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.