Invisible Armor: Protecting Your Empathy at Work

Sitting in my cube one day at work with a deadline looming overhead, I was desperately trying to concentrate and couldn’t sit still. I cleared my desk, adjusted my chair, cranked as much soothing music as I could find, but nothing was working. Did I drink too much coffee? Wait, I haven’t had caffeine in over five years…

Out of total desperation I got up, walked around the office, and parked myself in the first empty conference room I could find. As soon as I sat down and opened my laptop my head was clear. I got my wireframes done in record time. This stark contrast – between the jackhammer at my desk and the 2001-Space-Odyssey-like womb in the conference room – truly amazed me.

An empty conference room

Wait a minute, I thought. My cube-mate is going through some pretty intense personal issues right now…could that be affecting me? I quickly googled “picking up other people’s vibes” and was introduced to the fascinating world of empathy.

Voldemort didn’t have it

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.” It’s clearly a quality that – beyond being inherently human – is necessary for user-centered design. Designers must learn to naturally pick up on the unsaid. This, in turn, allows them to successfully read others’ needs and wants and have them reflected in their design.

However, there’s a dark side to empathy that is rarely discussed. UX Booth’s own Andrew Maier explains in his article about reducing noise, that “although office environments are designed to encourage creativity, their inhabitants can occasionally hinder it”.

“Sometimes we can become overwhelmed by empathy at work,” adds Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life.” She stresses that “in the workplace, empathy has both an upside and a downside. People who are extremely empathic and sensitive need to be aware of both.”

The key, she says, is to pinpoint if you are a super sensitive person (or empath, as she terms them) and “be aware of the ways this wonderful trait serves you in the workplace. But be extra careful to protect your emotional and physical health, because empathetic people are, by definition, more vulnerable and open than their peers.”

All this talk of empathy may have you wondering if you’re an empath yourself. I know I did. If so, you’re in luck! Here’s the self-assessment test from Dr. Orloff’s book:

  • Have I been labelled by coworkers as “too emotional ” or overly sensitive?
  • If a coworker is distraught, does it affect my mood at work?
  • Are my feelings easily hurt when a supervisor or peer delivers negative feedback?
  • Am I emotionally drained when I have to work closely with others, and do I require time alone to revive?
  • Do my nerves get frayed by office noise, machine noise, smells, or excessive talking?
  • Do I prefer working quietly and off by myself?
  • Do I overeat or need a hour hour cocktail to deal with work-related stress?

Corporate tsunamis

Ok, so: thanks to an unpleasant alcohol intolerance, happy hour cocktails are out of the question. Other than that, though, I checked every single box in Dr. Orloff’s self-assesment. I guess I am an empath! This revelatory experience made me realize that I sorely needed to find a way to carry peace and quiet with me everywhere I went.

Nowadays many companies are working hard at harnessing empathy during turbulent times, as Dev Patnaik, author of “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy” explains. Humans have an intrinsic and sophisticated way of stepping into someone else’s shoes, but he maintains “the problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy.”

Overworked employee

Related talks of an “empathy deficit” in our country point to our overly connected and financially stressful lives as the culprit. Patnaik says that “for many of the world’s greatest companies, it’s an ever-present but rarely talked-about engine for growth.”

My invisible armour

In my search for the right technique to achieve “mobile peace,” I came across a set of meditation classes from a Bay Area school called Psychic Horizons. They seemed simple enough. Their Foundation Classes are organized around five basic premises, the first one being “You can separate yourself from all the influences around you.”

A rose

This was music to my ears. There, I learned about grounding, centering, and setting energetic boundaries. For boundaries, the instructor recommended we visualize a rose (or any everyday object outside of our space) and imagine that that rose serves as an energy-catcher. This allows you to process the good “stuff” you pick up from others, but not the bad “stuff.”

Dr. Orloff calls this “shielding yourself,” and offers up a similar technique in her article “How to Stop Absorbing the Energy of Others.” She suggests you imagine an envelope of white light (or any color you feel imparts power) around your entire body: “think of it as a shield that blocks out negativity or physical discomfort but allows what’s positive to filter in.” She also recommends to walk away, practice vulnerability and meditate.

The day after the boundaries class I eagerly put what I learned into practice, imagining roses all around me. Upon walking into the office I did a quick inner checkup to see what I felt, and lo and behold, I felt calm, quiet and peaceful. I did not feel the typical stress that accompanied me only while I was physically in the office. And that helped me tremendously to get my work done, even amidst the angst around me due to corporate layoffs.

Suit up

Invisible armor isn’t all roses, so to speak. There are many shielding techniques out there, some as simple as crossing your arms or standing slightly sideways in front of someone who is particularly upsetting to you. Another involves going outside and touching the ground with your bare feet.

Yvonne Perry, a metaphysical teacher, poses that just like an electrical appliance needs grounding to operate, our bodies need to connect to the earth from time to time in order to function properly. “When you are grounded, you feel deeply connected to yourself and at peace with everything around you”, she states in her book “Whose Stuff Is This? Finding Freedom from the Thoughts, Feelings, and Energy of Those Around You.” Perry also offers up an interesting psychological perspective on why some people become empaths in the first place: “many empaths grew up with parents who were emotionally volatile.” Therefore, they learned to pick up on subtle shifts in energy to avoid conflict, she says.

The fact is that everyone has empathic abilities – whether they admit it or not – and that given the right environment those abilities can become your most trusted ally. As Dr. Orloff says “if you can find the right balance it will only bode well for your company and career.” Harnessing empathy has definitely become an ally for me, enabling a level of focus that I wasn’t able to reach before. Now, lets all go running barefoot in the park.

About the Author

Melisa Angulo-Javier

UX designer (currently @ Yahoo!), fashion obsessor, lover of foreign film and all forms of riveting storytelling.

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Comments

  1. I understand what you are talking about. I was in a horrible work environment where everyone around me was miserable. People were forced to work long hours and weekends. I was lucky that I had normal hours. The environment was toxic to me so I had to get out of it. Once I left for another company I felt so much better.

    • Good thing you got out Jamie. Sounds awful. Companies need to empathize with their employees in order to be successful. Using their heart is as important as their minds these days.

  2. Sarah R March 13, 2012

    Questions 4-6 in the self-assessment test mean you are an introvert, not necessarily an ‘empath’. However, introverts tend to be more empathetic and so much so that it is deprimental to themselves as in co-workers think they are being stand-offish while the introvert is giving their co-workers the space they would want a situation. There is a lot of good reading out there for anyone interested. And just a couple days ago a very good talk was given by Susan Cain on TED (http://tinyurl.com/75fgpyt) about how ‘group think’ and current ‘group atmosphere’ is pushing out the introverts who are usually the most creative in the company.

  3. What an interesting article. With so much going on inside the company (work and relationships) it is true, one has to take the time to look inside, to mind your own self to find true meanings. Thank you for the insights, loved them!!!

  4. Melisa,
    Thanks so much for the thoughtful post on office dynamics and stress from the designer’s perspective.

    An empathetic designer or creative worker must learn to protect themselves. It’s impractical or naive to think others would account for them – though it would be great if we all respected diversity in this way. The system of disrespecting the quiet and sensitive is deeply engrained in our culture, IMHO.

    Design thinking, the empath’s ‘secret sauce’, is what we need these days.

    These techniques will help the empath become a more productive. It may seem strange, but walking barefooted changed my life.

    I’m interested to try some of the other tips as well!

    • Not strange at all. Imagining roses around me changed mine! And I couldn’t agree more that sometimes we lack the sensibility to appreciate design thinking.

  5. With ease and in simple language, the article reflects one of the greatest worries of the Corporations; not only you give the scientific points of view to the problem but also offer not so orthodox views. No doubt your written words call to reflection, hopefully many managers and less employees read them because you state solutions for both. Congratulations!

  6. Joey R. March 14, 2012

    Great article Melisa! Thanks for the practical advice. I believe that if you don’t protect yourself at work others (who are not empath) will drain you of your happiness and joy. It’s also important to “recharge” your spiritual batteries on a daily basis.

    • So true Joey. And when you’re drained your productivity plummets, which is not good for you or the company. Hopefully more people will reflect on this critical issue, especially in times of corporate turbulence.

  7. Wonderful article! Being a UX Designer and also a HSP (High Sensitive Person) I get this all the time. Like the article says, from my job perspective it’s something that puts me apart from others. I read needs and sense what the actual “problem” is instantly..

    On the personal side it wears me down daily.. when I am working with others who are stressed, chaotic or negatieve I pick up their vibes also. So it happens that I have a great day, I arrive at work and all of a sudden I feel down and anxcious, not knowing why I feel this way.

    I tend to seperate myself to actually concentrate, but this is quite hard while working in a company that uses Scrum. I also end up ignoring, avoiding these people who get me this way.. which isn’t ideal..

    Thanks again for the articles and the book.. Will dive into that!

    • I totally relate Sven. Especially in Scrum. We can’t have an one-size-fits-all approach to diverse functional groups. Designers need to both converge AND diverge at times. Sometimes we look to diverge in isolation, which is totally understood as we’ve taken in so much around us and need to process. Happy to hear that this is an opening to further discovery. Thanks for the comment!

  8. fantastic article which will give every one the practical advice to every employee thank you very much for sharing.

  9. Hi Melisa,
    Yes you are right empathy is required at work place. But don’t you feel we might be taken for granted if we show more empathy?

    • I think its a matter of harnessing it to our advantage. We need to be open enough to read our team and our users, but we can also manage it in a way that filters out the negative stuff that won’t serve us a purpose.

  10. Madhav Mavalankar March 17, 2012

    Thanks for a wonderful article, my son forwarded this link to me.
    This is like creating “circle of defense” while driving, so that you cut yourself off from the noise & signals around you, so that you can concentrate on driving in the correct direction. You only react if some one one or some object invades in to your “Circle of defense”.
    But Positive empathy can be in some job profiles, isn’t it?
    Do let me know your thoughts.
    Thanks

    • Excellent comparison Madhav! I can think of this circle of defense coming in handy during company turmoil. Do you buy into the hype or hedge your bets on the silver lining? If you chose hope, you’ll have to seriously shield off the noise around you. This is a great way to think about it.

      Being empathic IS a super positive trait, especially for designers, managers, HR professionals, etc. Being masterful at picking up on non verbal cues from folks around you will always serve you well in offering the best solutions or approaches. The key for me is not letting that skill backfire and end up bringing me down at the end of the day. Great comments. Thanks!

  11. Katherine March 18, 2012

    I recognize that I am both an introvert and an empath, not sure which one more than the other. I found this article really interesting. Sometimes I forget I need that space away from the office dramas. I also share my office with someone who has a profound lack of empathy for personalities or situations outside their box contributing a negative and condicending vibe in my space all day. It’s challenging. Being able to walk away and spend time alone is imperative. End of day I go home to a full house that needs an entirely different kind of energy and creative (family) thinking. It’s tough to make time to free my mind. Cool article to see it Leary defined and addressed.

    • Thats great that you walk away and spend time alone. I once shared an office with someone I lovingly called “cancer”, the world’s most negative person alive. It was hell for me every day. So I feel your pain.

      You can definitely try shielding or even clearing techniques and see what happens. Clearing has been very helpful for me. One easy technique is to take a bath with 1 lb of sea salt and 1 lb of backing soda, in warm (not hot) water for 20 minutes. Stress releases lactic acid, which makes your muscles stiff. Sea salt has detoxifying properties that counteract that effect. Thats why we feel so refreshed after a dip in the ocean.

      I have a 2 yr toddler and try to carve out time for this bath about once a month when I can. Hope it helps! Report back if it does: twitter: @bohemiancredo

  12. Really interesting, and I absolutely agree that sometimes it’s hard to not let yourself be affected by the mood and lives of those around you. However, I also find it’s difficult to de-empathize from the work I am doing. If I get to close to a story or an assignment, it always has a bad effect on my productivity. It’s good to distance yourself from both your work and the people you work with in order that you can approach things with a clear, level head.

    Meditation never really worked for me, because I don’t sit still well. But exercise (yoga, running, rock climbing) are for me a kind of meditation and they help center me where sitting still and cross legged never did.

    • So true Matt. Disconnecting yourself too much can impact your productivity. It is a balance. But all I can say is that I’m happier and more focused ever since. But there’s no one technique for everyone. I once tried zazen, a very strict sitting meditation where you’re supposed to not think about anything. Yeah, that didn’t work for me after about 10 seconds.

      And totally agree, exercise is the ultimate de-stresser!

  13. Raluca Ene March 21, 2012

    Interesting article indeed. I’ve also picked up meditation, yoga and running and they’ve done wonders for my happiness at work. I am able to leave work without feeling completly drained.

    I don’t regret being an “empath” though. Empaths can’t run away from their emotions and in situations of deep pain or sorrow it’s much better to allow yourself to feel through it then to bottle everything inside and hope that it will all go away. In those situations I think empaths have more experience dealing with the deep emotions.

    From my personal experience, it’s very important wether your an empath or not, to strive for balance in your life. I used collect hours of overtime and never refuse an extra responsibilities. Now I try to take on less, to plan vacations and not feel guilty about time spent relaxing. It’s still a work in progress though.

    • Thanks for the comment Raluca. I agree that processing emotions is much healthier than compartmentalizing them. They WILL emerge some time, some where. You’re absolutely right. And thats great that you’re putting yourself, and not the needs of others, first. I find that to be a life-long journey. Good for you!

  14. Interesting concept, though it seems there’s also a positive side to this that wasn’t discussed. When your teammates are in positive mood sync, morale and productivity increase.

  15. Hi Melisa,
    Thanks for this. Right after the first paragraph I thought “wow, this is describing me!” and I’m glad I stuck around for the thorough and detailed discussion of empathy at work.
    It’s very important to me that the challenges (as well as benefits) of empathy begin to be part of the professional consciousness of the UX/design fields. As UX-ers, we have a lot skills that can’t be framed or measured with the same tools as more ‘tangible’ (or industrial-level) skills can. Articles like this help shape a new understanding of what being in our occupation means. Thanks for that!

    • Good to hear Jenny! Thanks for the comment and excellent insight on the importance of digging deeper into the ‘hidden’ aspects of our craft.

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