Empathy is such an important part of what makes us who we are as humans and differentiates us from all other species on earth. It helps us to build compassion in our hearts for those who are suffering and provides us with a platform by which we connect to those around us and understand their feelings and emotions. When we have empathy, we are offered the opportunity to picture ourselves in the shoes of others and feel what they are feeling from our own points of view based on our own histories and experiences.
Everyone has the capacity to have empathy for those around them, but some experience it more intensely, and more overwhelmingly, than others. Because of this, empathy does not always feel good. Sometimes, the weight of the emotions we feel for others can be exceptionally heavy and create situations in which we need to take a step back and focus on some self-care and time in which to recharge. Some people also choose to cut off their ability to be empathetic towards others, creating a situation that can lead to unsettled emotions including anger, frustration, and lashing out toward those whose pain they are witnessing. What people do not realize is that all emotions will and must be felt. If we do not allow the emotions to show themselves in such a way that they are naturally present, they will come to a head in more maladaptive and unhealthy manners.
I think that this struggle with empathy is quite evident in the world around us right now, specifically in how we as a society are responding to covid-19. As we continue to discuss the struggles our world is facing in our sessions, the virus and the way in which our society is responding to the virus feels incredibly heavy for my clients who continue to feel empathy for those who are being touched by it. And, those who experience empathy more intensely are the clients that are continuing to struggle with how to cope more acutely. They are the ones who continue with feelings of depression and sadness when they watch the news and see how people are continuing to get sick and die, and when they see the faces of the medical professionals on the frontlines. They are the ones who continue to have anxiety grow as they see people who do not heed warnings about what may happen if we do not continue to work together to reduce the number of those infected. They are the ones who continue to worry about their children, and all of the children that are missing their friends, missing school, and struggling with how to understand that which is going on around them. We discuss our worries about individuals – those who are sick, those who have died, those who have lost loved ones, those who have lost their jobs, those who are working on the frontlines, the children who are missing friends and school, the women who are being abused in their homes, and so very many more. It would be impossible to list all of the groups that are continually being affected by covid-19. We explore the contrast of their feelings of sadness with the anger that they see in the eyes and hear in the words of those who are not experiencing the same level of empathy that they do and their struggle with resolving the difference between the two responses to the same world. Even this contrast that is overwhelming at times because it feels impossible for someone who experiences empathy intensely to understand how someone could not feel it at all.
Something that I have processed through as a symbolic act throughout this time is the simple idea of wearing a mask. I have come to the realization that one of the most important and deciding statements that was made by the professionals and experts was the explanation that wearing a mask is to help protect those around you, not yourself. As I look around and see the response to the recommendation of wearing masks, some respond with wearing one proudly, showing that they care for others and as a way of expressing that care, their empathy, their concern about making others sick, even if they themselves are not feeling any symptoms. It feels like something that people can grab hold of, take control of, and act on. Still others refuse and react with such overwhelming anger in response to wearing a mask that feels at times almost impossible to understand. This simple act of wearing a mask has become symbolic of taking sides in something that we all should just be in together. The “mask” has become the way in which we have chosen sides between empathy and anger and proved the struggle our society has with being able to come together in unity over something that is affecting people no matter what side they fall on.
As we explore the heaviness of what my clients who are highly empathetic are experiencing in response to the world around them, some clients are struggling with how to make sense of and work through the emotional toll that it is bearing upon them. As we sort through their experience of what is seen on the news, shows up in their news feeds and other social media posts, we process through the weight that these normal and natural emotions bear upon them. I try to remind them that empathy is not a sign of weakness at all and instead allowing oneself to experience it, much like every other emotion that is hard to feel, actually shows strength. I remind them to not allow others’ anger to influence their sense of self and that instead of allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by their experience of others anger or ignorance, to instead wear and express their emotions proudly and then focus on self-reflection, how to disconnect from the triggers and then focus on the people, relationships, and experiences that offer opportunities to recharge.
Relationships and running households in general can be challenging to navigate in the best of times, throw in a global pandemic and things can get even more difficult. As I have worked with my clients in navigating being home with significant others and running households with the added stress of social-distancing, shortages of toilet paper, working at home in general, and for some trying to homeschool children while also trying to work full-time, some patterns have been emerging. Couples are feeling more tense, with increased stress and demands, shorter tempers, and overall increased reactivity. Here are a few things that may help you and your significant other as you continue to try to make your household run as smoothly as possible as you navigate through this trying time.
1. Vocalize and communicate your needs to your partner. Even in the best of times, we want our partners to read our minds and figure out what we need without having to ask. We expect our partners to be mind-readers and expect them to know what we want/need without having to ask. Having these unrealistic expectations of them is both unfair and unrealistic. We are setting our partners up in these moments, increasing opportunity for resentment. Instead, tell your partner what you need and want from them. Let them know when you have hit a wall and you can’t do that load of laundry or make that meal for them. Show your vulnerability and be honest when you have hit your limit of what you can handle.
2.Be aware of what your partner’s needs might be. While it’s important to vocalize to your partner what your needs/wants are, it’s also important to try to tune into what your partner may be trying to communicate non-verbally or indirectly. There are a lot of feelings going on right now for everyone and we are struggling to always make sense of them. You should be the person that knows your partner the best, so by being aware of when he/she doesn’t seem like themselves and then checking in when you see that can really go a long way.
3.Process through the emotional toll that this situation is having on you with your partner. It is also really important for you as a couple to acknowledge when your reactivity to one another may really be about the bigger picture of coping with how covid-19 is affecting the world around you, and then in response your household. We know that in general, we take our negative emotions out on the person that we feel the closest to and safest with. In the same way that a child may take anger and aggression out on the parent they feel the safest with, as adults we often take out the stress we have associated with outside triggers on our significant others. So, take this as an opportunity to be vulnerable. Explore with your partner your fears, worries, and anxieties. Express to them how you feel and open the door for them to be vulnerable with you as well. This is an opportunity for you to also acknowledge that you and you partner’s reactivity to the world around you may be coming out as reactivity to one another and by being open and vulnerable, you may be able to create a new closeness to one another that you had not experienced before.
4.Give each other breaks, from each other and from your children. Let’s be honest here – I do not care how much you love your partner or how much you see your partner as your best friend, there is no one in this world that you can be with 24/7 without getting frustrated or annoyed. Allow your partner to have some alone time and autonomy and ask for it for yourself too. Having space is a really important part of how we recharge. Tell your partner you need to take a walk by yourself, or suggest they take a time out and watch a show by themselves that they really like. Additionally, if you have children, offer to take the kids for a walk or a drive so that your partner can have alone time in the house and also speak up and ask that they do the same for you.
5.Offer to do chores or tasks in the house that your partner usually takes care of. Being home more means more chores. More laundry, more cleaning, more cooking. Talk with your partner about how to make everything work for both of you. Take turns cooking and cleaning so that neither person feels too much weight on their shoulders. Also pay attention to the ebbs and flows of both of your work responsibilities if both of you are still working and how stressful household tasks may be. Lastly, make sure you are both sharing expressions of appreciation for what the other person is doing. It is very easy to take things for granted in terms of household tasks, but especially in this time of high stress, being thanked and shown appreciation will go a very long way.
6.Find your shared interests. There are so many couples that are finding new things to do at home together. Through this stress, it can be so easy to get lost in the anxiety and worry and disconnect. Try to figure out what connected you in the beginning of your relationship and build upon it, or try to find new things that you and your partner can do together in your house. Play games, do puzzles, cook together, get outside and enjoy nature, or take on a home project that you have been wanting to tackle. Just remember, do these things together.
7.Take timeouts from technology. This is something I stress to couples in all sessions, but I think it is especially important right now. Not only is technology a distraction from one another during shared time together (which in and of itself is enough reason to take the technology time out), it can also be extremely triggering right now. Our phones and computers are now filled with a lot of stressful news, triggering social media posts, and unending e-mails and requests for work. Since we are (mostly) working in our homes now, setting boundaries around work time and home/family time can be difficult but it is also more important than ever as we need to let our brains rest. And, while I think it is very important for us to all be informed about what is going on in terms of the virus, we also need to make sure we are not allowing ourselves to be flooded by the information or triggered by how it is being delivered. Talk with your partner about setting time aside where neither of you will be on any of your devices and giving one another allowance to remind each other when the devices need to be put away.
Through all of this, you and your partner are going to be working toward building new routines and rhythms together. You both need to give one another grace and be patient if one of you is struggling to catch up and adjust. Throughout the past month and a half, things have been shifting and changing quickly and the adjustment to these changes can be difficult as we all are trying to gain control over whatever we can. Communication and connection are key as is allowing your partner to process through their emotional response to the stress around them. Be there for one another and be together.
I have been practicing therapy for over 10 years and have worked with countless individuals, families and couples. While I do not want to claim to be an "expert" on all things therapy or life (because I always believe that there is room to grow and learn) I have noticed throughout my time connecting with my clients that similar struggles and repetitive patterns present themselves that affect how clients experience and see life. I wanted to take this experience with my clients and the knowledge I have gained and share it here, so that maybe it can touch others lives the way it has helped my clients.