The Blessing & Curse of Empathy
About six months ago, everyone in my department went through an exercise called “Strengthfinders”. If you are not familiar, it is an online test designed to tease out your individual strengths. A companion book describes each individual strength in greater detail, offers tips for leveraging your strengths and incorporating them into an individual development plan. It was an interesting process, and I really liked how the author of Strengthfinders makes the argument that it is far better to focus on leveraging your inner strengths than to try to mend or repair your weaknesses.
One of my strengths is Empathy.
Em-pa-thy: noun. 1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
I’ve always sensed that this was a personal trait, so it was interesting to see it surface as an actual strength. It is important to note that empathy should not be confused with:
1. harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.
2. the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions.
3. the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.
Possessing empathy does not mean I walk around all day feeling bad for other people (at least not the majority of my days).
Where empathy is a true strength (an actual blessing) is in my professional work life. I have an acute sense for anticipating and understanding how people will react to news or other events, and can use this strength to come up with ways to counter negative feelings that sometimes come with reorganizations, shifts in strategy, lay-offs, or other big events in the workplace. I can also sense the subtle shifts in attitude that accompany the shelving of projects, the re-assignment of teams, or the simple act of showering praise on one employee while another sits unnoticed. The more I work as a manager of people, the more I realize it would be difficult to maintain relationships with my employees without this skill.
Where empathy can be a curse is in my personal life. The ability to sense, even anticipate how other people are feeling, or reacting to a difficult situation can be overwhelming at times. In the past six months several people, very close to me have grappled with issues like death, depression, serious illness, and divorce. Intensely sensing how my loved ones feel, as I think about them dealing with these major setbacks and challenges in their life is an extremely powerful experience.
Where empathy is particularly debilitating is in situations where I have some direct experience. Thankfully, most of the tough situations I’ve been observing involve things I have no direct experience with in my life.
But over the weekend, a friend and former colleague was involved in a serious ski accident. She is currently in a medically induced coma while a team of doctors works to control swelling in her brain. She has an amazing network of friends, family and colleagues cheering her on. As I read her family’s posts about getting to her bedside, I found myself struggling to maintain my composure.
Six years ago this winter, my husband and I were skiing in bright, but flat sunlight- above tree line where we did not have the benefit of trees to help add context to the landscape. My husband, a strong skier, zipped ahead of me and our friends, anxious to enjoy the bluebird day. He didn’t see a lip in the terrain, and ended up skiing over a cornice with a surprise drop of approx 25 feet. When I reached him, he was lying in the snow with a bruised and battered face, struggling to breath. Thankfully, the friend we were skiing with that day was a doctor, and he immediately began to assess my husband’s condition and check his vitals while other passing skiers summoned ski patrol.
Soon, we were surrounded by two ski patrollers. Then there were four. Two more arrived, including a woman who was a head nurse at the local hospital, and they summoned two more. It felt like the entire ski patrol had been mobilized. The flight for life helicopter was placed on standby notice as an oxygen mask was placed over my husband’s mouth and he was loaded onto a backboard. I was instructed to ride on the back of a snowmobile as my husband was rushed to the bottom of the mountain. I can still remember wrapping my arms around the ski patrolman and the ride feeling like a complete blur.
Thankfully, at the medical center at the bottom of the mountain my husband’s breathing had stabilized, and the medics were able to assess that he most likely no injuries to his head or internal bleeding, so we were loaded up into an ambulance and headed to the hospital. The next two days involved lots of x-rays, scans, and hand wringing to confirm that he indeed had a thoracic fracture in his back, but no other injuries. Several nurses assessed the cuts and bruises on his face, wiggled his nose and said over and over again that they could not believe he escaped without any broken bones in his face. His doctors told us his helmet saved him from far worse injuries.
So when I read posts from my friend’s brother, about the agonizing journey to his sister’s bedside, and imagined her family gathered around her bed- I felt like the ruins of a shipwreck had been dislodged from the bottom of the ocean by a massive tidal wave.
I am realizing that empathy is a blessing when I am able to anticipate a situation, and help identify and affect a positive outcome. It feels like a curse in the times when I am helpless to offer assistance, and can’t help but feel others’ pain deeply in my heart. Piled on top of several other recent struggles by loved ones, my heart couldn’t take much more. This weekend my husband could only offer a hug and the words “try not to think about this so much”. He felt helpless, but in some sense was right. I needed to process, and then I needed to think about something else.
Would I trade this strength for another one? I don’t think so. I truly value the role empathy plays in my professional life. And without it in some of life’s most difficult situations, I do wonder whether I could truly appreciate and feel what others are going through.
I think right now I’m just ready for some good news.
Epilogue: My friend and former colleague is one of the best skiers I know, she was wearing her helmet, and she has served as a volunteer ski patroller at the same mountain where my husband was injured for the past six years. I know she knows how to ski safely, and to take precautions. My heart still goes out to her family, and I’m praying for her full recovery, from a much better place in my heart tonight.