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December 11, 2020

What To Do When You’re Too Tired To Empathize

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Teri A. Coutu
Business & Marketing Consultant

As we head into the holiday season amidst COVID, elections, and social upheavals, there is an increase in the number of articles and discussions about empathy. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I sat in a leadership huddle where our homework was to review a difficult conversation and determine how different it could be if we had “shown up with more empathy.” And, while I did the homework, and I fully understand the importance of having empathy – especially in times like these – I am not sure anyone has the energy to be empathetic right now.

Empathy, or, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” is touted by Inc. magazine as “The Most Important Skill You’ll Ever Need to Succeed” and countless articles agree. Being able to at least understand how someone else feels is an important part of relationship building that benefits both home and work life. But, to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes requires more than just imagining yourself in their position, it takes a high level of inner peace and security. And, right now, I don’t know anyone who, if they’re honest, is feeling strong and secure. Everyone is struggling on some level, even if it’s just because most of the people around them are scared, tired, frustrated and cranky. So, maybe telling people to have more empathy for others, when they barely have the energy to get through the day, is not very helpful or realistic. What we need to focus on first is building our own inner strength and regaining our energy. (Yes, that’s a tall order!) But, it’s possible if we start at the most personal level – with our own thoughts.

The Hallmark Reaction

I don’t know about you, but when I’m tired and worn down, all I want to do is crawl in bed and watch Hallmark movies. I don’t have the energy to be empathetic, sympathetic, or anything beyond kind of personally pathetic! During these times, even if I recognize clients, colleagues, or friends are in need of empathy, I just don’t have it to give. As a result, I have been known to  isolate myself without any explanation, and become emotionally and physically unavailable. But, let me tell you – this has not been at all helpful in building relationships!

Fortunately, over time, I have become more aware of my energy levels and now can usually recognize when my emotional bank account is low or completely overdrawn. This self-awareness is the first step of building inner strength. When you consciously realize you are tired, fearful and/or stressed, you then have the power to change how you think about what is happening and adjusting your response. Instead of getting upset by someone else’s words or actions, you can train yourself to quickly recognize that you aren’t in a good space, and therefore you may not be viewing the situation from a healthy perspective. It doesn’t even matter if the other person is “right” or “wrong” because when you’re exhausted it’s hard to tell the difference. The key is to think it through in a productive manner that takes the pressure off yourself.

How To Think It Through:

  1. Admit to yourself that you’re drained and have every right to be.
  2. Recognize that because of this you aren’t seeing things clearly and are easily triggered.
  3. Let go of whatever bothered you because the reality is it may be (probably is) a misunderstanding.
  4. Give yourself and the other person(s) some space to regroup, calm down, and/or forget it completely.

This “letting go” is a very empowering practice as it gives you the power over your emotions and reactions, doesn’t require any special skill beyond thinking, and doesn’t rely on anyone else but you.

Building Your Own Power Plant

Regaining your energy also takes thought – but it’s your actions that make the change, here.

Everyone has their own way of re-energizing. For some, it’s yoga and meditation. For others, it’s physical exertion. Think about what zaps your energy the most. Maybe it’s someone you work with, certain activities, or family reunions. It’s important to recognize these energy pits because you can’t re-energize if you don’t really know what things zap your energy versus what feeds you.

In her powerful little book, The Energy Clock, Molly Fletcher suggests you make a list of things that maximize, neutralize, or drain your energy. While I thought I knew in my head what fell under each category, writing it down and seeing the lists on paper was incredibly impacting. I now see, in black and white, what tasks, activities and situations are likely to trigger my need to “think it through.” It also showed me where best to invest my energy in order to get a positive return on investment.

Life can be really hard sometimes. (Most of 2020!) It’s during the hard times that we benefit most by engaging in things that bring us peace and joy. And, I’ve found that it’s usually the little things that fit the bill. However, when you’re exhausted, even the things that make you happy may seem to require more energy than you can spare. When that’s the case, start small. Watch your favorite movie, go to your favorite restaurant, listen to your favorite music. Continually focus on and engage in things that help lighten your mood. Then, start adding your yoga, walks, runs, gardening, working out, playing with your dog, spending time with your friends…look at YOUR “maximizing” list for more ideas. And, while you may not want to hear this, the foods you eat, the amount of sleep you get, and the alcohol you consume really DOES affect your energy levels. So, make a conscious effort to eat, sleep, and drink in a manner that increases your energy on a cellular level as that, too, affects our moods and emotions.

Back To Empathy

There’s no question that empathy is great and the world needs more empathy right now. But, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have any to give. You simply can’t give away something you don’t have. Just focus on taking some of the pressure off yourself by thinking things through instead of reacting, and doing an energy audit so you know where best to put your energy and where to prepare for a trigger. If everyone did this, the world would be a kinder place and we’d all have more empathy to give and share.