According to a raft of scientific researcher, empathy makes you a better leader. But while identifying with others can get you ahead in life, it can also be pretty stressful.
Think of the truly dedicated teacher struggling to help frustrated, struggling students. Feeling their pain makes him better at his job, but it can also cause burn out. Or imagine the doctor who cares deeply about her patients. She's the one you want to perform your surgery, but she might also be more emotionally exhausted because of her dedication.
Being highly empathetic, in other words, can seem like a great way to open yourself up to greater stress. But that's the wrong way to look at your capacity to connect with others, according to Stanford psychologist and stress reduction expert Kelly McGonigal.
Empathy, she argues in a The Greater Good Science Center post, is actually the antidote to stress, not its cause.
Take off the emotional hazmat suit.
Highly empathetic people often deal with the stress of others' pain by creating "stronger emotional barriers--to put on a psychological Hazmat suit to protect against the stress and suffering you don't want to catch," writes McGonigal. That's an understandable impulse, but it's not the right approach.
Rather than try to fight your naturally empathetic nature, McGonigal suggests you use it your advantage. You might experience others' negative emotions more than average, but that means you also feel their joy more intensely too. And that's the best stress buster there is.
"You might have seen studies showing that seeing other people in pain can activate the pain system in your own brain. It turns out your brain will also resonate with positive emotions. For example, when you witness other's good fortune, it can activate the brain's reward system. Moreover, this kind of contagious happiness can be an important source of well-being," McGonigal points out.
How to use your empathy to bust stress
The key to using empathy to bust -- rather than create -- stress is to actively seek out moments of joy that can slingshot your mood from cranky to happy. There are plenty of them, McGonigal insists, once you give up the idea that joy is only about huge accomplishments or life-changing events:
Other forms of joy exist all around us. As you begin to look for joy, you will notice more and more of them. There is the joy of pleasures, simple or sublime, such as enjoying a delicious meal, listening to music, or savoring how it feels to hold a baby in your arms. There is the joy of purpose, and how it feels to contribute, work hard, learn, and grow. There is the joy of being connected to something bigger than yourself, be it nature, family, or faith. There is the joy of wonder--being curious, experiencing new things, and feeling awe or surprise.
All you need to do is train your brain to see these small moments of joy. Make a point of watching out for displays of human goodness, athletic, musical or other talent, or the simple but profound pleasure of watching children or animals play. As a highly empathetic person you'll get a huge shot of joy even from these everyday occurrences, and that can be a powerful counterweight to the stress you catch from others.
Do you find your empathy adds to your stress, or helps mitigate it?