DateApril 12, 2016

Your co-workers are not your friends

You may love your job and all the people you work with, but at the end of the day you are in a business environment where the goals of the organization are driven by business decisions.

Where I work, I am cordial and friendly with my co-workers. But I keep my outside life mostly out of work. I don’t invite them to my social media profiles. I don’t tell them about my blog. We are not friends. We are not going to get dinner or go see a movie. I keep them at arm’s length because we aren’t friends. We’re co-workers. We’re thrown together in work just as we all went through school with a random collection of people who just happened to be of similar ages.

I don’t wall them off because I want to talk smack about them online. I don’t talk about my co-workers online. I don’t blog about them. I don’t tweet about them. I don’t talk about them. It’s best practice not to because you never know who will find what you’ve said or will look you up. It’s a small world out there and you never know who’s reading or searching what you say. So be safe and don’t say it.

One of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou is, “When people reveal themselves, believe them.”

I believe there is a division between work life and personal life. You may be friendly with co-workers. But they may have different goals and expectations as you. Be ready to always look out for yourself first. No one will take care of you like you.

Avoiding Empathy Burnout

I used to volunteer at a web site for teens looking for help. Some of them needed help with dating or sex questions. Others were looking for relief from abuse from parents, bullies or siblings. Some just needed a friendly ear to talk to and they didn’t have one in their life.

I was there during my last year of high school and first year of college. It was a good place to me since I was a lost, shy person as well. I often noticed the people I volunteered with, other teens/early 20s folks from around the world were also looking for something. We needed the site as much as those who wrote in for help.

We would answer emails, some times as many as 50 per week. And there was a chat room on the site where I would live in the evening hours until the early morning. I was the night owl. I was a mainstay in that room and I loved being there to talk with people. I would hang out in the open chat, but if someone wanted to talk privately, we could easily move our session into a private room.

I helped a lot of people who way and often thought perhaps I had missed my calling as I studied Creative Advertising by day. But I would get so burned out from internalizing people’s problems. I didn’t know how to turn it off. I was burning out, which is why I eventually left.

How to Avoid Empathy Burnout explains the situation well.

Many helpers feel that they face a double bind. They can preserve themselves by growing emotional callouses and blunting their responses to those in need. Or they can throw themselves into building connections with their patients and risk being crushed by the weight of caring.

I was employing emotion contagion. I became overwhelmed quickly and burnout. I needed to use empathic concern.

Emotion Contagion vs. Empathic Concern

I didn’t know there were different types of empathy. How to Avoid Empathy Burnout explains two types of empathy with my emphasis added:

Caregivers need to be empathetic, but empathy is not one thing. Both neuroscience and psychology have uncovered an important distinction between two aspects of empathy: Emotion contagion, which is vicariously sharing another person’s feeling, and empathic concern, which entails forming a goal to alleviate that person’s suffering. Whereas contagion involves blurring the boundary between self and other, concern requires retaining or even strengthening such boundaries.

I consider myself to be a highly empathetic person. I’ve described it as my greatest gift and curse. And I had no idea there was another way to channel that empathy. If I had known that sooner, perhaps I would have followed a different path.

In the end, I work in customer support where I unknowingly learned and implemented empathic concern. I form goals to alleviate suffering through technology rather than through physical or emotional violence.

Forming goals to alleviate suffering is a perfect way to describe any sort of support work. There’s some level of suffering and we’re trying to remove it. It’s hard work and it takes investing part of yourself to connect with people since we’re their digital Sherpas. Our ability to empathize can make a huge difference in how we serve our customers.

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