The Dark Side of Empathy In the Workplace
When I moved back to Los Angeles after a four-year stint in New York City, I found myself at a friend’s apartment. The room was filled with unfamiliar faces and I found myself chatting with a woman and her boyfriend.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked the boyfriend.
He told me he worked in Finance and wasn’t happy at his job.
When I followed up, digging deeper into his dissatisfaction, his girlfriend, as if I wasn’t there, paused, widened her eyes and regaled, “Oh my God. She’s like, really good at listening.”
A complex, poignant moment? Well, not so much. But a significant one because of its simplicity? Absolutely.
Every day, as human beings, we beg each other for empathy – from people who know us well and from those we’ve barely met. When I googled Empathy, to see what its exact definition was, the internet told me plainly:
I always assumed that being good at being a person was a nuanced skill that would take me places
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Empathy, in almost every way, brings us closer to having deeper connections with one another. But most importantly, empathy creates curiosity, which in turn, keeps us human. So where am I going with this, you ask? Great question.
I always assumed that being good at being a person was a nuanced skill that would take me places (we have my mother to thank for that). So when I entered the job market, I was excited to leverage my ever-so-perfected soft-skill-set, hoping to enmesh myself in “team culture,” where my colleagues and I would work towards the same daily mission, supporting and learning from one another. I had just graduated college with a B.A. in Sociology and a high sense of idealism, and I felt concretely sure that corporate culture (even the tech offices where everyone wore sweatshirts) was just a reflection of society’s inner-workings.
In the workplace, I have found that the qualities that help me excel as a person “IRL,” as they say… are the same qualities that have made me personally vulnerable in almost every job I’ve had to-date.
If that was the case, this was going to be no big deal because I had already been told that I scored an ENFJ on my Myer’s Briggs and was “really good over-the-phone.”
Eight years later, I am no longer looking through an idealistic lens and am, instead, looking through a protective, discerning one.
In the workplace, I have found that the qualities that help me excel as a person “IRL,” as they say – being earnest, compassionate, open, loyal, funny, energetic, intuitive, and emotionally-intelligent – are the same qualities that have made me personally vulnerable in almost every job I’ve had to-date.
Now, I know this must seem silly, as the above-mentioned qualities seem uniformly positive. But it’s more complicated than it seems.
During one of my more recent freelance stints, I found myself in a room with my Project Manager.
“I hate to have to do this, but someone complained about you.”
My mouth dropped for several reasons:
I had only been freelancing for three months
I had received positive feedback on my work
I had made new friends and had been told people liked working with me
“One of your coworkers has mentioned that you complain a lot and that it’s bringing them down. They think you can be a bit too vocal about how you feel and they don’t want it to put them in a bad light.”
After doing some behind-the-scenes investigating, I discovered that the accusations were actually moments where I was commiserating / relating to my colleague during a confusing time at the company, where this person, too, had expressed a feeling of helplessness and frustration.
This experience, while not the first for me, activated my need to hold back at work.
I’ve had to learn to listen differently and more carefully and not be so quick to reflect, commiserate, or agree, knowing that the sharing in which I’m engaging is less about connecting and more about the inevitable emotional release that comes with being human.
Growing up, I always felt the power of connecting to someone through understanding their feelings, relaying my own, and comforting them through the ability to synthesize how they were feeling back to them. In moments of grief, sadness, or anger, I’ve seen people feel less alone when they feel they have a less-inflammatory mirror looking back at them. I was always happy to become that mirror as a form of connecting. Simply put: I enjoyed partaking in the process of empathy.
Yet, in most of my jobs, my ability to become that mirror also became threatening for those being reflected, especially when they remembered that beyond their emotional capital, there was real capital at stake (you know, like a mortgage).
For me, an office has always been another place to find human connection to fill the off hours when it’s 3 PM and the computer screen is blinding you. I often forget that offices, although providing a huge opportunity to build real-life connections, don’t count for “real life” in the same way. People play by different rules in corporate society, and emotional vulnerability is not always a safe path to walk on without consequences.
My ability to sense dissent or catch someone during that one moment where they feel tired enough to be open near a desk with their name on it has become a burden between the hours of 10am and 6pm – resulting in my leaving the office on a daily basis, filled with worry and self-doubt that I somehow “showed all my cards” while talking to someone about a real matter or concern.
I’ve had to learn to listen differently and more carefully and not be so quick to reflect, commiserate, or agree, knowing that the sharing in which I’m engaging is less about connecting and more about the inevitable emotional release that comes with being human. It’s unplanned, it’s unaware, and unintentional, which means I must be very intentional about keeping my humanity, and more importantly, my empathy, close to the chest.
My perspective might seem like I’m suggesting a restriction of empathy for others during work hours. Yet, I think, after all of my jobs and all of my human experiences, I’m starting to see that, in situations where the emotional grey area is vast and the boundaries are blurred and billed, I must first have empathy for myself. And no one else can hold up that mirror but me.
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