the heavy weight of empathy

That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Empathy being a burden, or a heavy weight. Of course it isn’t – the world needs more of it. We as humans need more of it – for our fellow humans, for our animals, for our planet. It’s what separates us from our lower level animals. So how on earth could it be a burden?

For me, it isn’t usually. It’s one of the things I seem to have in abundance. And I am so very grateful for it, believe me. Having it means I’m not a narcissist. Good thing. It also means I can help others, I have a clearer window into the world of someone else’s pain or hurt; it means I can feel other people’s pain and excitement and unlimited emotions. 

Having it – I hope – means I am a better leader, auntie, partner, friend…all the endless things that I am. Having it makes me self-aware. It makes me laugh and cry and feel sad and reflect and learn and grow. 

So why is it a burden? As a Highly Sensitive Person I feel. A lot. Not just my own feelings, but I take on the feelings of others. In my case though, I’m not talking about anxiety. I am not anxious about things – I just feel them more intensely.

Recently I got some good news health results. Yippee for me – thank you Universe for all you moved around and schemed there for the lucky number to have my name on it. The professional person who shared my news with me seemed delighted to be the bearer of wonderful news. And then he also told me that I was the ONLY person that he had given good news to. That day was results day, he said and that means every other person who had gone before my allocated 15 minute slot had been told bad news. 

I felt the weight of that statement like a tonne of bricks. I felt the energy in the room that had all day held people and their loved ones hearing bad news about their health. I could feel them all floating quickly around me, darting left and right and over my head. In a panic and a frantic haze. I walked out after shaking his hand feeling overwhelmed. It’s a common thing feeling overwhelmed for me. I felt the pain of his job, I felt the heavy hearts of all the people who had left before me. I had to steady myself in the hallway as the tears very quickly sprung to my eyes. I took a moment. Then I walked into the waiting room – to a sea of faces that I immediately realised may not be as lucky as me. And I felt all of their fear and hurt and anger and sadness.

I stopped again on the way to the car, just to assess my own emotions. I had been given good news right? – So why was I feeling this confusion? This sadness, this tidal wave of emotion?

The feelings I could identify were relief, obviously. Then sadness, then guilt. I think there were dozens more that never made it to the surface.

I was still processing it all, hours later. Was I relieved? Of course I was. Was I worried about it? Not really. I have an incredibly positive disposition and I firmly believe the Universe looks after me. We had words earlier, she is on my side. I felt sucker punched. I felt the weight of the words that were spoken to me “You are the only patient I have seen today who I have given good news to”. This is the NHS. They have 15 minute slots. It was 3.15pm. That’s a lot of bad news.

So, when I talk about empathy and it’s weight and burden, this is what I mean. I am a sensitive person. Sometimes more than others. Sensitive people feel a lot more. We used to be told it was a bad thing to be so sensitive – and I used to believe it. I don’t any longer, that’s not my story and it’s not my voice. I feel more than a lot of people. I feel it like it happens to me. I pick it up, I carry it and it takes me a long while to sit with it, to soothe myself, to reassure myself and to say silent prayers for those who did get the bad news.

I live a life based on gratitude and today there are many millions of things I am grateful for. My health being the primary one. I’m also grateful that I am an empath. I live with an empath too – so you can imagine that car journey home, because he was in there with me and felt that whole wave of emotion, the same way I did. It can be fun in our house – we just pick our moments!

I would rather be an empath than not. I want to feel all the feels and I want to make sure that mine are spoken about, registered, spilled out of me and recognised. I am blessed with this gift. It can be a burden, but one I am happy to carry.

Do you have to be liked at work?

As a manager writing this and possibly as managers reading this, your answer to this question may be no. As a young person or graduate in their first role, the answer may just be the opposite. As for people who need to be needed, or need to be liked, I think we can guess what they would opt for.

But is it necessary to be liked at work? I think maybe only sociopaths and psychopaths are comfortable not being liked. That probably puts me closer to that end of the spectrum than I prefer.

Could it be I say that, because no-one likes me? (I don’t think that is the case, but you never can be sure can you?). Traditionally, HR people don’t fall into the category of people to like at work. We seem to be the department that people are scared of. The ones who wave the rule book, the ones who keep everyone in place.  (If anyone can tell me how we break that cycle, I’d be eternally grateful.)

I much prefer to be respected at work than liked. Liked is something I save for my friends and hopefully my family. Working in HR has taught me there will always be times when we need to appear as the enforcers of rules. Mostly that is because we are (or should be) about the needs of the business. The needs of the business dictate that you must perform well at what you do and must not perpetuate bad behaviour. That’s why they call it work. I would rather be known and respected as someone who has the guts to make a difficult decision or have a difficult conversation, than someone who has no credibility because they find these situations too difficult. I have been both intensely disliked and extremely well respected for the same decision. I have been respected by people who don’t like me – and I choose the respect every time.

I did a straw poll before writing this post asking the question of being liked at work and a few people mentioned that being liked can make your way in the office smoother. It is much easier when people co-operate with you because they like you. It means you are more likely to get a quick response or a little favour that makes your job easier or your day more pleasant. But why should this rely on being liked?

Are we, as adults, not evolved enough to make this happen regardless of whether we like someone or not? I worked for over 3 years for a man I disliked intensely. I didn’t respect him, but I respected the position he held; the one that managed me. Ultimately that meant, I reported to him and I did what he asked of me. Again, another definition of work. I’m not sure whether he liked me or not, I dare say he didn’t, as I challenged him in many ways – but we managed to get our respective jobs done in a way that complemented what we wanted to achieve in the business.

I do admit that some of the best relationships in my life have come out of meeting people I have worked with, including my wonderful un-marriage. Some friendships I have which have passed the test of time are with people I once worked with.  Most of those friends were colleagues, some worked for me and one was my boss.

I have a rule not to be friends with anyone I manage directly at work. Why? Trust me, it’s not because I am mean and nasty…. (There is a theme developing though). It is that I learned that it is much harder to manage someone you are friends with than someone you don’t know that well personally. In a work environment, we need objectivity. Making friends with and liking people who report to you, makes all of that subjective. When it comes to managing the poor performance of a friend, there is no greater ground fraught with large unexploded landmines. Not only will the business relationship be put under pressure, the friendship probably won’t last.

By the same token, managing people who are your friends or people you do like, may create an environment of complacency. If you are liked by your boss, do you really need to try that hard?

Like most people, I have worked in all kinds of organisations, some where the people are mostly friendly and some where the word friendly has never been uttered. The friendly workplaces can quite easily translate into situations that reflect family dynamics. People learn about basic concepts of fairness, equity and resource allocation in their families, and these are crucial issues in the workplace. These basic concepts in families may be very different from the ones we find ourselves in at work. Familiarity in a workplace can cause as many conflicts as family situations do.

It takes a mature person to see past the likes and dislikes of our managers or our teams and just see the forest through the trees. If we can compartmentalise the relationships in the office and keep focused on the outcomes we will be measured on, maybe we will have more time and energy to pursue relationships that are lasting outside of the work environment.