Invisible Armor: Protecting Your Empathy at Work

March 13th, 2012
Published on
March 13th, 2012

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.