It can be hard to remember what life was like before COVID-19. The last month has been a constant rush of news headlines, avoiding those that are closest to you, and frantic lines at the grocery store. But in these times, practicing empathy can help us when we need help the most. Learn from Well-being Program Director Debrah Lee, about how empathy can join us together in times of uncertainty.
It feels really hard to be present right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a level of uncertainty, confusion, and insecurity into my daily life and the lives of everyone around the world. It can be tough to balance the difficult thoughts and feelings that arise while also practicing empathy – putting myself in someone else’s shoes, without judgment, and acknowledging their feelings. Practicing empathy can be challenging in the absence of an overwhelming global pandemic much less in the face of one. It’s difficult to take in someone else’s feelings when my own thoughts and emotions are churning in ways that are sometimes hard to identify in the moment.
Yet one of the things that I know about empathy is that it is a driver of connection. Empathy has allowed me to deeply connect with others in a shared understanding of the ways that life is challenging, sometimes devastating, and also wonderful and joyous. Veterinary practice is driven by connection. It works intimately with the profound bond between humans and animals. The veterinary profession is one that calls for empathy in the service of the work, attending to patients within the context of their humans, who arrive with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences that inform treatment options.
When I have a moment, day, or week where empathy has left me feeling overwhelmed or tired, there are some reminders and practices that I have to help me keep moving forward authentically with my full presence. With everything going on in the world around us, it is more important than ever to keep these things at the forefront of any work that is driven by empathy.
Connect with your passion
When feeling overwhelmed, sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in the feelings and memories of times when things did not go as you’d hoped. Those thoughts and feelings can leave you feeling helpless and hopeless and this tendency is further exacerbated by the stress that is going on all around us. In response to that overwhelm, it can help to connect to what motivated and inspired you to your work in the first place. For me, I reflect on my experiences witnessing the incredible resilience of individuals to heal and move forward in even the direst of circumstances. I connect to my passion to create a supportive connection to facilitate this ability that resides in everyone.
Remember what empathy is and what it isn’t
Empathy is about “taking in” and “sitting with” feelings about a situation, though sometimes when I am not careful, it slips into feeling like “taking on” and “fixing.” Empathy is an inherently vulnerable practice because it requires us to tap into our own experiences with particularly difficult feelings and situations in order to understand how the person sitting with us may be feeling in that moment. That empathy allows us to make compassionate connections, but it is not in the service of “fixing” or “trying to make better.”
Pay attention to your mind and body
Cultivating awareness about my unique response to stress is a continuous undertaking. Sometimes, that awareness kicks in after I’ve criticized my partner for not cleaning something that I wouldn’t have noticed any other day or when I feel my shoulders creeping up to my ears while I’m reading the news. Right now, we are even more susceptible to stress. We wake up every day in this new, unpredictable reality. Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. When working in clinic, this meant making sure that I was able to drink water, coordinating with my team to take breaks, and practicing deep breathing between seeing patients.
There is a sad irony in that sometimes those who practice the greatest compassion towards others have a very difficult time extending that practice towards themselves. There are likely several contributing factors to this including personality and training – particularly in fields of work where “perfect” performance is rewarded and reinforced. It is important to remember that your worth and value as a person doesn’t rest on your work. You are enough. When I have a hard time extending compassion towards myself, I utilize my ability to be compassionate towards someone else: I imagine that a loved one were expressing my worries and feelings as their own and use that to create a response for myself.
There is a lot that goes into sustaining our practice of empathy and everyone has their own unique strengths and coping skills that contribute to that ability. With everything that is going on right now, these are some are some of the reminders and practices that have supported me in the past that I will continue to focus my energy on moving forward.