The mental health consequences of the pandemic are now being felt by millions around the country. Humans are resilient, but the time spent under the stress, isolation, fear, and grief of the pandemic goes beyond higher anxiety and depression statistics (research for those stats can be found here). Like any skill, our emotional skills that weren’t practiced, possibly because we were more isolated, focused on our own difficult experiences, or simply too overwhelmed, got rusty weaker. For example, research focused on health care professionals show compassion fatigue and burnout (read it here) which could then lead to a reduction on empathy skills over time. Research has also shown that our empathic social skills reduced (read the study here) in general as a result of the pandemic.
So what will we do with this information? If we've lost some empathy as a society, how do we build it back up? Below I've written briefly on what exactly empathy is and what it's not, why we need it, barriers to empathy, and how to build empathy,
What it is
In short, empathy is focusing on the experience of another. Listening and taking in their feelings and perspectives. It’s holding nonjudgemental space; it’s listening to understand.
What it’s not
Empathy is not imagining what you’d do in someone else’s situation, it’s you imagining yourself as that other person in that situation. We tend to filter information through our own experience, which can be helpful at times. But when we hear about someone else’s experience and we’re practicing empathy, remember that your experience is uniquely yours, not anyone else’s. We all have different struggles, different stories, different strengths.
Empathy is also not condoning anyone’s choices, experience, etc. Someone may have done an objectively bad action, and although we may be able to empathize, we don’t condone the action.
Empathy is also not judgement.
Why we need it
1. Increases understanding
Without empathy, we would miss out on understanding one another. How do we know another person’s experience without empathy?
2. Increases feeling of support and community
Empathy builds connection. We create community and support by getting to know those around us.
3. Lowers difficult feelings such as anger
If we lack empathy, we can have emotional reactions based on what we think is happening because we’re not understanding those around us. We make assumptions, and often we’re wrong.
4. Encourages communication
What’s are tools to build empathy - listening to understand and sharing vulnerably. Communication is key when it comes to empathy.
Barriers to Empathy
1. Heightened emotions
When we're highly dis regulated, or feeling strong emotions, it's hard to give our attention over to anything or anyone else.
2. Increased stressors
When we're worried about life stressors, including finances, living situations, family issues, school and/or employment difficulties, etc, it's difficult to think about anything or anyone else besides how we're going to solve our problems.
3. Hearing charged dialogue
Listening to others and/or media that is coming from a non-empathic perspective, it's easy to fall into that thinking pattern the more frequently we hear it.
Seeking to empathize starts with listening. Ideally this is being down while you're feeling able to give your full attention.
2. Notice and acknowledge your own feelings to yourself
While you're practicing empathy, remember to take care of yourself and your emotions. Building empathy is not a practice of ignoring our own needs and feelings, so if you find that you need to temporarily put your needs/feelings aside in this practice, remember to revisit them and take care of yourself as soon as you can in the future.
3. Resist judgement
If we're judging, we're not empathizing. If you find yourself having judgmental thoughts, that's an opportunity to challenge and reframe them in your mind rather than voicing them.
Empathy is a skill, and it's possible to get out of practice. Over the last few years many of us have had to cope with situations that were previously unthinkable, and the ramifications are still being felt. But by getting back into the practice of empathy, we build a more resilient, kind, compassionate society and on a personal level, increase our feelings of wellbeing. We all need a little understanding and compassion, especially now.