2020 has been a rollercoaster ride – and we’re only halfway! Dr Marny Lishman, a health and community psychologist, explains how emotional exhaustion could be causing us to ‘shut off’ our ability to feel compassion and empathy for others. Are you at risk?
If you’re finding yourself switching off the news lately for something a little more cheerful, then you’re not alone. After months of being bombarded by the heart-wrenching stories of the Australian bushfires, COVID-19 pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter riots, one would forgive you for flicking your attention to more light-hearted matters.
The first half of 2020 has been a difficult one for many, and more of us have absorbed the personal stories and footage of tragedy and trauma around the world. News is no longer limited to the morning paper or the nightly news, with images and discussions about world events reaching us as soon as they happen.
Those of us with reasonable amounts of empathy, almost go on the journey with those who are directly suffering. We have the ability to put ourselves in their shoes. We can feel how they are feeling. Our hearts can break along with theirs.
With the news literally at our fingertips, taking on the constant stories of loss and suffering can leave us feeling emotionally drained, powerless to help and often fearful ourselves.
And therein lies the problem.
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Are you exhausted?
If we continue to care, empathise and show compassion, without looking after our own wellbeing, we’re at risk of becoming the opposite; desensitised and not caring at all. That very quality that makes us have compassion for those going through tough times, can also wear us down.
The negative cost of caring too much is emotional exhaustion, and unfortunately less compassion.
Compassion fatigue is a state of exhaustion with the ability to empathise gradually decreasing. It most commonly affects health professionals, or other front-line workers, like a policeman, whose daily job is to deal with real face to face human crisis as well as suffering.
They start off as new graduates full of empathy, and compassion, but over time these positive human qualities that initially attracted them to these types of careers, gradually diminish. It’s almost as if they have overfilled their emotional giving capacity, to the point there is nothing left to give.
But now we are seeing it in our own homes. With a large number of people suffering psychologically from witnessing traditional and social media content reporting on our current tumultuous times, we could be at risk of the same emotional exhaustion by taking on other’s emotional state and perspectives.
Now more than ever, the world needs more empathy and compassion. So how do we still give the world and those suffering what they need, without becoming so desensitised that we turn a blind eye?
It’s well known that certain distressing content in video games, films and television programs can affect mental health over time. Often compassion fatigue can sneak up on us, because of the cumulative effect of not only what we are consuming, but what other stressors exist in our personal lives.
We are the expert in ourselves, and if we’re noticing that we’re feeling a little different than usual, if we’re feeling more exhausted, avoiding activities that we normally enjoy, avoiding other people or that our mood has changed, then perhaps it’s time to do something about our wellbeing.
Unfortunately, when other people around us are thinking, behaving and feeling in a similar way, they are not going to point out that our wellbeing might be compromised. That’s why knowing yourself well is important, and then knowing that you are responsible for making changes in your life going forward.
Sometimes this may mean taking small steps yourself and other times it is getting more guidance from someone who specialises in helping people who are stressed or burned out, like a psychologist.
It’s hard to care for others when we don’t care for ourselves. Self-care is any activity we proactively do for ourselves that supports our physical, mental and emotional health. It can be anything that you know specifically makes you feel good, from exercising, seeing friends, eating nutritious food, relaxing and prioritising sleep. It can also mean placing boundaries on what makes you feel bad, like too much social media, drinking too much or spending time with people that upset you.
By looking after your own needs first, you will likely find you get a more balanced perspective of life, and you will feel less exhausted, stressed and anxious about what you are witnessing.
And when you are feeling psychologically healthier yourself, you are in a much better position to make the changes the world needs with the compassion and empathy you have within you.
Dr Marny Lishman is a health and community psychologist. Check out her website here.