The Pandemic Taught Us Empathy, but Will It Last? Psychologists Share Tips for Keeping Compassion Alive Post-COVID

·7 min read


Because the pandemic has been a collective ordeal, we're all aware of the various effects it's had on people everywhere. For many of us this has translated into developing more compassion for others and ourselves. We may be cutting people slack for taking longer than usual to return our calls, or lessening expectations for them to perform at their best because, well, we're in a pandemic. Anecdotally, supervisors in workplaces appear to be more motivated to establish boundaries with their staff so nobody ends up experiencing burnout, says Karen Dobkins, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego and director of the Human Experience and Awareness Lab (HEALab).

But what could happen to this compassion, this shared understanding of common humanity, once we enter the post-pandemic era? Stephanie Preston, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, believes since we've all endured a traumatic event, it's unlikely compassion will completely dissipate as we move further from the intensity of the pandemic—but the degree of compassion we have for each other may waver and vary.

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What could cause our compassion to dwindle?

We may face compassion fatigue.

It can be emotionally exhausting to take on others’ pain in addition to our own struggles, and it’s only more overwhelming in an event of this magnitude. “When we’re continuously exposed to other people's distress, we often feel distress ourselves, and over time that becomes very draining,” says Lianne Barnes, PhD, assistant professor-in-residence of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in social cognitive neural processes of empathy. “We become almost hesitant to engage with others because we're dreading that feeling.”

We forget about the experience over time.

“The pandemic has changed the way we think about work and workers, as people who are not just data processing machines, but people embedded in rich lives that often have great complexity and difficulty. “I think we understand that more now, and I think that will carry forward,” Preston says. But, as Preston and Dobkins explain, this understanding carries on to the extent that people can remember what it felt like to suffer and the gratefulness they felt when the suffering was over. As with anything, after enough time has passed and life returns to the way it was, that shared experience (the good and the bad) becomes less vivid.

We revert to having more compassion toward people similar to us.

Barnes predicts a shrinking of the circle of people we extend compassion to, as we revert more to our ‘default.’ In general, humans are more empathetic toward people in their in-groups, those similar to us in race, nationality, social class, ability, or gender identity, for example, or toward people who share a similar past experience.

“When it comes to empathy, people’s brains tend to react less when they see an out-group member in pain than when they see an in-group member in pain,” she says. This response may result from a natural, psychological desire to see our “team" do well, or from a tendency toward regarding people within our team as more “whole” and more uniquely individual.

We have changed cultural norms.

Some cultural norms may have changed for the better, leaving room for compassion to linger. For instance, in the corporate world, it’s become more common to actually take an employee’s mental health seriously, Preston says. It hasn’t been a good look to be an unsympathetic boss during this difficult time, so some businesses likely rejigged their priorities and policies, whether influenced by social pressures or a genuine awakening.

“Once those policies are in place, it would look strange to try to undo them,” says Preston. “There's a strong pressure to leave these new policies as they are, rather than strip away all the benefits they gave people during the pandemic.”

In other words, whether or not the prevalence of empathy continues is not only based on how we treat each other person to person, but how organizations weave compassion into their culture and systems.

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How can we keep 2020 compassion alive for good?

Though human nature plays a large role in how levels of compassion will evolve, experts say there are proactive ways to ensure the persistence of goodwill for the long haul.

Recognize our compassion fatigue.

We may feel embarrassed for experiencing compassion fatigue, but Barnes recommends not hiding this from our close ones. In talking with them, we may come to realize we’re not the only ones feeling this way. This sense of solidarity assures us we have companions with whom to overcome it. Remember that having constant, deep compassion is not a sustainable headspace. When you’re feeling utterly exhausted and overwhelmed from absorbing so many people’s struggles—whether it's those you know directly or from reading and hearing about it in the news—remember to acknowledge it, forgive yourself (you are not a bad person!), and give yourself a break. Let yourself recharge in order to show up and show compassion later.

Tap into our memories of shared experiences.

Barnes suggests bringing the memory of our pandemic experience to mind. This primes our brain’s neural circuits and our body’s response to resonate with another person who may still be struggling, Preston adds.

It may seem counterintuitive to make ourselves think about a traumatic experience, since it dredges up personal distress. But Barnes says there’s a way to do so while minimizing the distress, and it lies within the practice of mindfulness meditation.

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Practice mindfulness meditation to cultivate more empathy.

If trying to empathize with someone unearths feelings of distress in us, bringing mindful attention to these feelings—without actively trying to reduce them—appears to decrease the distress, explains Barnes. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the remembered stress and struggle, this can help turn your focus toward the fact that, out of our challenging pandemic experience, we’ve developed a deeper capacity for compassion.

Compassion meditation, like the one developed by Helen Wang and her colleagues at Center for Healthy Minds, combines the above mentioned mindful attention technique with a meditation that trains people to notice the suffering of others. It’s not enough to want to be empathetic towards someone; the empathy process starts when you actively notice when another person is suffering (or experiencing anything).

“In training your attention to watch the emotions of others, to see their joy and their suffering, noticing it becomes more automatic,” says Lara Kammrath, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University.

Even if you may not relate to it directly, recognition of it allows you to pause and consider the possible contributors to it, for example, like the fact that people have different levels of susceptibility to psychological disorders or may have had previous trauma magnified by the pandemic, says Barnes.

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Look to empathetic role models.

In published analysis Addressing Empathic Behavior, leading empathy researcher Jamil Zaki recommends that in-groups deliberately establish themselves as an empathetic group, and define for themselves what their new behavioral norms should be. For example, leaders of groups—cultural icons, managers, parents, and others in leadership spaces—should endorse and demonstrate these newfound empathy expectations publicly and follow through with visible action. “We need role models speaking out about their own suffering,” Kammrath adds, “and we need to see positive things happen to people who do open up.”

If you're in a position to do so within an organization, Dobkins encourages you to translate these more unspoken new norms into more concrete policies, so that even after the pandemic is over, we continue to regard each other with humanity and compassion.

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