Empathy and Mental Health

Today’s blogging prompt is about empathy, but I’m going to go a slightly different direction.

I think one of the most tangible tools to cope with a bout of depression, anxiety or other symptoms is empathy. Empathy is simply the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel the kinship, the shared perspective. When living with a chronic illness, opportunity to empathize is not lacking – it is hard to turn around without finding someone else living with such a lifelong companion be it rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, or another form of mental illness.

Yes, there can be a temptation to compare degrees of suffering, but that’s human nature not a lack of empathy. I feel – genuinely feel – for someone facing an increase in debilitating symptoms of a chronic disease. And when I allow myself to experience that empathy, a few things happen.

First, I step out of my own shoes for a few moments or longer. I step away from my own fear, anxiety and hopelessness. I let it go for that brief period of time. And doing so teaches me that I can let it go in other scenarios. And that’s important because no one can exist in a state of constant empathy, just like no volunteer can give and give and give. You have to find a way to step outside of the symptoms to enjoy life, too. Enjoy your life whether that’s a few minutes of laughter over a silly television show or an outing.

Second, those moments of connecting with another human being remind me that there is hope. Chronic illness can infuse a streak of nihilism into the best of us. When I revisit a set of symptoms I thought I had conquered, when I learn about new research on the long-term use of my medication or when I encounter the dark reality that while manageable, it can be a fatal disease – I tend to lose hope. Add in financial stressors, family stuff and other systemic issues, it feels pretty bad. The moments when you realize that actually helped another person on any level are powerful reminders that we can find hope again.

Believe me, I can have an existential crisis with the best of them even though I’ve devoted my life to human services. I can list dozens if not scores of concrete things I’ve done – me – that have had a noticeable impact on other people, from holiday gifts to housing. But when the woe hits, that disappears and I forget that I’ve tried to do good in the world – I just see the times when I didn’t try. That’s when the smallest moment of connection can rekindle a realistic view of my life.

Now let me add an important caveat – there are times (especially with depression) when making a sandwich or brushing your teeth seems impossible, much less opening up yourself to empathy. In fact, it can make life worse by creating guilt. That’s not helpful in the least. Telling someone to be grateful that they don’t have it worse isn’t helpful. Reminding them of other terrible things in the world isn’t helpful. Empathy as a tool of healing has to start within, not be imposed by a third-party. It isn’t healing at all to force someone to engage. To share how their experience impacts you? Perhaps and that’s a different thing than empathy.

The most difficult thing is to keep these moments accessible when I’m feeling bad. That’s one way to push back against anxiety and depression – recalling experiences when pushing through those feelings was possible and didn’t end disastrously. It is like a tape you play in your head over and over, but you have to hit “play” – again think of how hard it can be to make a sandwich.

Recalling my childhood experiences with empathy isn’t exactly something I plan to do. But recalling the moments I’ve spent with some amazingly resilient people who soldier on in the face of daunting odds – that’s something I can do.

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