These past few weeks in quarantine have reinforced some lessons about empathy for me. The reality right now is that we’re all experiencing trauma in a plethora of different ways. Whether we’re on the front lines or simply stuck inside, we’re all experiencing something that is frustrating or disheartening or anxiety inducing or confusing or just downright scary.
Trauma is simply defined as a distressing experience. Distressed is definitely a way I’ve been feeling during all this, and I would venture a guess that you might define this as a distressing experience as well. Plus, we’re all coping differently, which is a unique thing to navigate.
As I speak to friends and family, I see dozens of different ways people are reacting to this pandemic. Some people say to put it in perspective and be grateful that we have our health. That’s a great way to cope. Some people are putting all their time and energy into work or being creative. That's a great way to cope. Some people have days where they let the sadness of the current situation wash over them and they celebrate just getting out of bed. That’s a great way to cope, too.
Basically, there are a lot of feelings swimming around the world right now. Anger. Hopelessness. Fear. Or maybe even gratitude for our own health. Or a new passion to make a difference.
I opened this post talking about empathy, because in a time filled with all different feelings, empathy may just be the most productive thing we can be practicing.
Empathy embodies so many different things. It truly may be one of my favorite words in the English language. Because it manages to wrap up the ideas of compassion, patience, support, and understanding all into one. I mean, what a gift you can give someone right now, right? Just to be there, without judgement, and give your support unreservedly.
The other day, my sister and I were discussing our feelings about everything going on right now. She’s a high school senior this year, so I can understand why she’s feeling particularly sad about COVID-19. The end of her high school career was taken from her, and while we are grateful for our health and understand why these choices were made, it's still okay to admit that it downright sucks. It really sucks that that experience was taken from her and so many other seniors across the country.
She, like myself, has her good days and bad days. I’m so grateful to be back at home during this time, because my sister and I have had time together to sing and create and play games and watch movies and simply enjoy each other’s company. Those good days will turn into really lovely memories, and in those moments, I almost forget that the world is shut down outside. But then, we may hit a bad day...
She came up to me the other day with a simple statement: “I’m feeling sad today.” To which I responded with two questions: “Do you want to talk about it?” and “Is it the kind of sad that you’re trying to fix?”
Because sometimes there are sads that we don’t want to talk about and sometimes our feelings just can’t be fixed.
We all have had that conversation with a friend, family member, or a significant other. You know, the one that ends with “I don’t want a solution to the problem, I just want you to let me vent!” Well right now may not be a time for venting in the form of an angry rant session… but it is the time for granting that space to just get feelings out without a need for solutions. Because the reality is, we can’t fix the current situation. We don’t have the magical power to snap our fingers and heal the world right now. So trying to “cure” feelings of sadness or hopelessness, sadly aren’t very realistic.
So we practice empathy. We allow space for those feelings. For those close to us, and also for ourselves.
Let’s let go of the pressure to be productive and the expectations to stay positive. Stop focusing on what we think we need to be doing to get through this, and listen to what you actually need to be doing to get through this.
If there’s another thing I’ve learned recently, it's how “should” is not a useful word when it comes to feelings.
Phrases like “you should cheer up” or “you should be grateful that you’re not feeling sick” or “you should look on the bright side” are not useful when you’re stuck in a cycle of feeling hopeless. Or for your own self talk, don’t let phrases like “I should be feeling happier” take over your brain. Right now, there are no “shoulds.” There is nothing you have to be doing other than just surviving.
Because we’re all experiencing trauma. We’re all in uncertain territory. We’re all a little bit scared and a little bit sad. Feeling that way makes sense, and it really is okay. You can’t just fix the way you’re feeling. You have to feel it. And maybe tomorrow, you’ll feel it a little differently or it will hurt a little less. And eventually, those feelings of grief and fear may be replaced with feelings of understanding and gratitude. But you can’t rush it, and you can’t force it. You have to feel it.
This week, I encourage you to make room for whatever you’re feeling. Make room for those feelings, and tell judgement that it’s not invited.
Honor your feelings. Honor the feelings of others. I truly believe empathy will unite this world and help us all get through this together.
Love to you all.