When it comes to personality types, most people know how to define and identify a “narcissist." However, the polar opposite personality — popularly known as an “empath” — is a bit trickier to pin down.
Psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff defines an empath as “[a person who] feels and absorbs other people’s emotions and/or physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities. They filter the world through their intuition and have a difficult time intellectualizing their feelings.”
If this sounds like you, you may be familiar with the challenges associated with an empathic personality in the workplace. To help you navigate your professional path, we’ve identified 4 personality traits common among empaths, and provided tips for how to handle them in the workplace.
Empaths develop strong emotional connections to others and experience high levels of sensitivity to their surroundings. As a result, many individuals with this personality type require time on their own to decompress and center their focus and attention. As Psychology Today puts it:
“As super-responders, empaths find being around people can be draining, so they periodically need time alone to recharge. Even a brief escape prevents emotional overload. For example, empaths like to take their own cars when they go places so they can leave when they please.”
Of course, this need for “alone time” can present problems in a collaborative office environment. If your professional life involves frequent teamwork and constant exposure to the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of others, practicing self-care when you’re off the clock becomes a crucial element to a balanced existence. When you arrive home, schedule time for yourself to enjoy your own company, whether that be through a warm bubble bath, a meditation session, or just a hour to sit by yourself with a good book. If you find yourself in serious need of solitude during the work day (but you work in an shared office or an open-plan space), try booking a conference room or auxiliary office for an hour to give you a brief stretch of solo work time.
Because empaths feel keenly invested in the wellbeing of others, they frequently offer their assistance whenever possible. And sometimes, that results in emotion overload. According to Dr. Orloff, “empaths are big-hearted people and try to relieve the pain of others. A homeless person holding a cardboard sign, ‘I’m hungry’ at a busy intersection; a hurt child; a distraught friend. It’s natural to want to reach out to them, ease their pain. But empaths don’t stop there. Instead, they take it on. Suddenly they’re the one feeling drained or upset when they felt fine before.”
In a work environment, this personality trait can manifest in a lack of boundary-setting. Your colleague needs help with a major and time-consuming project, and although your agenda is already full, you volunteer to relieve her burden. Ultimately, you find yourself lacking the time and energy to fully commit to any of your projects, culminating in subpar performance and personal exhaustion. The best way to avoid this outcome involves asserting your boundaries and viewing your work responsibilities through a realistic lens. If you have the time and ability to help a coworker, feel free to dive in. But if you’re already dealing with a heavy load of your own, just be honest and graciously decline. If possible, you can ease your dissent by suggesting another solution, like the name of a coworker with similar skills and a lighter workload who might be able to help.
Among the greatest strengths in the empath’s arsenal is her ability to evaluate situations and navigate interactions using the power of intuition. This talent for reading between the lines can serve an empath well in the workplace. Because an empath quickly picks up on signals about her coworkers’ potential reactions, she can present her ideas in a way that’s specifically phrased to appeal to the supervisor or colleague in question.
At the same time, empaths must ensure that their intuitive responses are anchored in facts. If you pitch a project strategy to your boss with “my intuition tells me that this is the right move” as your key argument, that won’t do much to fortify your boss’s confidence. Yes, allow your intuition to guide you. But once you arrive at an idea, back it up with concrete and information-based evidence.
As their name suggests, empaths feel emotions on a heightened scale, and they frequently find themselves swept up in the feelings-based journeys of others. Huffington Post explains it like this:
“Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually open, and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. Through thick and thin, they’re there for you. They're world-class nurturers. But they can easily have their feelings hurt. Empaths are often told that they are ‘too sensitive’ and need to toughen up.”
While “too sensitive” is a derogatory (and, to be honest, heavily gendered) term, empaths do need to learn how to channel their natural sensitivity in a way that makes sense for the workplace. “It’s not personal, it’s business” gets thrown around rather carelessly in pop culture and career-related parlance, but empaths can draw some useful advice from that old chestnut. If an interaction with a coworker affects you negatively, direct communication often proves helpful. Keep work-based conversations clear and project-related, and if a colleague genuinely crosses a line, either address it with her face-to-face or, depending on the severity, mention the encounter to her supervisor.
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