"Some years ago, before quarantining became a way of life, I stood in a packed crowd at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. We were gazing, awe-struck, at what appeared to be a gargantuan (and grumpy!) barracuda through thick glass. My exuberant six-year-old son shot up on the bench and shouted to the crowd around us: “Look, it’s just an obstacle illusion!” Caleb had correctly perceived that the size of the fish was distorted and made formidable by the glass between us. He didn’t intend to create a pun. In his mind, optical and obstacle were one and the same.
And maybe they are.
Questions about the effectiveness of empathy generally emerge when people plead for more understanding, compassion, and cooperation in the wake of a crisis. You may have heeded the call for increased care for your extended family, neighbors, or those at risk early on. But now you may be tired, exhausted even, by the weight you feel, or guilt you don’t feel. Does empathy make us feel too much pain, distorting our perception and actions? Can it plummet us into apathy, fatigue, unhealthy emotional terrain, and even depression? Or is all this just a barracuda-sized obstacle illusion?
Not Enough or Too Much
It can happen to any of us: we find ourselves in the presence of pain, and we feel precisely nothing. As a gender-based violence specialist, I often travel to conflict zones, collecting and writing war stories from women in dangerous places. I hear the stories, and unless I have someone to process with, I can find myself growing cold, passive-aggressive, numb.
Other times we feel too much. We become overwhelmed, flooded. Our reaction may even be so intense, we shut down. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was working in Congo with women who had been forcibly displaced by violent local militia. As I heard about the increasing numbers of cases across the world, I remember thinking, I cannot possibly care about this right now. If I give energy to caring about this, I won’t have enough for Congo.
“If you register empathy as a feeling that happens to you, then yes, there is a limit,” says Dr. Emillana Simon-Thomas, from UC Berkeley. “You have to numb yourself, to disconnect, or it [will turn] into anger or hostility.”
But who we place in the center of the action matters. If we define empathy from the perspective of the person suffering, not just from our own perspective, we can tap into the unlimited resource of empathy. “Find a way to connect with [the story of another person], and at that moment you have an awareness you’re not the person suffering,” explains Simon-Thomas. When this happens, there really is a never-ending supply of compassion.” Healthy empathy feels alongside a person in pain, but not for them.
Instead of draining our emotional resources, or making us feel numb, empathy is meant to fuel our sense of efficacy. Here’s how we can tap into the audacious power of empathy:
First, Check-in with Yourself. Sometimes we need to pay attention to ourselves first. Our own anxiety will hinder our ability to help. Dr. Robert King from Yale once gave me his “best advice ever,” a series of simple questions based on the acronym HALT:
H. Are you hungry? Becoming physically hungry can cause distraction from deeper issues that need attention, whether personal or relational.
A. Are you angry? Anger is often associated with perceived powerlessness. When you feel powerless, you lose your sense of agency and responsibility to care. While there are dimensions of anger that are healthy, letting anger control you or hurt others is not healthy.
L. Are you lonely? Are you isolating yourself or having difficulty reaching out to your community? Keeping connected to those who know and care about you is key to keeping your own empathy levels high.
T. Are you tired? Becoming too physically or emotionally depleted is dangerous. Proper amounts of sleep (my personal favorite), quiet rest, exercise, and Sabbath-like weekends and vacations are vital to increasing our capacity to empathize.
Second, Make Yourself Uncomfortable. Sometimes it takes a crisis to expand our circle of empathy beyond people we naturally gravitate to. After checking in with ourselves, center your focus away from yourself by centering someone else. Find a person you don’t naturally empathize with and spend a moment with her. As you do, be aware of more than her words; become her student. Look for one or two things you have in common. Place her at the center of your engagement. Willingly “hold” her story, spoken or unspoken.
Third, Reverse Engineer Your Situation. Sociologist Dr. Martha Beck suggests employing a technique akin to the process of reverse engineering as a way to practice empathy. Working backward from the effects of an emotion to the emotion itself can help us reconstruct a better, more streamlined way to understand, and help, another person.
Start with someone who is a mystery to you while in this crisis—your garrulous coworker, your introverted classmate, or your fearful mother-in-law. “Remember a recent interaction you had with this person—especially one that left you baffled as to how they were really feeling,” Beck proposes. “Now imitate, as closely as you can, the physical posture, facial expression, exact words, and vocal inflection they used during that encounter.” What arises in you emotionally could be very close to what was going on in the person you are seeking to understand. Allowing this understanding to inform the help you offer them is key to engaging the power of hope and healing empathy can bring in a crisis.
More than ever, the world needs people to enter the fray with empathy. Rather than draining us, empathy can energize us. It is strong enough to respond to the pain and complexity of our current crisis, with the power to transform obstacles, even the barracudas in life, into opportunity.