Empathy has a somewhat ambiguous definition these days because people don’t understand the difference between higher frequency empathic abilities and our innate ability as the human species to emotionally relate to one another, wether through experience or sheer sensitivity to someone’s projected emotions. The trick here is, however, when you have anxieties and stresses of your own and you have someone in front of you freaking out, how do you differentiate between what emotions are yours and which ones are your friends, clients, partners etc?
I’ve got a new job these days. Working for a recruitment agency with over 2,000 cases in our books and those cases are categorised by seriousness of barriers. These barriers can be financial, mental, educational etc.
My job is to treat every case with the idea that they are employable and to essentially find them a job. But how do you get someone with a barrier like severe anxiety and depression to listen to you? And when you’re someone like me, who’s already dealing with anxiety, to be able to openly talk to another person about it without bringing the symptoms unto yourself ?
Speak from experience. Make the anxiety the playing field and you and the other person are the players.
When I saw “Melissa” in my office today I asked her how she’s going. It was hard for her to hold back the tears. The look of desperation, confusion and nostalgia of who she used to be was very clear. And it was clearly reflecting on me.
I took her emotions and made them my own and soon I found myself feeling overwhelmed and distressed. I had to diffuse the situation because if I was caught up in it I would be of very little help to her. I quickly decided that the best course of action was to relate ” I know exactly how you feel…” I said and from there the conversation took a shift of elation and approval. She now trusted me and she was able to calm down just enough to put me at ease.
The idea here is that if you have someone in front of you that is experiencing such a high state of emotion, you need to find the even playing field in order to subside the situation as well as keep your personal anxieties at bay. In my case I did that by relating, by explaining to my client that she wasn’t alone in this because in truth, people may feel alone and hopeless but we know that this isn’t true.
I quickly finished our discussion, sent her on her way, and nearly tripped over my feet running to my desk and reaching for a bottle of ‘rescue remedy’. I realised then that I still have a bit of work to do but at the same time, if this was me say 3 years ago this could’ve gone south very quickly.
I sat at my desk for a while and assessed what just happened. I was in awe with the situation because even though it was so confronting, I used tools that I learned along the way for myself and I was able to make “Melissa’s” anxieties real in a way that we both understood. I went on to say to her that her anxiety isn’t necessarily truth. That her body has been tricked into thinking its anxious and that her preconceived idea of how this appointment would go is the trigger.
In a way, talking to her about her own mental health, put mine at ease. It got me thinking rationally and it gave me that extra push I needed to snap out of it and although, I have a long way to go still with my own mental health, I felt triumphant that day, because I didn’t allow the lies my body was feeling overcome the truth of the situation. I was able to do my job efficiently and still make sure I cared for my client without reaching for a paper bag.
I won that day.