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.
I have been practicing therapy for 14 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.