When asked in an interview, “what is your greatest strength?” I answer, “empathy”. When asked, “what is your biggest weakness?” I answer, “empathy”.
Since I was a baby, I was told I was sensitive. Too sensitive. On school report cards growing up, I remember seeing “very sensitive” in the notes section of the report. I used to try and hide my sensitivity because I thought it was a weakness, something to be ashamed of. It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to see this sensitivity, particularly my sensitivity towards others, as a gift that set me a part from others in a good way. It was in college that I realized that my sensitivity towards others was actually a great gift; it was empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the ability to share someone’s feelings. As Brené Brown perfect depicted in her video, it’s about seeing someone in a dark place and being able to crawl down in that hole with them and say, “I know what it’s like down here. And you’re not alone”. Providing empathy to someone going through a hard time is the most essential foundation for support.
As I wanted to become a clinical social worker, being empathetic was drilled into our student brains over and over again in school, like a math equation that we had to memorize. But what I realize now is that empathy is not something that can be taught, it’s something that you are, and something that we are not all able to be. To be empathetic requires you to see someone in their deepest and darkest place, and take yourself there in your own personal way, to remember that feeling. Empathy is seeing when someone is depressed, remembering what it was like to be depressed in your own life, what that felt like, and taking yourself there again to be able to say “Hey, I get it”. Not everyone is able to do that. Not everyone wants to be able to do that.
As I finished school and began practicing and seeing clients, I realized more and more what an amazing gift I had been given. While there are always treatment plans and interventions with every client, the basis and beginnings were always started with pure and simple empathy. My ability to empathize built all of my client relationships and I quickly realized how much of a difference it makes in someone’s life just to have someone listen to them without judgement. It’s surprising how many suffering people there are out there, and how many of them feel entirely alone in their pain. Having someone understand their pain and listen without judgment is a first for many people and can often be the beginning of healing. Empathy truly has amazing healing powers.
Empathy, while being my greatest gift for helping others, is also my painful never-ending curse. Empathy, being part of who I am as a person and not a skill I can turn on and off, means I empathize even when I don’t want to. Even when I don’t want to take myself down into that deep and dark hole with someone, even when I don’t know them personally, my emotions and my heart takes over and takes me down there with them.
I was recently watching a hockey game, Montreal Canadiens versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, where the Canadiens lost 10-0. As the crowd around me laughed and the jokes and memes rolled in over social media, all I felt was immense sadness. I kept imagining what it must feel like for the goalie, Al Montoya, who was in net that night. Am I a big hockey fan? Not more than the average Canadian. Do I know how he was actually feeling? No. But empathy is part of who I am, and I naturally imagined myself in his shoes and how I would feel, and I felt an overwhelming wave of sadness. Maybe Al Montoya is laughing it off, maybe he used to that kind of pressure, maybe he’s okay. But when people joked about it for days after and asked, “why aren’t you laughing?”, I replied, “because I don’t find it funny. It’s probably not easy for him what happened and what’s going on in the media.” They asked me, “why do you care?” I care because I don’t know how not to. I feel.
Every time I meet a new client or hear a sad story on the news, my empathy takes me to that place with them, it takes me to that hole. I used to get stuck in that hole and would have difficulty getting myself out, even after the client was gone or the story was well over, left with dark feelings and memories that were hard to shake off. But now I know how to crawl myself out: self-care. The deeper the hole, the more self-care I do. Long walks with my dog, whom has been the key to managing my own past struggles with anxiety and depression. Singing happy music in the shower (current choice: White Christmas by Bing Crosby, as it triggers the happiest of memories). And so many others that I have learned over the years.
I’ve been told 100 times, “you’re too sensitive”. Oh yeah, I know. Completely. Entirely. I’m very sensitive. But with sensitivity, comes empathy. And in the end, I’d dig myself out of a million holes to be able to help one more person.