Feeling overwhelmed? Perhaps the parent of a preschooler in your family just called to say that she needs extra help with childcare and a sick neighbor wants to know if you can shop for her. Meanwhile, your best friend keeps calling, wanting to let off steam.
In less stressful times, perhaps, you would have jumped to help out and lend an ear. But after months of social isolation, juggling work demands and taking care of loved ones, the balance began to tip. Suddenly your need for emotional support outweighs your capacity for kindness.
Anxiety, sadness, and low self-esteem can also be symptoms of this type of emotional breakdown, notes the American Institute of Stress in the Guide to Therapists. We often associate this stressful condition with counselors and other health professionals, but the American Psychological Association warns that anyone who continually cares for others or witnesses trauma is also at risk.
Research shows that compassion fatigue can be successfully treated – with stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, as well as with therapy. The key is to learn to recognize the symptoms so you can get help.
When the two of us – a psychologist and a social worker – feel like we have “nothing left to give,” supporting our grieving friends or caring for a sick relative can 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 kindness, “empathy is a skill we can all strengthen through effort.”
Here are some exercises we use to keep ourselves fresh that could help replenish your empathy reserves as well.
Change your perspective
How we perceive someone’s suffering can affect our well-being. In one study, researchers found that individuals who feel someone’s pain may be more likely to experience distress than those who to think about how the person feels. Apparently, when we not only picture ourselves in the shoes of the person in pain, but actually feel like them, the body’s stress response is triggered.
The solution is to get some psychological distance between your thoughts and feelings by trying a technique called “cognitive reevaluation,” which is reframing how you view a stressful situation. Research suggests it can help you spread negative emotions, which can make a real difference physically.
For example, if your close friend’s pain feels like your own, stop and ask yourself, “What are some of the different feelings they might be experiencing right now?” If their pain is gripping you, take a few deep breaths or ask them, “What do you need now?”
Both tactics can help you recognize your friend’s point of view, say researchers who study empathy, as they repress your stress response.
Show yourself in little ways
When someone’s suffering is immense, it’s easy to feel that you have to present yourself in great ways. When you hear that a friend has cancer, for example, you may feel the need to skip to organize a towed meal and send text messages and flowers every day. When a colleague loses their home due to a fire or flood, your first impulse might be to organize a fundraiser or a clothing collection. But if you’re also struggling to keep your life and family afloat, these well-meaning gestures may be too much for you.
The good news: Your acts of kindness don’t have to be huge for others to feel nurtured. In a 2017 study, 495 men and women answered a series of questions about what makes them feel loved. The results showed that the participants viewed human connection as more meaningful expressions of caring than receiving lavish gifts.
Start by deciding how much time you can save and identify kind acts that sync with your schedule. If you work full time and help your kids with remote learning, 30 minutes might be your maximum, and that’s okay. Decide on some gestures, such as sending a handwritten card or a shopping gift certificate. Or send a text message that says, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m thinking about you.”
When we feel the weariness of compassion, it is because our desire and our ability to help are incompatible.
If a friend has been in an accident or is seriously ill, for example, you may wish to accompany them to every medical visit, even though spending so much time may not be realistic for you. This can create a negative cycle if the guilt and shame of not being able to meet your standards keep you from doing anything, which only amplifies your feelings of self-loathing. The result: no one is helped.
Instead, learn to start with self-compassion, which psychologist Kristin Neff calls “personal acceptance, regardless of whether we are successful or not.” This can help break this cycle of self-blame and help distribute your empathy for others. With self-compassion guiding us, we can say, “Right now, I accept that I’m exhausted. It’s okay 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 a challenge, Neff recommends imagining a friend who is in a similar dilemma to the one you are facing. What advice could you give? You would likely be kind and understanding, which can serve as a reminder to treat yourself that way.
Ask for help from others
Introducing yourself to others doesn’t mean you have to handle someone’s difficulties alone. In times of pain, people benefit from community support, research suggests. In a study of 678 bereaved people, researchers found that having the support of friends, family and community helpers made a more significant difference than having the help of just one professional.
So, if a lonely neighbor needs company, see if anyone in his social bubble can visit him that day or ask a tech-savvy friend to set up a video chat. Other friends who cook can leave cookies on the doorstep, and those who like to write can write heartfelt notes.
An online support group is another resource you could help your neighbor exploit. Lists like Support Groups Central and Psychology Today provide a list of groups for people coping with depression, anxiety, or pain. It can help connect, even virtually, with a community of people who share the same struggles.
During this year of collective suffering, we need each other more than ever. Expressing empathy in small ways, while also extending kindness to ourselves, can once again make helping other people feel like a joy, rather than a burden. And cultivating joy in your life can create any burden you are the transport also feels lighter.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer from San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga. Kelsey Crowe teaches social services 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.”