Developing a balance between empathy and good health is a formidable goal and this is a good time to work on it.
I have always been a bit too sensitive. I was bullied as a child because I cried easily (and I liked playing with girls . . . and I hated sports). I get the crying part honestly, my dad wept without shame. The problem with feeling intense empathy is that you often feel as if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. Managing these feelings and mitigating your health and well-being are essential.
What it Feels Like
I have been reluctant to look at the number of deaths around the world due to the Coronavirus. Denying a problem exists or refusing to acknowledge it, has long been a defense mechanism. However, in this case I believe empathy matters. I need to be able to experience what is happening all over the world so that I can do my part to help. I’m forcing myself to look at the numbers and think about what people are going through. It’s surreal, it’s painful, it’s difficult and it’s morbid, but it’s necessary. We’ve been told what we can do and we need to listen, learn, and hold ourselves accountable. Doing your part helps you to be empathetic without drowning in sorrow.
A brief story of too much empathy — very recent and still fresh: When I adopted Paco in January, he had only been found on a country road two weeks prior. He weighed just over five pounds and his bones were protruding everywhere, his fur was extremely matted, and he was deathly ill from a virus. When I saw him for the first time, I wept. Each time I thought about him fighting for his life, alone and abandoned in the woods, I wept. Admittedly, this extreme sensitivity went on for weeks. This is the reason I had to leave my volunteer position at a pet shelter; I had too much empathy. Learning how to compartmentalize my feelings and thoughts was and is, necessary. By the way — Paco has fully recovered and he’s out of danger. I still worry, but it’s under control. The crying has stopped.
The reality of family members who are not as strong as I am or who might be struggling with emotional and/or financial issues is ever-present. How much of their worries are my worries? How much of their suffering can I or should I take on? What can I do to ease the anxiety I impose upon myself? There are a number of considerations when discussing problems with family members. First and most importantly, in some cases, they have families of their own. Therefore, when you get involved, there may be others in your family that are also affected and that complicates matters further. There is a risk of alienating family members who may be embarrassed or who may see things differently.
Most people prefer privacy, even if it means not sharing with their own family. This could be the topic of a whole other blog. I’ll leave it at this: there are times when it is best to keep family problems at arm’s length. You may have to be clear about that when approached. “Sue, I think it would be better to discuss that with Greg; your husband is my brother-in-law and one of my favorite people in the world, I don’t want him to be angry with me for taking sides.” Sue doesn’t exist. Just an example of the language you may have to call upon when communicating. Remember, most people prefer candor and authenticity. Those who don’t may not deserve your time or energy.
There is always the advice that is unwelcomed. Family members who are not ready or willing to face their problems will sometimes push you away and resent you for getting involved. In these situations, you have to be either willing to handle the confrontation or in some cases ignore the radio silence.
Our friends are our chosen family. We love them dearly and sometimes that love might cause us great pain. When you see a friend in trouble and you cannot help them, it can tear you apart. Two of my friends are alcoholics. One of these individuals will no longer speak to me because I tried to help and he does not want to acknowledge his problem. The other is in treatment and doing well so far. The only way I can live with myself in situations like this (be it a friend or a family member) is to try to help in some way: support, resource, friend, caregiver, etc. Doing nothing makes me feel useless and more like a failure. On the other hand, if I reach out numerous times and the friend refuses my help, I have to be able to accept that I’ve done all I could do and walk away. Speaking from experience, I’m not insinuating this part is easy; in fact, it may be one of the more difficult things in life you will have to do. Friendship is like any other relationship, empathy is imperative and it must be conveyed delicately. People who are suffering emotionally cannot always handle empathy when you’re feeling it, they may need time to process and prepare. As a friend, you need to understand boundaries and know when it’s the right time to help.
We live in complicated circumstances with over seven billion people inhabiting the planet. Unfortunately, 734 million of the world’s dwellers are considered to be living in absolute poverty (wikipedia); that’s a lot of people. Horrible reality like this can keep you up at night. The number of people with cancer and no access to care, the number of people in abusive relationships, the number of children without food, the number of refugees without a home, self-serving politicians, and on and on. It is important to consider the difficulties all around you and do what you can to help; however, it is equally important to consider all that you have to be grateful for.
How to Manage it So that it Doesn’t Take Over
Meditation is a self-help practice I mention regularly. People often think of it as a waste of time or new agie. For me, it is a way of keeping things in perspective. Sometimes I make life too much about me and I have to remind myself that it is not at all about me. At other times, the weight of everything around me is so difficult to manage, I have to shed some of it by logically thinking it through.
Exercise is one of my top three ways of sorting through life’s difficulties. When you’re overly concerned about everything, you have to have a way to balance the gravity of all of these concerns or it will consume you. Exercise is like a release valve. There is no doubt in my mind that I have developed an addiction to working out. Exercise and chocolate are the only two addictions I can honestly say I embrace without guilt or self-punishment. I do not often give myself a free pass to indulge; therefore, I am grateful for the freedom to just enjoy these two gifts.
Volunteering your time is not a panacea for solving the world’s problems. However, it is a way for you to feel empowered. Everything you do to help will yield rewards.
“Volunteers are not paid — not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.”
— Sherry Anderson
You know as well as I, that no matter how thoughtful you are or healthy you may try to be, your emotional state of mind (mood), often determines how you feel. You might have a good night’s sleep and wake up feeling so much better than the night before. On the other hand, you might do everything right and have a restless night’s sleep and wake up angry at the world. I have learned to just go with it. If you try to push it away or sweep it under the rug, you are likely to either experience it with greater angst or have it rear its ugly head at the most inopportune time. If you breathe and treat yourself kindly during these difficult periods, you will come through the difficulty with less collateral damage.
Talk Through it With Someone You Love and Trust
For some, talking through your worries is a learned behavior. Some of us are hesitant to burden others with our problems or confused thoughts. We’re quick to want to help others, but when it comes to our own issues, we retreat and suffer in silence. I’m a big fan or running things by people who are not directly involved and I believe, can be objective. Be sure to ask if it is okay to share. Do not judge or dismiss an individual’s thoughts. You can be certain that if you disrespect a generous listener, you will never be able to solicit advice again.
“Empathy is the medicine the world needs.”
— Judith Orloff. M.D.
How to Be More Empathetic (NY Times)
Importance and Benefits of Empathy (Very Well Mind)
I hit a milestone with 100 blog posts last week. I wish I had been aware of it, I would have celebrated sooner.