EMPATHY: My #5 “Strengths Finder” Strength

Finally, it’s the fifth in a five-part series on Strengths Finder, a phenomenal resource from Gallup. Our culture has grown obsessed with fixing flaws, but Strengths Finder is all about emphasizing your innate strengths. I’ve already blogged about my #1 strength, INTELLECTION, my #2 strength, HARMONY, my #3 strength, INPUT, and my #4 strength, RESPONSIBILITY. Now, the final strength in my arsenal: EMPATHY.

Before starting this Strengths Finder series, I naturally thought I’d count-down my strengths — start at #5 and gradually build the anticipation of my NUMBER ONE STRENGTH.

But my #1 strength was INTELLECTION. A word that’s not even real. It just means I think a lot. That’s it. Anticlimactic, much?

Once I got my Strengths Finder results, I knew I wouldn’t be counting down, but counting up. Would finish with the strength that resonated more deeply than all the others, regardless of its “official” place on my top-5 hierarchy.

On the heels of my #4 strength where I wrote about my responsibility in relationships, it’s only appropriate that I close this Strengths Finder series with the weightiest strength of all. The “strength” I’ve often assumed more of a “curse.”

The strength — curse — of empathy.

Empathy: "Strengths Finder"

EMPATHY: What It Is

Those strong in empathy can “sense the feelings of other people.” They possess an “instinctive ability to understand.”

Basically, I’m one of those people who asks how you’re doing, hears you say “I’m fine” as you blink and break gaze, and I know you’re not.

People often confuse the words “empathy” with “sympathy.” They are, indeed, different things. Feeling pity toward others — that’s sympathy. Unless you’re Adolf Hitler or Spock from Star Trek, most of us naturally experiences sympathy toward our fellow man.

Empathy, however moves beyond simple pity — and it doesn’t come as naturally. Apparently, I have a “gift.” A “strength.”

I have the ability to feel what you feel, even though we just shook hands for the first time.

EMPATHY: Implemented

A couple months ago, I experienced a relational phenomenon unlike any other in 26 years. A phenomenon that drained me night after night for about a week.

Without any notice, people started approaching me with their problems. People in person, people online, people on the phone. People, people, people flocking to me of all the secluded people. They needed someone to talk to, confess to, cry with.

I was actually doing quite great at the time — had recently moved to a new apartment with a dear friend and was having an otherwise successful summer. And yet I grew overwhelmed.

I so deeply felt the pain of others, straining my own soul to the point of exhaustion.

EMPATHY: I Don’t Want This

I’ve often wondered if I was ever presented with a velvety red button which, when pressed, would eradicate my ability to feel, whether I’d actually push said button.

I know I’d stare at it for a long time. Think. I like thinking, after all. I’d weigh all the pros and cons and let my palm hover over the button and graze its soft alluring surface as I closed my eyes and imagined pushing it and gasping and then feeling nothing —

Feeling bliss.

EMPATHY: I Want This

And yet.

I could have never written Struggle Central without this strength of empathy. Would have never been able to put into words the feelings one feels when he’s forced to move 800 miles from home as an introverted pre-teen. When his best friend dies on a living room couch. When he drives across the country to work at a camp completely unsuited for his myriad hidden struggles.

Writing Struggle Central required me to “re-feel” a lot of excruciating stuff. That first draft particularly wasn’t pleasant. And yet even the pain of writing this book has been redeemed.

Five months later, and I’m still receiving emails and messages about Struggle Central. My life, my story. Precious correspondences from people — people I’ve met and know, people I’ve never met and once never knew — who have resonated with my struggles. Thanked me. Told me their story.

As much as I’d love to push the red button that would forever drain my tear ducts and steady my racing heart, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.

Couldn’t trash this powerful capacity to connect with hurting humanity.

EMPATHY: Moving Forward

Gallup’s “action plan” for empathy was filled with suggestions of relational initiative: to clue others in when someone else is having a hard time, to deliberately encourage, to mentor.

I’ve actually considered mentoring foster kids ever since my foster youth camp this summer. Funny that that lovely suggestion would resurface in this series.

To close, I felt so much more connected to this strength than the prior four combined. The following Strengths Finder paragraph essentially describes me in every way:

Chances are good that you might play games for the pure joy of them. You may do what you can to help others enjoy themselves, too. Perhaps having fun is more important to you than winning. Because of your strengths, you usually know when you have or have not won the approval of a person or a group. You harbor a deep-seated yearning to belong. You are delighted when many individuals gladly welcome you into their lives. It’s very likely that you are attuned to the full gamut of human feelings … You are pleased when people entrust you with their deepest feelings, thoughts, or needs. Often you anticipate what they will say before they find the exact words to express themselves.

That line in the middle still hasn’t detached from my gut: you harbor a deep-seated yearning to belong.

Gosh, do I.

And yet I’m learning it’s not all about me and my needs. This year particularly, I’ve experienced community and relationships in deeper, more meaningful ways than ever before lived. Crazy good conversations aplenty from all sides of this country, continent, and planet.

There’s been abundant joy; there’s been prevalent pain. Joy and pain from my life; joy and pain felt from others’.

Ultimately, I just want to belong; yes, I do. But there’s something else. Something that weighs on me now more than ever.

I desperately want you to belong, too.

Empathy: "Strengths Finder" notes

EMPATHY QUIZ: On a scale from 3-17, 3 being the one who scoffs at others during the first 5 minutes of UP and 17 being the one who needs a week of emotional preparation to watch Homeward Bound, where do you fall? Do you enjoy it when people approach you with their problems? Or do you wish they didn’t?

Finally…how tempted have you ever been to push that red button?

  • Logan81

    Empathy wasn’t in my top 5 (Input, Intellection, Learner, Deliberativeness, Connectedness), but it had to have been number 6 or 7. If somebody’s feeling something strongly, I’m feeling it right along with them. Along the same lines, though, I can see through emotional manipulation (fake tears, anger outbursts, etc…) like no other.

    For me, the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is how to ask for help from others. For a long time, I assumed that others perceived things the way I did, so my methods of asking for help were very subtle. When people didn’t pick up on my hints, I’d immediately assume it was because they really didn’t care about me. It took a long time to realize that they really did care, they just had no idea what was going on. Once I started directly asking for what I needed, I was overwhelmed with the support I got! It still feels a little weird for me to just come out and say “I need help,” and it’s definitely easier coming to a natural empath for support, but it sure beats dealing with my troubles alone. 🙂

    • TMZ

      Great thoughts, Logan! I often wonder what was in my top-10 and how “close” my #5 was from being bumped out by another strength. Am definitely eager to re-take this test again in a few years and see if anything’s changed or evolved within me.

      Empathy is indeed a powerful strength, but one to monitor closely. Something I didn’t mention in the post was the action plan toward avoiding burnout. Taking ritualistic “cleansing” times at the end of each day so you don’t go to bed in utter turmoil. Could’ve definitely benefited from that advice a couple months ago when people were coming to me in droves. It feels really awkward for me to say “I need help,” too, but I’m working on that one. It’s so much better to struggle together than struggle alone.

      • Logan81

        Yeah, it took a near-nervous breakdown in order for me to start asking for help (literally, I was at the point of “I have to talk to somebody or I’m going to lose my mind!”). Looking back, it’s funny how willing I always was to help others, but how totally unwilling I was to ask for help myself. God sure did a good job of breaking down/totally demolishing that barrier. 🙂

  • Ed

    With this strength of empathy, you are a true blessing to the friends in your life.

    • TMZ

      I sure hope so. Longing to move beyond what friends can give me to what I could potentially give them.

  • MLYaksh

    I’m pretty easily in the middle with Empathy. It’s cause I need to be close to the person to tell that something is wrong. I meet a stranger, I’m generally oblivious to their problems. My best friends- I can hear them greet me and tell if something is up.
    But the part I share most is in feeling the pain of others. I guess since I take responsibility to seriously, I make myself responsible for them and, thus, cause myself to experience the pain with them. It can get unhealthy quickly. But I’m thankful I can do that- feel pain with others. It allows me to connect and pray with them better. It honestly is a gift to empathize with someone else. While I’ve wanted that big red button many times, I’m glad I haven’t pressed it.
    And who would EVER be so heartless as to dare scoff at someone crying during UP?!?!?!

    • TMZ

      Yeah, as with any “strength,” I suppose self-monitoring is often needed. It’s a blessing to be responsible and empathetic, but taken too far, well, the blessing quickly shifts into something altogether NOT. Good reminders.

      And I’ve yet to meet a heartless monster who didn’t at least blink rapidly during UP, though I’m certain such sinister souls exist somewhere.

  • Brandon Graves

    Empathy is one of the gifts which I am glad to have. In my profession, it is so easy to get jaded as to why a student is not performing at their potential, but my empathy has allowed me to get through that tough exterior with the student and let him/her know that I am on their side, thereby giving them someone to talk to, someone who who is concerned about what happens to them and what is going on in their life. I feel very fortunate that when I have wanted to push the big red button, the Lord has put someone or several someones in my life to lean on, allowing me to be refreshed to empathize with the next person who the Lord feels that my path needs to cross.

    • TMZ

      Awesome stuff! What a blessing you must be to countless students. Thanks so much for sharing that, Brandon.

  • Rebecka

    I have been scoffed at many times while watching movies or TV shows. Apparently, some people don’t care about the emotional well-being of fictional characters… I have been very tempted to push the red button. It just gets so heavy sometimes, so hard to keep going. But I wouldn’t want to become emotionless. Having empathy gives you the opportunity to connect more deeply with others. Plus, I want my heart to be broken by the things that break Jesus’ heart. (A pause button might be useful sometimes, though.)

    • TMZ

      I’m all about the pause button. Definitely needed in order to keep going sometimes.

  • Andy

    The first time I took this test I had Empathy around number three. Then in the second time it wasn’t in my top 5 anymore and I like to say I lost my Empathy (I have Harmony, Adaptability, Restorative, Connectedness, and Developer).

    Well on the random scale of 3-17 I would say my empathy is around 13 give or take a point depending on how selfish I’m feeling that day. But even when I’m so more focused on myself and my problems, someone can start sharing their heart and their pain, which in turn softens my own heart rather quickly. So often I feel crippled in my empathy because I may feel someone elses pain but I have no idea what to do. If it’s a close friend I can simply be there for them and pray. It may feel like nothing but I know simple acts of love like that can go a long way.

  • David Martin

    “you harbor a deep-seated yearning to belong” sigh.. a personality test I took called it a “need to be needed” or a “desire to serve”. I can withdraw and get by, but then I start feeling empty and purposeless, or even cynical. That big red button would sure be useful sometimes.

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  • Bryon

    I firmly believe that empathy is a gift from God to facilitate intercessory prayer. To supernaturally find a connection with someone where you know what to pray, when to pray it and have the passion and motivation to pray until you know it is time to stop, is intercession. I find that when I intercede, it is much deeper than empathy, but God uses empathy to get my attention. He wants me to ask him, “what are you trying to do with this person?” He answers with intensity and a flood of feelings and pictures and a sense of His love for that person that feels like I’m going to die. In those times He tricks me too, where I see how much He loves that other person, and then He says he loves me like that too. Now their story is MY story. I am intertwined and I understand on a depth and level of love that I could never have understood just being with them. I in a sense, “walked a mile in their shoes.” No one knows these sorts of things happen because I don’t tell the person. I see the difference though, and a few times the other person knew I was praying for them. I used to get overwhelmed with feelings of empathy, even do now with movies…all the time. I find though that I can empty myself in prayer and know that they are not all my own feelings, but rather I’m part of a divine connection between others and God and that I have to let go after I’ve been a conduit. See, I figure I’m like a lightning rod between others who can’t pray for themselves and God. I go to God for them so they can do it themselves next time. Kind of a supernatural triage. Well, when you feel those intense emotions overcome you, pray…immediately. Whether in person or in a movie or alone, pour your heart out to God. You’ll be surprised.

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