An Empath’s Guide to Surviving Academe

Rose Ernst provides advice for avoiding a slow, smoldering burnout.

October 18, 2019
 
 
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“Are you all right, Rose? You look so tired,” said a close friend and colleague back in 2016.

“Actually, no. My brain is molasses, and by 9 a.m., I can barely hold my head up.”

That’s what chronic health conditions related to burnout and toxic stress will do to you.

After my diagnosis, a month after becoming department chair, I wondered what I had done to worsen my health condition.

I’m not blaming myself, but I wasn’t naïve about toxic scenarios that I and my colleagues had endured since graduate school. Did I just think I could ride this out? I suppose I did. But sometimes the body says no, according to Dr. Gabor Maté.

Empaths are naturally attracted to the academy. Even if you aren’t an empath (take the test here) or a highly sensitive person (take the test here), the promise of social justice, nurturing students, producing scholarship that has an impact, becoming a community organizer and having a flexible schedule are all reasons caring people are drawn to the academy.

These institutions can also create slow, smoldering burnout scenarios for empaths.

I have no regrets about my past 12 years as a professor, but I have learned some lessons. I hope you find them useful.

Set external and internal boundaries. I admit it -- as an empath, I’ve always been terrible at setting boundaries. Want me to reschedule my entire day to meet your needs? Sure! Will I let you continually come to my office and complain about a colleague? Sure!

Internal boundaries are even more difficult. Even if I set a firm verbal boundary, it’s hard not to let someone’s passive-aggressive or just aggressive behavior get to you. Dr. Judith Orloff has some great strategies for visualizations and meditations for setting internal boundaries when you’re in a difficult faculty meeting, for example. (In fact, The Empath’s Survival Guide provided inspiration for this article.) If you set these internal boundaries before and/or during the meeting, you’ll feel much less physically and emotionally drained afterward.

Batch email. We cannot control our colleagues’ or students’ behavior. But we can control checking our inbox. Set a timer and check your work email only once or twice a day.

Our dopamine-seeking brains are dying to play the lottery email game. I’ve done it so many times. I’m waiting to hear about a fellowship, so I’ll check my inbox obsessively. Meanwhile, other people’s needs flood your consciousness. Not only are you distracted from completing your real work (see the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity), but you’re flooded with other people’s emotions.

If I receive an angry email from a colleague, I ruminate. If I set an email boundary, however, these unexpected events cannot continually divert me from my most important work. It doesn’t stop the email from arriving, but it does give you control over when you decide to read it.

Batch days on your campus. I’m a full-time writer and editor now, and when I work with faculty clients, I’m shocked to hear about so many 9 a.m. faculty meetings (prime productivity time for many of us). I’m also appalled by the lack of alternatives to in-person meetings.

If you have kids, can’t afford or don’t want to live near the university, have a disability, or simply need focus time, then plan days off the campus. See if you can participate in a faculty meeting via Zoom or phone if it’s an off day.

Why is this important for empaths? We need time to focus on our work and not be disrupted by other people’s energy. (See batching email.) Even if you adore your campus, recognize that going there means you’re essentially making yourself available not only to people’s needs but also to their general moods, as well. Avoiding that is essential when completing scholarly work.

Avoid energy vampires. The term “energy vampire” conjures up the campus bully. But energy vampires have a variety of temperaments. For empaths, the ones to watch include charming narcissists and chronic talkers.

The drain of Judith Orloff’s energy vampire includes these consequences: “Your eyelids get heavy -- you’re ready for a nap. You feel put down or like the rug was pulled out from under you. Your mood takes a nosedive. You have a yen to binge on carbs or comfort food. You feel sniped at, slimed or agitated.”

Shift to an hourly mind-set. Hourly work is not necessarily a great employment model, but the occasional shift in consciousness can be helpful for professors, particularly for people of color and women who have disproportionate service burdens.

Try this exercise -- track the hours you’ve worked for two weeks during a semester. Include email, calls, travel time, thinking time, reading and so forth. Everything connected to your job. Your hourly rate might dismay you. Perhaps the exercise will help you say no to some service activities?

Find alternatives to large, in-person events. I’m not talking about events important to you. I’m talking about those endless, meaningless, two- to four-hour meetings with 30 or more people. The kind that induce irritation and the urge to scream.

First, ask yourself: What will happen if I don’t go?

Second, ask yourself: How much of an energy drain is this meeting, beyond just the hours sitting in it? In other words, will you fling yourself on the couch after coming home and feel less energetic than a sloth? Will you ignore your family because you just want to sleep? How will you feel the day after? Will it affect your ability to write your next article?

Alternatives to these meetings include: a) not going, b) participating remotely and c) alternating meeting attendance with a colleague.

Save up for your friends’ events. Lest you believe I’m advocating that all professors become hermits, let me say that the reason these energy strategies are so crucial is not only to avoid long-term burnout but also to ensure you’re present for the people who value your contribution on the campus and bring you energy in general.

If you use these strategies, you can selectively say no to relatively unimportant events and say yes to your friends’ and colleagues’ get-togethers that bring you joy, purpose and fulfillment. And you’ll have enough energy to publish that next article.

Bio

Rose Ernst was chair and associate professor of political science at Seattle University until she decided to pursue writing and editing full-time. She is now an academic editor and consultant who loves to support scholars in sharing their brilliance with the world. Find her at roseernst.net.

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