Confessions of an Empath

If you’re an empath, as I am, people can wear you down. As I watched students stream into the classroom, my mirror neurons would start firing, and I’d start feeling what students felt. I’d notice eyes that were glazed and angry, gaits that were swaggering and dragging. I’d see a kids hunkered down in hoodies or hiding behind hair. I could find trouble in one glance. And what I saw often exhausted me.

I was a sponge, absorbing their pain. Most students liked knowing their vibes mattered. This emotional bond drew them in. When they knew I cared, they were willing to learn.

But I had a few things to learn myself. From the cradle, I had been taught to give until it hurt and that part of caring for others meant suffering myself. And while I wanted to stay generous toward my students, I was overwhelmed. With a hundred students rotating through my room every day, I needed a tool.

And I found it in a diagram called The Mud Hole.

This diagram showed me what I didn’t want to become—a detached teacher, looking down with pity at struggling students. It also showed me where I was too often—in the mud hole, slugging around with students who needed care. And when I over identified in this way, I had little energy for other students and myself and my family.

But the diagram also gave me a way forward. Reining in my empathy, I found, made it stronger. I learned to reach out with one hand and hold to my sources with the other, to keep my own feelings separated from theirs. The space between us made me a better listener because I was less engulfed, less clouded with their pain.

This middle ground is hard to find. It’s easier to look down from above or to slide all the way into the bottom of the pit. There is an art to being partly in and partly out. But for me, this rooted empathy was the only way to keep teaching with love for thirty years.

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