Over Empathetic Teacher Syndrome Explained

“ I felt like an emotional dumpster, and I felt helpless because no one was coming to clean out my trash…”  Clara barely mumbled, her voice nothing more than a squeak above a whisper.

“Everything the kids were going through, I adopted as my own problem.  Every pain, hardship, and crappy moment of their lives I took on as my own issue- involuntarily.  I burned out...  I burned out not from the work, stress, or all of that, but because after a while I was unable to distinguish the feelings of my students from my own feelings.  It was terrible.”

A lot of teachers leave teaching.  Leaders and administrators are struggling and scrambling to find out why young exceptional teachers walk away. 

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an answer.  Poor pay?  Crappy conditions?  Aggressive parents?  Everything seems to add up and a new teacher is often burning the candle from both ends with a butane torch.

But Clara had a different story.  She is exceptionally smart an unbearably motivated.  She gets teaching.  However she decided not to return to her third year in the classroom.  As a young educator looking to answer the teacher attrition issue, I asked her a painful question that lead to the above response.

“Did you give up?”

Clara and I have been close family friends, so I expected her answer to be frank- perhaps  “I wasn’t paid enough, and I’m smart enough to be successful at anything.”  What I received was a little more gritty and soul-bearing.

“When I saw a student crying, I wanted to cry.  When I contacted CPS regarding suspicious marks on a student’s upper arm, I felt abused.  When I listened to a parent unnecessarily scold their child for a mistake, I felt belittled…I really felt like people were dumping their emotions into a metaphorical container that I embodied.  I was an emotional dumpster and by the end of the day I was mentally drained- just absolutely vacant.”

An emotional dumpster is a powerful image and a lot of us can relate; we share her feelings.  Being “mentally drained” is a phrase that is redefined as educators step out of the classroom.

Always searching for an explanation that makes sense, I chalked up Clara’s reason for leaving as an expression of her over sensitivity.  She has always been emotionally fragile and it makes sense that she was hypersensitive to feelings in the classroom environment.  She was one, isolate case of leaving teaching due to the emotional burden.

As I discussed my conversation with Clara to my PLN, I was surprised to find that others have similar stories of educators internalizing the feelings of their students.  Perhaps, as a group, teachers are simply more empathetic.  Maybe that’s why we become teachers, because we are more in tune with the needs of our learners.  Are teachers innately more sympathetic and empathetic than others?  Do educators have what we’ll call Over Empathetic Teacher Syndrome?

The answer came from an unexpected place.

Unable to sleep last night , I pulled out the latest issue of The Week and lazily flipped to the last page.

The headline:
He knows just how you feel

was staring at me.

What the piece described was a painful explanation for Over Empathetic Teacher Syndrome

Dr. Salinas is a remarkable individual; a neuroscientist that feels the feelings of others.

He’ll watch a needle enter a patient and feel discomfort on his own body in the same spot.  He’ll observe someone sitting cross-legged and feel the tangle in his legs.  He’ll watch someone answer a phone call and feel a phone pressed against his own cheek.

I say feel as if it is a physical sensation because it is.  He physically feels the phone on his face and the prick of the needle in his arm.

His experiences aren’t limited to physical expressions and sensations.  He’ll feel sorrow when observing someone sad and happy when around someone elated.  His body responds to observed emotions as if he was experiencing the same thing.

To put it plainly, Dr. Salinas is mentally drained after a day at the hospital because he literally feels the feelings of his patients.

The defining characteristic of a mirror-touch synesthestes is that they “struggle with the constant intrusion of others’ feelings.”

In other words, they involuntarily internalize the moods of others.

It sounds familiar doesn’t it?

To be clear, I am not claiming that teachers are mirror-touch synethestes.  I am making a connection; a statement saying that just as with any personality trait or behavioral condition, the potential for empathy is a spectrum.  On one end, you have diagnosed socio and psychopaths, on the other, mirror-touch synthestes. 

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most educators trend away from the psychopaths and towards the synethestes. 

Is this a downfall, a negative thing, and something we need to cope with?

No, not unless the emotion is overwhelming.

Is this something we should acknowledge, that teachers are perhaps more empathetic than others?

Yes, I think so and I consider a higher degree of empathy a strength.

Embrace your ability to read the minds of your students and use it to educate.  How do you compartmentalize?  How do you cope with retaining the emotions of your students?  Share your thoughtsand feelings with The Pragmatic TV Teacher.

Thanks for reading.

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