The Key to Managing Your Late-Pandemic Frustrations

Woman riding train while wearing a face mask.
Photo: Brasil2/Getty Images

These days, I don’t have to scroll very long before coming across a long-winded rant about pandemic restrictions or a sunny vacation photo with nary a mask in sight. These are people I know, people who have shown me kindness and care through low times in my own life. Each time, the cognitive dissonance makes my head spin.

I recently came across a Twitter thread from the editor Sigrid Ellis that put words to what I’d been feeling: “Americans are really good at acute compassion, but pretty bad at chronic empathy,” the thread begins. “We, without question, haul strangers out of a raging flood, give blood, give food, give shelter. But we are lousy at legislating safe, sustainable communities, at eldercare, at accessible streets and buildings.”

We’re lousy, too, at sustaining empathy enough to let it guide our personal actions over the long term. Nick Bognar, a California-based therapist, explains it’s much easier to be compassionate in the short-term because we can usually imagine ourselves in a similar plight.

For example, it’s easy to identify with an exhausted nurse talking about how draining her days are because we’ve all been overwhelmed by circumstances outside of our control.

Chronic empathy, on the other hand, is usually required to stay engaged with broader, bigger societal problems — like, say, staying vigilant about a pandemic a year after it started. “We can be so generous on a face-to-face basis but so much less generous in a macro sense,” Bognar says.

I get it: I feel for friends who have confessed their anxieties about the vaccine, for example, even if I don’t agree. But when I read a story about widespread vaccine hesitancy, I want to tear my hair out.

Living through a pandemic is already miserable. In the home stretch, you can make it suck less by coupling short-term compassion with chronic empathy. Here’s how to shift your mindset for the long term.

Be curious about people’s motivation

One of the biggest barriers to practicing chronic empathy is assumption. When you project your own bias onto someone, it becomes harder to imagine yourself in their situation.

Every time you find yourself confused about someone else’s behavior, try to approach it as a puzzle to solve. Aim to be curious about what’s motivating them instead of deciding you already know.

“It’s easy to assume there’s one set of rules and values, and that everyone else is aberrant,” Bognar says. “Rather than assuming you’ve done it right or they’ve done it wrong, recognize that people do everything for a reason, and it’s usually a good one.”

The more you do that, the more you’ll discover that what people do makes sense from their perspective. For example, if your neighbors have Covid-19 and you find yourself frustrated because they were lax about social gatherings, think about why they felt compelled to violate physical distancing guidelines in the first place. Maybe they were lonely or scared. Maybe choosing to gather was a hard decision, but they deemed that decision worthwhile. You don’t have to agree with someone’s actions, but you can recognize that bad actions don’t inherently mean bad people.

Grow your own emotional vocabulary

Adopting someone else’s perspective is a lot easier when you can imagine their emotional state. And that’s easier to do when you can understand your own emotions.

The New Jersey-based psychologist Margaret DeLong suggests anyone who wants to grow in “chronic empathy” start by becoming an expert at expressing themselves. “Developing empathy isn’t only imagining what that person thinks,” she says. “It’s also imagining how that person feels and feeling it along with them.” The more finely tuned your emotional vocabulary, the easier that is.

Try doing “feelings check-ins” throughout the day. Ask yourself on regular basis how you’re feeling — you could even set an alarm — and try to pinpoint exactly the right word to capture your emotion. Another way to become more emotionally aware, DeLong says, is to write about how you feel. No matter what you express with words, try to identify, label, and fully experience your emotions so you can better understand other people’s.

Examine your own values

Abby Gagerman, a Chicago-based therapist, says she commonly works with clients who struggle to adopt other people’s perspectives. When that happens, she does a simple, value-flipping exercise.

First, think about your own values — the beliefs and ideas that drive your behavior. Chances are, for example, you wear a mask when you go out because you care about other people’s well-being.

Then, ask yourself: Could someone else change your values by telling you that these values are not as important to you as you think? Gagerman says the answer is always “no.”

Other people’s experiences may seem strange to you, especially if their values are different than yours. And you certainly don’t need to support the way they see the world. But when you try to see what’s informing their perspective, you can respond in a more targeted, long-term way — because you know exactly what you’d need if the tables were turned.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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