On managing the empathy gland

Saying ‘there’s someone worse off’ isn’t helping you or them. It’s not empathy. It’s not being mindful. It’s just denying the permission you need to acknowledge the challenges of this situation. We’re all allowed to be finding this a struggle. And we should do that. By acknowledging our own situation we’re more likely to be help others with theirs.

I’ve been trying to work out why these past few weeks have drained my energy. It’s not that I’ve taken on more work necessarily. My ‘slate’ is the same it was two months ago. My working environment hasn’t changed either. I’m working at home just as I was last year and the year before that.

What has changed in the space of three weeks are the number of conversations I’m having with people on the phone. And, importantly, the number of people I’ve actively sought out to have a conversation with.

More real conversations more less energy

This is a marked change from a month ago, where most exchanges were conducted over WhatsApp messages, SMS, email or Messenger. I’ve gone from interacting with people via digital messaging (with all of the mental processing that demands) to shifting to an entirely different style of interacting: one far more real and present. And therefore exhausting.

Just last night, as I was texting a handful of pals to see how they were doing, I began to wonder whether my motivation was right: was I messaging those people for their benefit (so that those people knew I was thinking of them) or for mine? And if it was the latter, was that the right reason? After all, just because I’m wobbling a bit that doesn’t means the people I’m messaging are. Maybe they’re coping just fine without me fussing all around them.

Stop taking on so and start toughening up?

Was I just someone who wanted to ‘glom on’ to someone else’s troubles or challenges? Did I need to butt out? And, given my energy levels right now, did I need to just care a whole lot less? Was I just being a pain in the arse (even though I was trying to be thoughtful? Instead of ‘taking on so’, did I need to ‘toughen up’? I fell asleep on the sofa soon after.

Waking up this morning feeling flat, I immediately recalled two stories from my childhood.

The first was way back when I was in my pre-prep school. Park Croft School was based in Risby but regularly made use of the nearby Culford School’s swimming pool on a Wednesday afternoon. During one such session – lots of small blobs arm-banded up, looking nervously towards the water from the wooden bench at the side – what appeared like a medical emergency ensued.

Panic in the swimming pool

James Waters – by my recollections one of the tough boys in the pack – seemed to be thrashing around in the water. There was an agonised face. Two teachers bent over the side of the pool looking concerned.

Everyone around me seemed to be laughing. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were laughing at. I was curious. I watched as both teachers knelt down at the side of the pool, issued soothing words and a long arm out to James and plucked him out of the water. More laughing ensued as James shivered in a towel looking frightened but relieved.

I don’t really remember what I said out loud. It probably took everyone else by surprise. It usually does. Its usually at that point when I end up feeling guilty, remorseful or regretful. I often end up apologising at that point.


On this occasion, I remember feeling embarrassed afterwards. It must have been something like, “Why are you all laughing? He was in pain.” I can’t believe it would have been as eloquent as that, but the meaning was that. Undoubtedly. My memory is clear on one thing: at that one moment in time, I was consumed by being concerned about the kid in the pool. Once the shivering James had been attended to, the teacher then turned her attention to the laughing crowd of kids on the bench, and me. “It was nothing,” she said. “It’s just something called ‘a cramp’. Everyone gets it every now and again.” Cue more laughter.

Stupid angry maths teacher

The second story relates to something that happened six or seven years later. At Culford School. After a Maths lesson. I’ve written about this before on the blog (though that post has now succumbed to a database hack) so regular readers may remember this. It bears telling again.

The Upper Fifth C Set Maths had a new teacher leading them through towards their GCSE Maths exam. Mr Woodliffe. A man with a big nose, a receeding hairline, and a problem asserting authority. His methodology was to use the first lesson we had together to trash his predecessors achievements, and then outline how regular (and incessant) testing combined with uncompromising mid-term reports to our parents would, whether we liked it or not, increase our comprehension, retention and, ultimately, our grades.

Compared to the last teacher – affable, persuasive, compelling and utterly adorable – Mr Woodliffe lacked any kind of charisma whatsoever. There was even a question as to whether he wanted to teach at all.

Confronting the shouty-man

Whilst we were all obedient, it seemed pretty obvious to me that if you wanted us to engage with the product you were going to have go a whole lot further at building rapport with us, and doing that should start with not trashing what’s gone before. Also, that mid-term reporting thing? Was that actually allowed?

I and a pal hung around at his desk at the end of the lesson. “It’s not fair you talking about the previous teacher like that,” I piped up, “We all really liked him. He was really popular.” Mr Woodliffe said nothing. “And we’ve never had mid-term reports before and none of the other teachers are doing them. They would have said to us.”

Even writing it down now, my words (if I’ve recalled them correctly) seem perfectly reasonable. Bold, yes, but not rude. Mr Woodliffe didn’t agree. In fact, Mr Woodliffe went fucking wild. His face went red. His wirey hair appear to spark into life. His nose expanded. And he shouted loud. And pointed. In fact, he screamed in my face. I felt my legs wobble, then my shoulders. Then I turned to my pal standing next to me to discover that he seemed to have disappeared already. I left the room in a hurry, passing the sixth formers queuing up outside for the next lesson.

Later that same day when I was stood in the lunch queue, the Head of the Maths department impressed on me the need for respecting one’s elders, insisting that it would be in everybody’s best interests if I extended an apology and remembered what the teacher-pupil dynamic was really about. I did as I was told. The apology wasn’t especially heartfelt. I might as well have phoned it in. Mr Woodliffe left his post at the end of that term.

These stories now have different interpretations

On those occasions when I’ve revisited both of those events my interpretation of them has changed.

The first at the swimming pool is about me being concerned about what was happening to someone else. My peers obviously thought I was a bit weird to be so concerned and, to a certain extent, I’ve long thought that too. An early signal to every one that I was a bit weird, probably effeminate, almost certainly gay, and fair game for the rest of his schooldays. The die was caste early.

The second story – me confronting the teacher – I’ve long seen as uncharacteristic bravery. Foolhardiness. Idiocy. Perhaps even sport. As though I seek out those opportunities to be different from everyone else, opportunities when I can ‘poke the bear’. TV dramas would cast these individuals as troublemakers, desperate to get a reaction and giggling when they get it. But my reaction was fear. Though, interestingly not so much fear that it made me step back from such opportunities in the future.

Me me me

Both stories have long been interpreted by me as me obsessing about me. Evidence of my continued self-absorbedness. Yet more reasons of why I should stop thinking of myself and start thinking of others more. Start thinking of the team instead of responding to how you’ve experienced something.

But how I interpret both of those stories has changed in the past week. That’s partly because I’ve noticed I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the past three weeks speaking to people on the phone. I’ve wanted to see people in video. I’ve wanted to check in to see how they’re doing. And at the end of every day I’ve felt exhausted by that. And I’m beginning to wonder whether that is a bit strange.

Empathy – it’s a bastard

Here’s what I think now about those two incidents: they show empathy.

On both occasions, I was responding to how I perceived others to be feeling. The act of being mindful about them – the first about the kid with cramp, and the other about how everyone felt betrayed by the new teacher’s view of his predecessor’s effectiveness – wasn’t a weakness but a strength.

(Well, OK. You might also look at both stories as me perceiving or assuming the feelings of others, or worse projecting my feelings onto them. But, for the purposes of this, let’s press on as we were.)

And that same strength is what I and loads of other similarly minded people are drawing on right at this moment in time. And I write this not to big myself up (I quite understand if, like the kids on the bench at the swimming pool you think I really am bigging myself up), but to pose a question.

How do we manage ourselves at this moment in time? This question extends further than the obvious sources of stress like the health of a loved one, where one’s income is going to come from, or the state of the economy. It’s about the additional energy required to think about our own network.

What’s going on in your network?

My network extends across professional and personal contacts. It is about my work, their work, and their circumstances. It’s to do with the underlying health issues of the man who signs off my monthly invoices, just as it is about the lifelong pal whose sailing business is (excuse the pun) dead in the water because no one is allowed to go out. My network contains NHS workers (one of whom has contracted the virus), octogenarian relatives with significant health concerns, and a former music teacher who is currently undergoing chemotherapy for stage four cancer. And it contains people half my age grappling with the possibility of losing their jobs and their sense of purpose.

Thinking of all of those different stories across my network is enough to drag me down. It’s not my drama I’m thinking about, but theirs. And – feel free to throw spears at me for this – I can’t help but think of them and reach out to them so they know they’re in my thoughts.

At what point is it OK to say to yourself, “Enough with the empathy. Take the rest of the week off? They’re quite capable of looking after themselves. They don’t need you fussing around them?” Who knows.

It’s a marathon not a sprint

Not everybody demonstrates thoughtfulness. I see plenty of people trot out the ‘unprecedent times’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’ in emails, as though that’s sufficient to refer to the situation without getting in too deep. There’s a superficiality to that approach I find. A near insincerity. Lip service. Coldness.

Similarly, we are at a stage in this crisis when I’m already hearing people qualify their own feelings with “But there are people far worse off than me.” That’s saddening in itself – a reflection of the way society denies us the chance to truly acknowledge how all of this is making us feel, replacing the horror with a sense of guilt.

I would rather think about others and the situation they might be facing and have them know that I’m there for them, than think that value that has been with me for years – empathy – is something of a problem. What I need to do right now is find a way of managing the energy needed for empathy and the after effects.

Not everybody can cope with empathy – being on the receiving end of it, I mean. But I think we need to recognise its importance right now. And to find a way of sitting with it. For all of our sakes. By doing so we’ll develop our own levels of mental resilience in a meaningful and sustainable way both for ourselves and for others.

And by resilience – let’s knock this one on the head – I’m not saying we need to ‘toughen up’. Resilience is not mental ‘toughness’ like I’ve seen on one email.

Resilience is about being able to spring back from a situation: being able to identify what is going on in the mind at any given time and deploy the appropriate methodology to help get it back on track. And that in itself demands being able to acknowledge the challenges we face and others face without fear. Now seems exactly the right time to be empathetic. Or at least trying to be.