Waterfallwords by Amber Emerald
The Empowered Empath
Where to begin. Firstly, this is NOT an expert opinion. I am not trained in psychiatric nursing or psychology. This is purely based on my personal experiences. If you’re reading a blog post about harnessing your emotional energy, I have to assume that you have some history of emotional volatility. So I won’t bother painting the picture of a 7-year-old Amber, who elected to watch cartoons prior to completing her homework, crying in the corner of her room post-“I’m disappointed in your decisions” parent lecture. That image is not particularly important except to note that my anxiety and hypersensitivity were present from an early age. But why? What was the cause of my anxiety and hypersensitivity. Let’s start with my personal theory:
The Baby Gets The Bulk
I am the youngest of my family. My only sibling is five years my senior. Every family has a hierarchy but in a black, Caribbean family the pecking order is infamously inflexible. (Disclaimer: I adore my family. They are loving and supportive in every way. This is just my truth and I’m certain that this was not a carefully orchestrated plan to guarantee my hypersensitivity). In short, everyone in my house had an opportunity to express their unfiltered opinions, emotions, etc. except for me. As the youngest, I was expected to defer to everyone in my household. I was never the one giving the “I’m disappointed in you” lecture and rarely did I ever get an apology when someone else was in the wrong. I was just expected to take whatever I was dealt. These episodes were infrequent, but they had a substantial impact on my ability to cope with stressors and internal conflict.
School was a different story. I was surrounded by my peers and didn’t have to fear the consequences of sharing my honest feelings. I wasn’t running wild and free cursing people or WWE body slamming anyone, but I was comfortable calling out my peers when I felt attacked or belittled. By the time I was in middle school, I was keenly aware of the fact that my hypersensitivity was only a factor in my home.
My hypersensitivity also had its repercussions. It was pinpointed as my fatal flaw and so I actively avoided situation (getting into conflict with my sibling or breaking house rules) that would require me to stifle my feelings or opinions (maybe I felt the rules or the treatment was unfair) and subsequently trigger a tearful response. This created tons of anxiety around being “perfect.” If I never messed up, I wouldn’t be lectured (without any space to discuss my motives, feelings, reasoning) I wouldn’t cry in response to the lecture or lay on my bed replaying the scenario (and my opportunity to make a different decision) for hours on end and I wouldn’t be shamed for my “dramatic” reaction. I think we all know how that worked out.
Most of my anxiety was related to school since this was the majority of my responsibility as a child. As the expectations surrounding my academic achievements grew, I developed terrible testing anxiety. Any time that I fell short of that mark, that sad little girl would curl up in a ball and feel the weight of the emotions crush her entirely flat. And as infrequent as those moments were, each time brought back memories and emotions of the last. I was compounding my shame.
Over the next few years, my family, recognizing my autonomy as an adult, dispensed with the occasional lecture. In fact, they became concerned that I had become obsessive about school and grades and that anxiety would swallow me whole. They were right. I went off to college where my stress and testing anxiety grew exponentially and I became my own enforcer. I was giving myself the disappointed lecture and punishing myself indefinitely for my shortcomings.
Most available research argues for the opposite. The last born is considered the spoiled slacker who skates by without being held accountable for their actions, existing in staunch contrast to their first born counterpart. The perfectionist approach commonly attributed to the first-born child has been identified as the greatest contributor to anxiety. I suppose there are many last-born outliers. I’d be interested in a study that investigates the contributing factors to last-born outliers and anxiety.
So what changed?
*ENERGY CONSERVATION. My initial motivation to change my pattern was my Crohn’s disease diagnosis. I was chronically fatigued and falling asleep in the middle of studying on a good day. I did not have the energy to keep beating myself up. Not if I intended to reach my fullest potential.
*ANXIOUS NOT CRAZY. I put a word to the feelings that I had. Empath (previously referred to as hypersensitive) and anxiety. The empath in me felt the disappoint that my actions elicited in others and the anxiety was the fear of causing and enduring that pain. I accepted that this was not a defect, but a warning signal from my brain that I was not coping well with the circumstances I was in. Please note that I do not categorize my anxious tendencies as anxiety disorder. Mental health disorders are characterized by an inability to perform daily tasks or function as needed (e.g. panic attacks, unwillingness to leave the house, etc.). I would implore anyone suffering from anxiety disorder to seek professional help.
*POSITIVE INNER MONOLOGUE. When I feel myself getting overwhelmed and I can feel the anxiety tie a knot around my heart, I have my inner monologue. I care about me and I can verbalize my feelings clearly to myself and decide on a course of action that brings me peace while still completing the tasks and responsibilities I have as a functioning adult.
*FAMILY SUPPORT. As I stated before, at this ripe old age, my family is confident in my morality and work ethic and exists only to uplift and support me. I confide in them often and there is a tremendous sense of peace in having your family validate your feelings and confirm your capabilities. I also found that each person in my home appreciated my willingness to listen without interruption or rebuttal and reciprocate validation. I understood how it felt to be the smallest person in the room and I gave my input in ways that acknowledged the individual’s need to be seen and heard. Acting as emotional support for others made me feel important and taught me how to speak positively to myself.
*WHEN TO SAY WHEN. Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, you must know when to STOP. This applies to schoolwork, to social interaction, to anxiety-inducing activities in general. Of course, as adults, we don’t always have the luxury to remove ourselves from stressful situations, but when you do have the opportunity, take it to resolve inner conflict. Ex: Last week I spent upwards of 18-hours of a single day working on a paper. The paper doesn’t have a hard deadline, but I was determined to enforce my own deadline and finish that night. My eyes and temples were throbbing, my thought processes were slowing to a halt and I could feel the anxiety creeping into my subconscious. “Why can’t I just bang this out? Why can’t I push through it?” The pain in my back was turning to stiffness when I suddenly realized that there was no need for me to push through tonight. I could save the energy for another day. I closed my computer mid-sentence, took a warm shower and watching a Disney movie to fill the nooks and crannies of my brain until sleep took over.
I am every bit as ambitious and self-motivated as the next person. For many years, I believed that my anxiety disqualified me as a leader. I see now that my lack of self-care and inflexibility were prohibiting me from utilizing my empathetic nature as a tool to communicate effectively. Let’s analyze some of the benefits of empathy in the professional setting:
*DIRECT PATIENT CARE. Establishment of patient-provider trust through patient-centered communication. Patients report warmth and empathy as pivotal criteria for measuring active listening among providers.
*GROUP PROJECTS. When polar opposite leadership styles collide, group projects can become stressful. I am fairly adept at accepting criticism especially prior to a final submission. In my view, it’s simply an opportunity to make corrections for a better grade. When I give criticism to someone who identifies (or I identify) as a facilitator, I crank up the emotional intelligence. I know that I should not give criticism without praise if I want this individual to continue to be an effective team member.
This article is in part a love letter to myself. With each passing year, I become more accepting of my flaws and I may even convert a few of them to strengths. I hope that you were able to connect with something in this article and begin your own journey to healing and harnessing your power. To my nurses, never lose sight of your empathy; it is the foundation on which our profession is built and gives your expert opinion tremendous credibility in your patient’s eyes. You are your first and last patient so advocate for yourself and your abilities.
Visit: http://www.dalecarnegiewaynj.com/2012/04/10/define-your-leadership-style-and-tendencies/ to learn more about leadership styles.