Empathizing Without Being Emotional: Tough Times When You Need to be the Rock for Others

Lyndsey Aguilar

June 26, 2017

As student affairs professionals, we are trained and equipped to handle difficult situations including emergencies on college campuses. We learn how to comfort the depressed, teach the stubborn, and advocate for the silenced. There are protocols and procedures to follow when there is a flood in a residence hall, a student is injured or a complaint is filed; and we must respond with a calm, level head. What we are usually not taught is that our role within each situation will be different, and the way we present ourselves during these challenging times greatly impacts everyone around us. We can practice and generalize what our reactions are going to be when something goes wrong, but unfortunately, nothing replaces the experience of a real actual crisis.

Those who have been “on-call” know the harsh realities concerning phone calls about late-night parties, intoxicated students, and even attempted suicides. The gamut of things one can encounter when on duty is copious and frightening. I still get a slight rush of adrenaline when I hear someone’s phone ring and it has the same ringtone as the on-call cell. Many of the more serious calls tend to happen at night or in the early hours of the morning, so it was a surprise to me on a particular day when I got a call in the middle of the afternoon. I had been a residential life coordinator (RLC) for about seven months, and I had been acclimated to on-call life by then, but this situation was one that we had not prepared for through training. A professor had collapsed in the middle of campus. It was in a high-traffic area, and it occurred during a class break. There were scared students, concerned colleagues, and the scene seemed chaotic to say the least.

The ResLife office professionals were asked to assist with crowd control and to keep the area clear for EMTs. We were also there to assist any students, faculty, or staff in need of emotional help. Before we departed to the location, I called the team together and I started running out the door when my supervisor sternly called my name to stop. As we locked eyes, she told me to “stay calm.” I nodded and quickly went to where campus police asked to meet me. I was filled with various emotions ranging from worry and fear to anger and helplessness. My colleagues and I were spaced in a semicircle around the professor who had just suffered a heart attack. EMTs arrived and were trying to revive him, and there was a small group of students, with whom the professor was walking when he fell, who were watching in horror with their hands on their faces. Students kept approaching us asking what was happening. Choking back tears, I urged them to keep moving in order to give space for the EMTs to do their work. I kept glancing at my co-workers. Another RLC, who knew the professor well like myself, excused herself from the semicircle and joined other faculty and staff on the sidelines who were holding each other in a small attempt to transfer enough strength to stand. I locked eyes with another colleague who gave me a silent indication to remember to keep breathing; my knees had never felt so weak.

Our campus community lost an amazing person that day, one who had been a professor at the college for over thirty years, loved teaching young minds, and took his work seriously but not himself too seriously. The campus held a beautiful celebration of life service for him where his wife, children, colleagues, and students spoke at length about how his life impacted them, and consequently, many others around the world. As a distinguished scholar on death and dying, he would probably laugh at how cheesy it all sounded.

I learned many tough lessons that day: about crises, about support, and about life and death. I will attempt not to sound too melancholy, for the lessons I will disclose have yielded from terrible experiences, yet carry a great amount of weight and importance in the life of student affairs professionals.

  • Each person has a specific role to play in a crisis. With two words, my supervisor taught me that when you are a person of authority in a crisis, others will look to you for strength. Yes, I was deeply saddened and scared by another person potentially dying, but my role for this crisis, and almost all of the situations I have been called to in a higher education setting, was not to be the griever. I had to emit emotional strength for my co-workers so they could continue standing, for my colleagues who had known the professor for decades and had closer relationships to him, and for his family so they would feel supported through such a terrifying ordeal.
  • You don’t have to be emotional to show empathy. For some, empathy is interpreted as crying, showing signs of hypersensitivity, or being “too emotional.” Throughout my life, I knew that I had a strong sense of empathy, and I showed it through my sensitive emotions because that was the only way I knew how. Empathy comes in many different forms, and lack of tears does not equate lack of empathy. We must be cognizant of the actions we and others take when we reveal our empathy, and understand that individuals will express it in various ways.
  • It is ok to walk away or ask for help. I did not understand at the time why my co-worker stepped away from our semicircle. There are times when we are asked to be the strength of a situation and we simply cannot fill that role. For my co-worker, she realized that she would not be able to be the person others needed her to be for this particular circumstance, and she removed herself from that expectation. She knew she needed additional support from others so she could do her job, and it is ok to ask for help. Walking away does not show weakness. It reveals authenticity and self-awareness.
  • Find time for yourself. Even if you are not personally connected to a crisis, it is important to find moments that allow you to exert or let go of the strong emotions that come from a difficult situation. Again, this process looks different for everyone. Sometimes I need a good cry with my fellow co-workers. At other times, I just need to get back to work. Recharging actions can change over time, and that does not mean you are more or less empathetic than before.

A career in student affairs comes with great emotional challenges and personal ramifications. Campus crises emit a magnitude of emotional accumulation that student affairs professionals absorb, and these challenging experiences have the ability to strengthen and enhance our abilities to be empathetic. We all have an ever-changing role to play during crises that affect our campus communities, and now I am able to be someone else’s rock when they need it.

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Lyndsey Aguilar is a residential life professional currently located in the Boston area. She specializes in upper-class student transitions, has presented at the national ACUHO-i and NASPA conferences, and is a 2015 NASPA Silver Award Winner for the Student Health, Wellness, and related category. Lyndsey can be reached on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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