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Empathy is a wonderful, amazing strength.
Empathy as defined by Merriam-Webster is:
The action of being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.
The ability to be empathetic is a gift. It allows you to understand where someone is coming from and offer support, and encouragement.
For those of us with a strong empathetic trait, we can usually
- sense what someone needs before they can say it,
- see the other side of the story,
- we find it easy to step in and help
We make great friends and partners because we tend to know when to step in, and we are really, really helpful.
Where highly empathetic people run into trouble is when they turn empathy into responsibility.
Responsibility, as defined by Merriam-Webster is:
having the duty to take care of something for someone.
When 3 of the primary empathetic traits all work together they combine to make the Responsibility Trifecta:
These traits are:
- Empathy for the other person, therefore, a strong desire to be helpful.
- Justifying any behavior (even bad behaviors)
- Putting put your priorities last.
When these three traits combine empathetic folk move from being understanding and sensitive to ditching their priorities and needs so, they can take accountability and responsibility for someone else.
Recently a friend of mine shared her struggle with this idea. She works as a full-time teacher and has three kids under 12. At her school, there tend to be two groups of teachers those that are young having babies and those that are nearing retirement. Recently, a lot of the other younger teachers have started having babies, and one of the traditions is to prepare them meals. My friend loves this idea; she remembers how much it meant to her to get these meals when she had her kids, and she empathizes with new mothers. Those nearing retirement are willing to participate in the meal program but only half-heartedly and the new mom’s although they appreciated it when they got meals are just too overwhelmed to participate.
So Susan has become the primary champion of the meal program–she has found her self-running the whole program and cooking 2-3 meals a week for the new moms to pick up the slack for the teachers. She said to me, “I barely have enough energy to cook for my family now, and that is where I want to be spending my energy.” When I asked her why she just didn’t just stop she said, “Those first couple of weeks are so hard and having meals is so helpful.” To which I asked, “Why do you have to be the one to do it all?” ” I am sure these woman have other friends and family who can make meals. It sounds like this tradition has run it’s course at your school and it is time for one of the new mom’s to pick up the slack or for it to die. ”
Susan had completed the Responsibility Trifecta:
- She really wanted to help these new moms; she remembered what it felt like to be a new mom.
- She could justify why it was ok that every other teacher didn’t help out. She could explain away their behaviors.
- Her own family’s meals were pushed to the very last.
Susan had found herself responsible for the entire program.
Last week, Susan informed me that she announced to the teachers that she was stepping down from being in charge of meals; someone else could lead the program, or they could let it die down until someone had more time. Susan got a little flack and a bit of pushback, but she held her ground. And kept repeating to herself “I am not responsible for these new mothers” “they have other resources” “I can be empathetic AND have to keep my priorities.” Susan was excited to have her evenings back and be able to cook for her family again.
Empathy is awesome!! But when empathy becomes responsibility it leaves us drained and exhausted.