Feeling overwhelmed? Maybe the parent of a preschooler in your family has just called to say they need extra help caring for the child, and a sick neighbor wants to know if you can get some groceries for her. Meanwhile, your best friend keeps calling, wanting to breathe.
In less stressful times, you might jump in to help and listen. But after months of social isolation, juggling work requirements and caring for loved ones, the balance began to return. Suddenly, your own need for emotional support exceeds your capacity for kindness.
This is understandable and good. Nowadays, if you feel numb or overwhelmed in response to someone else̵
Anxiety, sadness and low self-esteem can also be symptoms of this type of emotional exhaustion, notes the American Institute for Stress in referrals to therapists. We often associate this state of stress with counselors and other health professionals, but the American Psychological Association warns that anyone who constantly cares for others or witnesses trauma is also at risk.
Studies show that compassion fatigue can be treated successfully – with stress reduction techniques such as meditation, as well as therapy. The key is to learn how to recognize the symptoms so you can get help.
When we are both a psychologist and a social worker, we feel as if we have “nothing to give”, supporting our own grieving friends or caring for a sick relative, we may feel like running a marathon with sore muscles. But showing compassion – and avoiding emotional burnout – doesn’t have to be painful for therapists or anyone else. As Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki notes in his book The war for goodness, “empathy is a skill we can all strengthen through effort.”
Here are some exercises we use to keep you fresh that can help you fill your empathy stores as well.
Move your perspective
The way we perceive someone’s suffering can affect our well-being. In one study, researchers found that individuals who I feel it someone’s pain may be more likely to suffer than those I think about how the person feels. Obviously, when we not only imagine ourselves in the shoes of the sufferer, but actually feel the way they feel, the body’s stress response is triggered.
The solution is to achieve a small psychological distance between your thoughts and feelings by trying a technique called “cognitive reassessment” that reformulates the way you see a stressful situation. Research shows that this can help dispel negative emotions that can lead to real physical change.
For example, if your dear friend’s heartache feels like yours, pause and ask yourself, “What are some of the different feelings they may be experiencing right now?” If their grief overtakes you, take a few deep breaths or reach out to ask them, “What do you need right now?”
Both tactics can help you recognize your friend’s point of view, say researchers who study empathy while calming your own response to stress.
Show yourself in small ways
When someone’s suffering is enormous, it is easy to feel that you have to appear in a great way. For example, when you hear that a friend has cancer, you may feel that you need to log in to set up a feeding train and send daily text messages and flowers. When a colleague loses his home from a fire or flood, your first impulse may be to organize a fundraiser or drive clothes. But if you are also struggling to keep your own life and household afloat, these well-meaning gestures may be too much for you.
The good news: Your kindness doesn’t have to be huge for others to feel educated. In a 2017 survey, 495 men and women answered a series of questions about what makes them feel loved. The results showed that participants saw the human relationship as a more meaningful expression of care than receiving lavish gifts.
Start by deciding how much time you can take and determine kind actions that sync with your schedule. If you work full time and help your children with distance learning, 30 minutes can be your maximum and that’s OK. Decide on a few gestures, such as sending a handwritten card or a grocery gift certificate. Or send a text message that says, “I’m sorry you went through this. I’m thinking of you.”
When we feel tired of compassion, it is because our desire and ability to help are incompatible.
For example, if a friend has had an accident or is seriously ill, you may want to be able to take him or her to any medical appointment, although spending so much time may not be realistic for you. This can create a negative cycle if the feeling of guilt and shame that you can’t meet your own standards prevents you from doing anything – which only heightens your self-hatred. The result: No one is helped.
Instead, learn to begin with self-compassion, which psychologist Christine Neff describes as “personal acceptance, whether we succeed or not.” This can help break this cycle of self-blame and help develop your empathy for others. With the compassion that leads us, we can say, “At this point, I accept that I’m exhausted. It’s OK to take care of myself,” or “I accept that I can’t do everything, but I’ll help in small ways.”
If self-directed kindness is challenging, Nef recommends imagining a friend who is in a dilemma similar to the one you face. What advice could you give? You will probably be kind and understanding, which may remind you to treat yourself in this way.
Get help from others
The appearance of others does not mean that you have to deal with someone’s difficulties all by yourself. During grief, people benefit from community support, research shows. In a study of 678 mourners, the researchers found that the support of friends, family and community helpers made a more significant difference than the help of just one professional.
So, if a lone neighbor needs company, see if someone from their social bubble can visit it that day or a tech-savvy friend can create a video chat. Other friends who bake can leave cookies on their doorstep, and those who like to write can write heartfelt notes.
An online support group is another resource you could help your neighbor touch. Directories such as Central Support Groups and Psychology today provide a list of groups for people dealing with depression, anxiety or grief. It can help you connect, even virtually, with a community of people who share the same struggle.
In this year of collective suffering, we need each other more than ever. By expressing empathy in small ways while expanding kindness to ourselves, we can again help others feel like a joy instead of a burden. And cultivating joy in your life can make any burden you are wearing also feels lighter.
Julie Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga. Kelsey Crowe teaches social work at California State University and is the author of “There is no good card for this: What to say and do when life is scary, horrible and unfair to the people you love.”