Monday, November 8, 2010


A couple of months ago we had a 2-day department retreat for work. One of the activities we did was a thinking preferences assessment. The exercise was designed to help us better understand ourselves, and how to work more effectively with others because of these different styles. It was definitely one of the highlights of the retreats for all of us; we still reference our thinking preferences on a regular basis.

I found it very interesting. Like most people, I was not terribly surprised by my own results. Before we were given our results, we went through the 4 main quadrants and were asked to write down which we thought sounded most like us. When it came time to open our sealed envelopes of results, almost all of us were right!

While I learned a lot of things, or reaffirmed a lot of things, through this exercise, there is one particular area I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. One of these quadrants shows people who tend to exhibit a lot of empathy. This quadrant was tied with another quadrant for my most significant preferences.

Empathy is most often a good thing. The trusty Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

Sounds great – being able to understand and relate to people around you and the feelings and experiences they are going through. Sometimes, I wonder if I can be empathetic to a fault.

I find myself compelled to take care of the people around me all of the time. I like helping others. But sometimes, especially when it comes to those closest to me, I feel like I can literally feel their pain. When they are hurting, stressed, or struggling with something, I take those feelings on so much so that you would think it were me experiencing them firsthand. Like the definition says above, “vicariously experiencing the feelings.” My goodness I couldn’t have said it better myself!

So how then do you find a balance? I enjoy being able to help others and express empathy when they’re going through tough times (and good times too!). But somewhere you have to draw a line. You can’t possibly take on everyone’s problems—everyone’s feelings—when you have your own authentic feelings, too. You can help them through them, and be a supporter when they need it, but you can’t do everything. Lord knows I would if I could, but I just don’t think it’s healthy—for them or for me.

So I’m making it a goal to try harder to recognize those differences—to let empathy be a part of me, but not consume me.

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