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The pandemic has taken a mental toll on all of us.
Drawing on the the work of Dr Brené Brown, Melody Thomas talks us through dealing with the pain and anxieties of such a stressful time.
I recently ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while who, when I asked how she was, told me she was struggling. There was the added pressure at work because of covid, the kids picking up on their parents’ stress and playing up as a result, and a general, pervasive sense of fatigue. “I shouldn’t complain,” she said, “I know others have it much worse.”
A couple of days later it happened again: a different friend opened up about what they were going through, only to erase it all with that same dismissive statement, “I shouldn’t complain. It could be much worse.”
I understand why we do it. All around the world, in our own neighbourhoods and on our social media feeds there are people who have lost loved ones, lost their jobs, who are unsafe, are worrying for their immunocompromised children or fighting to save the lives of both strangers and loved ones. And so it follows: “What right do I have to feel anxious, sad, angry, let down, burnt out … when I have so much more than they do?”
As often happens, soon after these friends told me they shouldn’t complain, it could be worse, I came across exactly the information I needed to understand it, in the form of Dr Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us. Brené Brown is an author and academic researcher who’s spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her TED talks, books, and podcasts are incredibly popular, but I’ve avoided them out of an aversion to cheesy American self-help. Then along came the pandemic and suddenly cheesy self-help was exactly what I needed. Four episodes into Unlocking Us, Brené introduces the concept of Comparative Suffering.
It’s completely understandable that, when faced with the suffering of others, we might attempt to put aside our own, she says, but this isn’t how emotion works. When emotions are denied, rather than disappearing, they fester… “And not only do our feelings double down and grow, they invite shame over for the party.” So having denied yourself the opportunity to feel, you’re now not only scared / sad / anxious, you’re also a terrible person for feeling that way when others have it so much worse than you.
And this whole, weird, self-denying dance we do is based on a myth: that empathy is finite. That somehow, by allowing ourselves a moment of loving kindness and understanding, we’re somehow diminishing our stocks, and depriving the people who “really” deserve it.
But the truth is that rather than diminishing our reserves, practicing empathy not only begets more empathy, it is an active antidote to shame. Brown describes it like this: Empathy is an ‘other-focused’ emotion; when you’re being truly empathetic, you’re only thinking about yourself as a means of better understanding somebody else’s experience. So you might be looking through the lens of your own experience, but the focus is the other person.
Shame, however, is inwardly focused. Deep in the pits of shame, we are unable to think about others except in terms of how they might be judging us. As well as being self-destructive, shame is entirely self-involved, leaving no room for compassion and understanding. Shame kills empathy, but the reverse is also true: shame cannot survive in the presence of empathy.
Pain is pain is pain. It doesn’t matter why you’re feeling it, or whether you “should” be feeling it, you are feeling it. Your emotions are legitimate, and if you don’t allow them time to be felt, in an intimate conversation with an close friend, a good cry in the bath, a rage-filled run to the top of a hill, a really long hug, not only will they be stored up in your body until you have no choice but to address them (burnout, illness, exhaustion, relationship issues, anxiety etc), but you drain your stores of empathy. In denying yourself the kindness and compassion you deserve, you become less able to extend that kindness and compassion to others.
As my new favourite self-help guru Brené Brown puts it: “We don’t need to rank hurt, anger, pain and fear right now. We need to attend to it. So that it dissipates and we put more empathy in the world.”