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The Tension of Empathy and Comparison

It's Tricky...

Exhaustion is everywhere. There feels like a malaise has hit us in regards to the latest lockdowns. People who work in the fields of education, health and human services are usually empathy-titans. They hold the space for people of all ages as they face the challenges of their circumstances. The student pushing their learning, no matter their context, the patient struggling to get back to health, the vulnerable family seeking support through tough times, the person escaping violence. This is part and parcel ofthe work and these professions have it in bucket-loads.  

But we are all in empathy-fatigue. Empathy fatigue hits us when we have been putting out so much, we have little more to give. Our ability to care takes a nose dive as the stress rises. Empathy fatigue is often talked about in trauma-facing professions but with the context of COVID19 it is hitting many of us firmly in the head and heart. 

Because everyone is impacted by the pandemic, empathy fatigue seems to be manifesting itself in a different way. There seems to be comparison and judgement on the levels of our pain and distress.  

You may have experienced how it goes - one person shares where they are at and how they are travelling. The listener, nods yes and then launches in to how their experience is worse, or, how they know someone who's situation is worse. I know I've done it.

Empathy with comparison is not empathy at all. It's a who's worse off in this conversation, rather than a conversation that shares experiences and feels for the other. It's a bit sneaky, it can SOUND like empathy, but if FEELS like comparison. And I think it comes from empathy fatigue.  

I did it with my son just last week. I compared what was happening for me to what he was experiencing. And it just didn't help. In fact it took a big fat apology from me. Here was my 20 year old sharing how he was feeling (some of you may know the joy of that happening because of the rarity!) He shared his deck of cards and I slammed out what I thought was a full house compared to his flush. Doh!! 

In a time in the world where we need more kindness, sometimes our kindness well is dry. While there is not an easy fix, here are a couple of ideas.  

If you know you've been caught in comparisonitis - two things can help us not step into comparison rather than empathy:

Mindfully Hold the Space

Be willing and purposeful to listen without judgement or comparison. Our minds are incredibly strong when we focus on something. Being there for others then provides more space and ability for them to be there for us if we need. It becomes a shared support experience rather than a battle of who's worse off. For some conversations, we need to be the person simply listening and creating an opportunity for that person to talk. In this scenario it's not about us at all. But if this is the case for you a majority of times - you need this next point!

Have Your Squad

Ring those friends you know that is absolutely fine with you sharing how sad/ mad/ cranky/ fraught/ angry you feel. Let them know you need them to be alright to just download for a while. They will, and they will know you'll do the same thing for them when they need. If you are able, touch in with a coach who can be your sounding board on all manner of things.  I have one and she has been such an anchor for me.

Self Care and Self Compassion for Ourselves

There is no doubt that as stress heightens, it is harder and harder to be our best. So looking after ourselves is even more important. No beating ourselves up when we muck up and giving love and compassion to ourselves is hard to do but wise. It allows us to move and learn from it rather than loading more guilt and stress on top!

Kirsten Douglas, Head of Headspace for Schools, did a great video on tips for principals and teachers in June this year which you can watch below.  I love Kristen's pragmatic advice.

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Don't Forget Those Joy Bubbles! Fill Your Own Cup

Little moments, that if we focus on them, can help us see the light and silver linings in each day, rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture. Here are a few blogs from last year that might help you as we find ourselves in a similar space to where we hoped we would not be in 2021! Feel free to pass them on if you think your teams would benefit.

Blog posts: 

(this one references the amazing Kristen Douglas again)

As usual, you can find me if you need a yak on and we can catch up for a virtual cuppa. Or join me in my next Zoom Room for an hour of chill and conversation.