYou can sense the emotions of those around you. You can feel what they are feeling as though their feelings are your own. Intuitively, you are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective. Your do not necessarily feel pity for each person’s predicament – this would be sympathy, not empathy. You do not necessarily condone the choices each person makes, but you do understand.  The instinctive ability to understand is powerful. You hear the the unvoiced questions. You anticipate the need. Where others grapple for words, you seem to find the right words and the right tone. You help people find the right phrases to express their feeling – to themselves as well as to others. You help the give voice to their emotional life. For all these reasons other people are drawn to you.

Over the past week I was blessed to be a part of a force of educational change. I was part of the logistics team that ran the New Tech Annual Conference held in Chicago. I was expecting the long hours, the missed meals, the seven straight days of work. I was prepared for the feelings of relief when the week was over, for the immense feeling of pride for my team and all they were able to achieve.

What I wasn’t prepared for was learning of the loss of a colleague’s family. On the last night of the conference a dear friend and co-worker learned that his wife and two of his children were killed in a car accident.

The news rocked me to my core.

I had just seen them the night before and the images of this family were etched in my memory: my colleague’s beautiful wife and two sweet boys. I even thought to myself how wonderful it was to see them all together and how much joy it must have brought him to have his family there with him.

Learning of their loss hit me harder than I expected. Did I know them? Not really. Am I close to my colleague? Yes, but not in a deep way. Did it hurt my heart? You’re damn right it did.

And it still does. And that’s what being empathetic means.

I feel all the emotions: the anger, the sadness, the happiness. I can put myself in someone’s place and feel those emotions. I can relate to how they might be feeling even if I have never been in that situation before. It is a strong power and challenging to honor when faced with the more uncomfortable emotions. It’s easier to feel the happier emotions but there is something powerful about allowing yourself feel the “bad” emotions.

Sitting in the meeting room with my colleagues, hearing the news of our co-worker’s family, I allowed myself to really feel what I was feeling. Some in the room held back, they were not needing to let the tears flow. Was that wrong? Did my emotions deem me any less strong, any less powerful? No. My feelings were my own and I took comfort in them. Each person processes grief in a different way.

At that moment, for me, it was total complete sorrow, sadness, and loss. And yet, at the same time I felt this feeling of complete connection with my co-workers. In that moment, all levels of job responsibility and roles, all labels of status, were dissolved, and we were just left with each other in our raw emotional state. We were one, one in feeling heartache, one in feeling a sense of love for our colleague, one in our feeling of love for each other.

And in the end that’s what this life is all about. It’s too short to worry about what others think, too short to worry about how we look, or how if we cry we might look weak. It’s too short to be worried about trying to impress someone. What’s important is loving ourselves and each other to the best of our abilities. Fully and unconditionally.

As I reflect on the previous week and the challenges I faced I understand and appreciate that my strength of empathy served me well. It allowed me to connect more deeply with our attendees, our staff, my colleagues, and most importantly, with myself.