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Empathy Overload? How to Take Care of Yourself While Supporting Others: Shots

Social workers know

Social workers know

Feeling over? Maybe the parent of a preschooler in your family just called to say they need extra help with child care, and a sick neighbor wants to know if you can get some groceries for him or her. Meanwhile, your best friend keeps calling, wanting to let you out.

In less stressful times, perhaps, jump in to help and lend. But after months of social isolation, juggling job demands, and caring for loved ones, the balance has begun to tip. Suddenly your own need for emotional support is greater than your ability to be kind.

Understand that, and OK. If you feel numb or overweight these days in response to someone else’s illness or ask for help, that will not be bad for you. How you feel can be what we mental health professionals are call it “exhaustion of compassion.”


Anxiety, sadness, and low self-esteem can also be symptoms of this type of emotional exhaustion, notes the American Institute of Stress as a guide to therapists. We often associate this stressful condition with counselors and other health care workers, but the American Psychological Association warns that anyone who continues to care for others or sees trauma is also at risk.

Research shows that fatigue relief can be successfully cured – 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 the two of us – a psychologist and a social worker – feel we have “nothing left to give,” supporting our own grieving friends or caring for a sick relative can feel like running a marathon with sore muscles. But showing compassion – and avoiding emotional burns – should not be painful for therapists or anyone else. As Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki says in his book The War for Kindness, “Compassion is a skill we can strengthen through effort.”

Here are some exercises we use to keep ourselves fresh that can help you fill your empathy stores.

Social workers know

Social workers know

Switch your perspective

How we perceive someone’s suffering can affect our own well-being. In one study, researchers found that individuals feel a person’s illness may be more likely to experience anxiety than those who are think about it about how the person feels. Apparently, when we not only think of ourselves in the shoes of the suffering person but we actually feel like they feel, the body’s stress response is triggered.

The solution is to get a little psychological distance between your thoughts and feelings by trying a technique called, “cognitive re-learning,” re-reframing how you sees a stressful situation. Research suggests that it can help you spread negative emotions, which can make a real physical difference.

For example, if your dear friend’s heartache feels like yours, stop and ask yourself: “What are some of the different emotions they can experience today?” If their grief overtakes you, take a deep breath, or contact them to ask, “What do you need now?”

Both tactics can help you identify your friend’s perspective, say researchers who study empathy, while introducing your own stress response.

Social workers know

Social workers know

Show up in small ways

When someone’s suffering is so severe, you can easily feel that you need to show up in good manners. When you hear that a friend has cancer, for example, you may feel that you need to jump in to set up a food train, and send daily text messages and flowers. When a co-worker loses their home in a wildfire or flood, your first impulse may be to arrange a fundraiser or a clothing drive. But if you are also struggling to keep your own life and household afloat, these well-known gestures may be too much for you.

The good news: Your acts of kindness should not be too big for others to feel rich. In a 2017 study, 495 men and women answered a series of questions about how they felt they were loved. The results showed that participants saw the human connection as a more meaningful expression of care than receiving fancy gifts.

Start by deciding how much time you can save, and identify the kind actions that go along 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 some gestures, such as sending a handwritten card or a gift certificate for groceries. Or send a text message saying, “I’m sorry you came here. I’m thinking of you.”

Social workers know

Social workers know

Practice self-pity

When we feel the exhaustion of compassion, it is because our desire and ability to help are incompatible.

If a friend has had an accident or is seriously ill, for example, you can ask that you take them to every medical appointment, even if spending that much time may not be realistic for you. It can set up a negative loop if the guilt and embarrassment of not being able to meet your own standards prevents you from doing anything – which only reinforces your sense of self-loathing. The result: No one was helped.

Find out instead of starting with self-pity, which psychologist Kristin Neff defines as “personal acceptance, regardless of whether we succeed or fail.” That will help break the cycle of self-remorse and help show your compassion for others. With the self-love that guides us, we can say: “At this moment, I accept that I am tired. It is OK to take care of myself,” or “I admit that I can not do everything, but I will help the little one. that way. “

If a self-righteous kindness is challenging, Neff recommends thinking of a friend who is in a dilemma similar to the one you are facing. What advice can you give? Perhaps you are kind and understanding, which can serve as a reminder that you should treat yourself the same way.

Social workers know

Social workers know

Get help from others

Showing up for others does not mean you have to manage someone’s poverty yourself. In times of grief, people benefit from the support of a community, research suggests. In a study of 678 bereaved individuals, the researchers found that having the support of friends, family, and community helpers made a significant difference than simply having the help of a professional.

So, if a lonely neighbor needs company, see if someone in their social bubble can visit them that day, or have a tech-savvy friend set up a video chat . Some friends who bake can leave cookies at their door, and those who enjoy writing can write heartfelt notes.

An online support team is another resource you can help your neighbor tap. Directories such as Support Groups Central and Psychology Today provide a list of groups for people coping with depression, anxiety, or depression. It helps to connect, even virtual, to a community of people with the same struggles.

In 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 help helping another person as a joy, rather than a burden. And cultivating joy in your life can create any burden you too brings a light feel, too.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find him 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, Terrible And Unfair To The People You Love.”

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