Similar to college and online dating apps, corporate America is not a place best suited for everyone, and it certainly isn’t the poster child for inclusion. But it’s a place many of us find ourselves, and if navigating through the windy roads of life can prove dizzying, navigating the sterile hallways of corporate America can be paralyzing.
The corporate environment tends to favor the emotionally numb or neutral, and rewards the networkers and room workers. It’s a playground for professional performers, and can feel like a war zone for those who wear their heart on their sleeve, like empaths such as myself.
And although we aren’t always as passionate about climbing the ladder or promoting our personal campaigns in the world of office politics, we are very passionate about people, as well as paying our rent and being financially stable. So there’s a lot of “figuring this thing out” that goes on. How are we to succeed in such a world?
As a result, this is my truncated, unofficial guide on how to survive the workplace as an empath.
Are you an empath?
An empath is a person who is highly sensitive, and has the gift—though, at times, the burden—to sense what those around them are thinking and feeling, and often takes on other people’s pain as their own. Before I had the language to know what I was feeling, I just knew things felt intense. I seemed to live in a heightened state of sensitivity; I was so deeply intuitive I swear I thought I was psychic (OK, I still might think that). And I just “got” people in such a way that it felt like they were pulled towards me.
Eventually, after countless Google searches like “people who feel all the feels,” and an untold number of hours in therapy, I finally had a word, a self-descriptor, an answer: I am an empath. Living as an empath is a bit like living life as an open wound—raw, sensitive to the touch, and prone to infection when encountered with something (or someone) cancerous. (But uh, not as outwardly gross looking. At least, I hope.)
At work, we feel the energy of the coworker who had a bad weekend, the disappointment of a peer who didn’t get the promotion they wanted, but also the joy of the person who did. If most people feel like their work days resemble Groundhog Day, us benevolent busy bees experience our 9-to-5 like a supersonic revolving door powered by our emotions: it’s fast paced, a little unpredictable, and people are always coming in and out.
And just like when you’re about to enter such a door, to best protect your heart at work as an empath you have to understand what you’re going into, limit whom is alongside you, push forward, and know when to get out.
At work, we feel the energy of the coworker who had a bad weekend, the disappointment of a peer who didn’t get the promotion they wanted, but also the joy of the person who did.
Understand what you’re going into
Last year, I was having a session with my therapist, and was once again losing my sanity over work-related issues.
“You approach all of your interactions with a relational currency. You treat everyone as a friend, because you believe everyone deserves a friend. However, to survive in the workplace, you’ll need to know most people see interactions as swift, emotionless transactions.”
“But I don’t want to see it that way. I want to inspire people to care.”
“Until your expectations reflect the fact that people aren’t as compassionate or empathetic as you, then you will continue to be disappointed and heartbroken by the real world, especially corporate America.”
Yeah, I know, mic drop.
There are unspoken yet sanctioned rules regarding workplace conduct, and many organizations adhere to a “check your emotions at the door” policy. There’s backpedaling, backstabbing, and background checks that have nothing to do with HR, and empaths notice it all—and, subsequently, experience it all second-hand. In time, we come to acknowledge a subset of truths about the world. It is not to condone or support such statements, but without the admission, one is essentially going into The Revolving Door with a blindfold. (Ouch.)
Here are the principles all empaths should know:
- Not everyone is kind, and you should not come to expect kindness from everyone.
- Your energy is valuable, and not everyone is worth it.
- You cannot help everyone, and not everyone wants your help.
- It is not your responsibility to save people, to heal people, or to help people past a point at work.
- Some people cannot feel as deeply as you, and do not want to feel as deeply as you.
- Because you can feel it, doesn’t mean you caused it.
Once these truths are acknowledged, that is when the true protection begins.
Limit whom is alongside you
I’m not trying to break out the crystals or anything, but those who are tender-hearted can be very energy-sensitive people, meaning it can prove to be a burdensome responsibility to carry the emotions of others, and you don’t want to take on just anyone’s issues. But where you can avoid toxic friends or limit your interaction with family members, you usually can’t avoid your coworkers. And since I’m in HR, I can tell you, there’s no employee benefit or employment law that saves you from everyday bad energy.
The thing to remember is that there is only so much room in The Revolving Door. Determine the kind of coworkers you want to bring close to you and have your exit strategy ready when the office gossiper or the bulldozing boss is around. I’ve personally adopted the go-to lines, “I wish I could chat longer, but I need to prepare for a meeting,” and “I’m sorry you’re feeling X, that must be frustrating.” There is no need for continued problem solving, prolonged conversation, or an exchange of precious energy. You owe no one your energy.
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Push forward (with self-care)
Did you really think you’d get out of this discussion without the mention of self-care? When sympathetic people are drained, they experience frequent bouts of burnout and will oftentimes detach themselves or indulge in unhealthy habits to refill their tanks. Regardless of if you self-identify as an empath or not, if you do not have a sense of self-preservation at work, you might experience amplified jolts of paranoia,—and all of the feels.
I’ve felt the seduction of self-denial and the pressure to “keep pushing through.” Like clockwork, I always hit my pressure point and isolate myself from others, retreat and hide at my desk, or work at home for days on end to avoid taking on any more energy from others.
Having a self-care strategy will help in overwhelming seasons of life; and building one takes a healthy amount of self-discovery. While it’s bound to look different for everyone, I have personally found keeping a running list of “little happy things” on my phone is great. The list houses favorite go-to songs, YouTube clips, and essential oil fragrances that lift my spirits when I’m feeling a bit spent. I also keep a hidden journal in my desk for times when I need to write my thoughts out or just need to distract myself and draw. Most importantly, I make sure I have a life full of creative projects and goals outside of work; a life worthy of my energy, my care, and my attention.
The greatest gift an empath can give themselves is the same compassion, wisdom, and insight they show others, no matter where they work.
Know when to get out
Deeply compassionate employees can be a workplace’s secret weapon. They are able to anticipate needs, see around corners, and are often some of the most trusted team members by leaders. And this can result in a sense of security and value, a cultivation of relationships and deep connections, and trust within their team, rewards that make them feel recognized and fulfilled.
Savvier and more self-protective empaths will see the opportunity in their gift. They’ll leverage relationships, have the precision to identify their underlying issues within a company’s organization or product, and can likely predict where the company, or even the industry is heading from speaking with employees, customers, and clients.
Should an empath be less than opportunistic (most are), corporate America can ultimately prove to be a leech, sucking out the spirit and soul out of them. It is OK to conclude corporate America isn’t best suited for you and to find a field in which your gift is valued and protected. The greatest gift an empath can give themselves is the same compassion, wisdom, and insight they show others, no matter where they work.