How To Thrive At Work As An Empath
October 25, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career
A few weeks ago, I learned that my best friend had lost a loved one. I was moonlighting in an office at the time, and quickly unraveled at my desk. I felt like I was crying on her behalf, and eventually had to sequester myself in a nearby park so I could sob in peace—one perk of big-city anonymity.
It wasn’t the first time I’d absorbed a shockwave of emotions at work—but I’m not unprofessional, exactly. I’m an empath. Empaths are highly sensitive to the emotions and moods of others. Unlike empathy, in which you can understand what someone else feels, empaths tend to feel that feeling, too.
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“Empaths basically don’t have the same filters that other people have, so we feel everything,” explains Judith Orloff, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and author of Thriving as an Empath. She offers quizzes to help glean whether you’re an empath, with straightforward questions like: “Have I been labeled as overly sensitive all my life? Do I tend to absorb the emotions or physical symptoms from other people into my own body? Am I sensitive to noise, smells or excessive talking?”
But this level of sensitivity can often be perceived as a weakness or lack of resilience. Some may assume that empaths “can’t handle anything and have to be treated as fragile in the workplace,” explains Orloff. But that’s not actually the case. If you can manage your empathic qualities, they can instead work to your advantage.
In fact, “empathy in the workplace can create a positive work environment,” says Orloff. “You can, instead of being judgmental, try to feel what employees are feeling but not take it on.” Evidence shows that this can go a long way. In the 2019 State of the Workplace Empathy survey, 93% of employees reported that they’d be more likely to stay with an employer who’s empathetic—and with the high cost of rehiring and retraining, that can actually translate to dollars and cents. And according to findings from the Center for Creative Leadership, a leadership development company, empathy in leaders is positively correlated with improved job performance and perceived effectiveness by employees. Research suggests that empathy and compassion in the workplace can increase productivity, too, as well as collective resilience among employees in tough times.
On top of that, it can deliver insight into your peers, supervisors, and employees alike. Tarah Keech, an entrepreneur and consultant who identifies as an empath, compares it to gathering data points. The feelings and emotions you can glean from others is just “a different data point that give us more to work with than some people,” she explains. “Recognize that you are receiving more data, choose how you’re going to perceive things going forward, and [decide] what you’re going to do with that information.”
And for certain professions, such as healthcare and counseling, that sort of perception is essential. A good bedside manner, for instance, is usually a product of empathy. “It helps me be very in touch with the emotional experiences of the people that I work with,” says Sara Morrow, a psychotherapist for the Chicago Center for Relationship Counseling. “This is extremely important for any mental health professional in order to do good clinical work.”
But a major part of successfully balancing an empathic personality with your career or a leadership role is learning how to manage it. After all, you can only cry in a public park so many times before people start to ask where you are. Here’s how to make the most of it.
Approach Your Feelings Objectively
Similar to a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy, identify your feelings that crop up when the tough gets going. Instead of taking them at face value, think of them as “a red flag that something needs to be reconsidered,” says Keech. “Just imagine yourself as if you were an artist observing the scene of your own thoughts and reflect on what you want in the composition.”
Then, remember that you’re still in control—after all, you’re the artist in this metaphor, and thus you get to decide which thoughts you’re going to let matter and how. Removing yourself from an emotional situation makes that easier. Another way to think of it is with meditation, in which you acknowledge your thoughts or feelings and then let them go.
Control Your Environment
Since empaths are like sponges for feelings, it’s helpful not to have any feelings to soak up in the first place. Certain office environments, like those with an open floor plan, can be hard to navigate, since there are no boundaries or cubicles to offer separation. For that reason, “empaths do better if they work remotely at least part time, because then they’re more in charge of their schedule and don’t have to deal with office politics as much,” Orloff explains.
It also helps to take an inventory of your workload and schedule on a regular basis. “How many clients am I seeing in a given week? How late am I working? What types of cases am I taking on? These are some of the questions that I have to think about regularly,” says Morrow. Too many clients, late nights, or difficult cases without any respite can quickly become draining.
Visualize Your Protection
Whether the first person you see at the office ignores your “Good morning” or a colleague undermines your idea during a meeting, negativity can be contagious—and especially so for empaths. Not only can it cause your own mood take a nosedive, which in turn may affect productivity and performance, but it can last long after you leave the office.
To prevent that, Orloff is a proponent of a technique called shielding, which means “to visualize a protective shield or a bubble around your body to protect you from any kind of negative energy in the space,” she explains. This imaginary barrier can help prevent you from inadvertently picking up on sad, angry, irritated, or generally negative feelings from someone else.
Take a Three-Minute Meditation
When feelings have overwhelmed you, give yourself a time-out. Orloff calls it the three-minute meditation, and recommends it when you can’t quickly address or tamp down feelings. “Go into the bathroom or for a walk for three minutes, just taking the time to breathe out the stress and center yourself,” she explains.
This is particularly helpful if you’re reacting to serious or shocking news in the workplace, which can be overwhelming to anyone—empath or not. “You have the power to calm yourself down, which is so important,” says Orloff. “But you usually have to get yourself away from the group to do it.” Even if you can get as far as your car, it’s better than melting down in the office.
Consider It Instant Feedback
Say you’re presenting a plan to a client or a supervisor and get the sense that your audience is not into it. Instead of letting it discourage you or cause your train of thought to go off the rails, use it as a flag to recalibrate. “Think [to yourself]: There’s some resistance here, and I can either address my messaging differently or choose to think that it’s not about me,” says Keech. If anything, the ability to read the room quickly is an asset. The feedback helps you retarget your messaging so you can better explain the point you’re trying to make.