The key to managing empathy…

Refugees, work and mental health issues all need to be addressed.

June 6th 2017

The following is an article written by Patricia Casey and published recently in the Irish Independent. Adapted by Flamencos Team Extranjeros.

Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the law in Ireland prohibiting asylum seekers from working was “in principle” unconstitutional. I cheered silently when I read about this as a mark of recognition that at last the plight of this group of unfortunate people was about to change.

Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell delivered the Court’s ruling. He said that the State could legitimately have a policy of restricting the employment of asylum seekers. The problem was that the Refugee Act did not just severely limit their right to work but removed it altogether.

He highlighted the fact that there is no time limit for processing an application for asylum and that could amount to an absolute prohibition on employment, no matter how long a person was within the system.

He further implied that this delay had now reached a tipping point when legitimate differences between an asylum seeker and a citizen of the State could no longer justify the exclusion of one group compared to the other from the possibility of employment.

He specifically spoke of the damage to the individual’s self-worth and sense of themselves and pointed out that this was exactly the damage that the constitutional right to seek employment sought to guard against. The Burmese man who took the case, had been in direct provision for eight years and he spoke of his frustration and depression at his plight. The Judge indicated that the issue would be revisited by the Court in six months when the Government had time to consider the judgement and respond to its pronouncement, presumably with appropriate legislation.

Psychologically, uncertainty is one of the most difficult cognitions to live with.

In the context of asylum seekers, whose application is often turned down on multiple occasions and there are long delays inherent in the system, not knowing whether you will summarily be deported back to the hostile and dangerous country that you have come from is frequently overwhelming.

Some will have left family behind, in their urgent bid to reach a place of safety. They will be separated from them and left in a state of terrifying doubt as to the safety of their loved one. Filled with grief, loneliness and poverty many arrive bearing the scars, physical and psychological, inflicted by the situation in their homeland. Post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, anxiety and depressive illness are common.

Interestingly there is research showing that while many asylum seekers have symptoms of these disorders, they do not regard themselves as ill. Instead they view these symptoms as temporary, and part of life’s ups and downs in difficult times. Work is very much regarded by them as part of the healing process. Instead, until the recent ruling, they were stonewalled by a creaking and incompetent system in their asylum application and surviving in Direct Provision on handouts while the dignity of work was not bestowed upon them. True, they were given free access to medical services but from some, being able to earn a living, to give to the country and to save for a future, was more rehabilitative.

Not only are there the obvious financial benefits to working but it will potentially assist in their cultural integration. Provided native employers are willing to give them employment, asylum seekers’ language skills will improve rapidly, they will appreciate the local social customs and mores more readily and friendships will be built with the local people.

There is also a mistaken belief that asylum seekers are largely uneducated but this is inaccurate. Many are well educated and they could augment our workforce in diverse areas and professions. Similar considerations apply to the trades also. Undoubtedly some who come here seeking asylum may be too old or ill to be suitable for work and continuing financial assistance is necessary. Those who want to develop skills to enable them to enter the workforce should be encouraged into courses, as part of the reform measures this ruling requires the Government to make.

The requirement that the Government must address allowing asylum seekers to work within six months demonstrates how concerned the Supreme Court is about this issue. It is likely to be challenging and to meet with some opposition. But where human dignity is at stake the State has a duty to vindicate it in respect of this very vulnerable group.

Let us all hope that it rises to its responsibility.

One of the latest psychological terms that is gaining popularity is a personality trend labelled as an ‘empath’. An ‘empath’ is someone who is extremely sensitive to other people’s emotions and feelings. Some people tend to be extremely empathetic and others are not. Those who are tend to have certain advantages and certain disadvantages. In this post I want to explore these and examine what you might do to manage empathy and use it more effectively.

People who are highly empathetic, in one sense, have great emotional intelligence. They are ultra-aware of other people’s feelings. They have a great capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. They are big hearted and deeply impacted by art, stories and other people. With this comes downsides. People high in empathy are often hurt easily. They are super sensitive to the negative feelings of others and they can find themselves emotionally vulnerable very quickly.

Managing empathy is about understanding yourself and your tendencies first and then adopting various strategies to become more or less empathetic depending on the situation. For example, I would tend to be a little too empathetic some times. While this enables me to be good at what I do, it has its drawbacks in my personal life. I’ve had to deliberately work on finding ways to minimise the empathic urge when it comes up. Such strategies include focusing on the big picture, considering how the situation impacts me specifically and thinking logically about the event. These strategies all involve moving away from the rumination about what others are feeling and what is going on in their head.

At the same time, there are situations where you need to become more empathetic. Your ability to influence others successfully, for example, is often dependent on your ability to understand how they are feeling. This ‘skill’ of empathy can be improved by paying attention to the details of the situation and background of the other person, understanding how they are affected by it and how they might be feeling about the event.

So, empathy is a great skill to have but not always useful. When it is useful you can improve it by turning your attention to the other person and really allowing yourself to ‘step into their shoes’/ When it’s not, you can minimise it by focusing on yourself or the facts of the situation instead or by getting a different perspective.

It is all about where you put your attention



Owen Fitzpatrick is a globetrotting Psychologist from Dublin, Ireland. He has travelled to more than 92 countries and delivered talks and courses in more than 27 countries helping them to understand more about how their brain works. Owen has a masters in Applied Psychology, had his own television show on RTE ONE for a couple of years and has spoken on stage with the likes of Sir Richard Branson, Seth Godin and Dr Richard Bandler. He has presented lectures and talks in University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin and the Michael Smurfit Business School. Having travelled as far as countries such as North Korea, Rwanda and Afghanistan for his research, Owen has been fascinated with how propaganda, storytelling and influence works. Co-founder of the Irish Institute of NLP, Owen has spent many years working as a therapist and corporate trainer. A trained actor and screenwriter, he has specialised in the power of stories as a tool to influence.


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