Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On the Difference Between Being Empathic and Empathetic

A few days before writing this article, I came across an article about how to tell if you are empathic. As I read this article, I noticed that I share more than a few of the traits mentioned in it. I already know I'm a Highly Sensitive Person, and certainly some of the traits listed are concurrent with those of an HSP, but I did have some problems with the article.

First, there's a metaphysical side of it that leaves me uncomfortable. The article states that empaths can experience lower back pain, and I certainly do, but the article states the cause is that all the emotions and psychic energy that the empath receives comes through the lower back, and that causes the pain. I don't know about other empaths, but my lower back pain comes from having a big belly, from a bicycle accident years ago and from degeneration of the connecting tissues in my vertebrae.

Another issue is that some empaths can feel the pain of the animals they eat, some sort of psychic residue. I have never felt the pain of any meat that I have eaten, though if I took the time to research how animals are treated, I might feel different. The fact is, I like to eat meat and I don't want to know how the animal dies.

A third trait that I do not possess is that some empaths cannot watch TV or movies because of the suffering that goes on in TV programs. Being a writer, I can separate fact from fiction, so going to a movie with fake violence is not going to faze me. Though I must admit, when those commercials come on that show cats and dogs in distress, I look away or change the channel.

And this is one trait I do possess. I want to help people, but if something happens that overwhelms me, I will have a tendency to look away, walk away and otherwise get outta there with all due speed.

The article mentioned something about picking up on emotions from a distance. I can remember on the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke early, before the planes hit, which was unusual at the time because I worked second shift and frequently slept in. But something woke me, and I turned on the news. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I went back to bed. 3 hours later I woke again, but by then the towers had fallen. I missed seeing it live, and frankly, I'm glad. The horror would have made a huge impact on me. I likely would have called in sick at that point.

So I am in one sense empathic, but clearly not as sensitive as others. But I got to thinking afterward that while I am empathic to a degree, there's a difference between being empathic and being empathetic. Empaths can sense metaphysical aspects of other creatures, like an aura. I can't say that I've ever seen an aura, but certainly I'm better at sensing emotions than some.

But that isn't the same as knowing how to act around people. Being empathetic means being able to put yourself in someone's shoes so you know how they feel, and as such can know how to deal with them without offending them. One of the traits of an empath, according to that article, is 'mirroring' someone's emotions. And while that is a good thing when that person is calm and collected, it can be a very bad thing when the opposite is true. So while an empath gets angry at someone who is angry, someone who is empathetic will turn that around, soften their voice to someone who is angry and get them to calm down.

And that has taken me a long time to understand. I have worked customer service in one form or another since 1990, when I took a sales job at Radio Shack. I believe it comes from an empathic need to help people who are in need, but the traits of an empath, especially the mirroring, have gotten in the way of me being the best in customer service.

At the end of one of my last jobs, I worked in a call center that handled tech support for Apple computers. Already frazzled by the demands of management, My last call came from a woman who was frustrated because she could not connect to the internet. One of the troubleshooting steps was to remove the wifi connections from her list of connections, but as I instructed her to do that, she became frantic about how she was going to get those connections back. Before I could tell her that she needn't worried about it, she went off the deep end and called it a "Cat-astrophe!" over and over again. The empath in me picked up on her frantic vibes over the phone and unfortunately, I silently mirrored her, panicked and hung up. I was so emotionally damaged by the call that I walked off the job.

That said, for most of my career in customer service, I have been able to distinguish between the right kind of mirroring, where I mimic the talking style of the customer, and the wrong kind of mirroring where I go off the deep end with them. The wrong kind happens with less and less frequency as I gain control over the emotions that others project over me.

And this makes the difference between being empathic and empathetic. Most empaths would shun those that make them uncomfortable, while empathetic people learn how to manage how other people's emotions affect them.

In the end, one can be empathic but not empathetic, or, rather, not know how to be empathetic.