Day 34: Empathetic distress

Photo by  Valeriia Bugaiova  on  Unsplash

One of the major causes of burnout amongst teachers is empathetic stress: the taking on of our students’ (colleagues, administrators, parents, etc) emotions and difficulties as our own. Those of us prone to over-empathizing can arrive home feeling quite drained from being with the tumultuous inner lives of our students.

Today, I met with a student who was angry with another student in our class. He had said something to her she found offensive, and on top of that, she was really upset with his lack of participation in general. As she shared, she was rocking from her toes to her heels, her voice tense with emotion.

When I left the meeting, I could feel my whole body reflectively tense and I found myself upset. My first instinct was to go drown it out with snackies or Netflix, but then I asked myself, what would I tell my students to do here? I had just coached this student to own what was hers, the hurt, and let go of the parts that were not hers to take on, his lack of participation. So what did that look like for me?

I acknowledged that it was a hard conversation and that the sensations in my body were tense and uncomfortable. Then I started taking deep breaths, allowing the sensations to slowly dissipate with each exhale. This allowed me to release some of the charge of the interaction so that I could focus on the content and how I could move forward with both students.

For us to sustain ourselves as teachers, we cannot take home all the emotions and pain of our students. We can consciously help resettle the nervous system by acknowledging how we are affected, using deep breathing, and grounding into the body.

The next time you notice you are wrapping yourself up in the emotions of a student, parent, or colleague, pause and take a moment to breathe deeply and relax the body. Remember, it’s not yours to own.