Taking care of myself doesn’t mean ‘me first’. It means ‘me too.’
- L.R. Knost
We wake up to daily tallies of those suffering with or succumbing to the symptoms of this spreading disease, and we’re there for our community, doing our part to help those who are vulnerable. We hear about the catastrophic economic fall-out, and we’re there for our friends as they share their financial fears now that they’ve lost their job. We hear the social outcry for the safety of our children in schools, and so we hold our little ones close and promise everything will be ok. Then we fall back into bed exhausted and emotionally drained, only to wake-up and do it all again tomorrow.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into yet another month, it is becoming clear that while the virus will impact the physical health of many of us, it will impact the mental health of all of us. Many of us are taking on roles to provide emotional support to those around us, offering the vital care and empathy needed to battle the rising blanket of anxiety, grief and depression settling on the world.
While all humans have evolved to be able to feel empathy, some of us are more wired to empathize than others. A high level of empathy is good, often being referred to as emotional intelligence, but without the conscious skills to negotiate the feelings we take on from others, it can lead to empathy burnout.
It can be all too easy to push our needs aside when faced with the pain of those we care about. But the irony is that when we become too depleted, when we have nothing left to give, we lose our ability to be there for anyone.
The key to developing your resilience to empathy burnout, and continue to support those around you, lies in awareness, boundaries and self-care.
Recognising the Signs
If it gets to a point where a friend or family member is calling you and looking at the call ID you feel that physical twinge of dread in your heart at the idea of another download of their troubles, it might be an indication that you are nearing empty on your empathy tanks. Often this niggle of apprehension is suppressed by the guilt and you may pick up the phone anyway. But this pandemic is proving to be more of a marathon than a sprint, and preserving yourself a little now, means you can be a more effective support in the long run.
Sometimes these twangs of emotional distress hit while we are talking to our loved ones. Their distress begins pulling you down with it, and you begin taking on more and more of their pain into ourselves. By learning to recognise these reactions early, you can take control and redirect your energies from how distressed you feel for them, to how helpful can you be. What actions can you take to make your loved one feel better? What can they do to make themselves feel better? And how can you help them realise their options?
Once you begin to recognise the things that are triggering your burnout, you might find there are patterns to when, where, and with whom they are triggered. If scrolling through the political mudslinging on Twitter or the endless and repeating news scroll of misery and mayhem in the morning is bumming you out try limiting your time on social media, or turning the TV off after you’ve heard the newsreels once. Or maybe you find it’s a certain time of day you feel the most depleted, or after a certain amount of time on the phone. It’s ok to set some boundaries within these relationships.
Let your friends know that you can only talk for an hour today because you’re a little preoccupied today, or not to call you after 6pm because that’s the time you need to spend with your family. If you clearly explain when you will be able to follow them up and chat again, you will reassure them that you care, and offer them the chance to show that they care for your mental wellbeing in return.
Self-care comes in many forms. You can care for your physical body through exercise and yoga. It can be something that allows you to connect and process your own emotions like writing in a journal, creating art or playing music. It could be a hobby or activity that you enjoy and stimulates your mind like reading a book or solving a puzzle. It could be something more spiritual like meditation or connecting with nature. Pretty much anything that offers you emotional nourishment and fulfils core aspects of your identity.
Connecting and deepening the relationships in your life is also a form of self-care. And of course supporting these connections in times of strife is vital to strengthen these relationships. Just make sure that while you are being there for others, you aren’t leaving yourself behind.