Empathy is not like pizza

Amy H.

The other day, I was unpacking from a recent move to Kansas City - (yes, I’m one of those who left the Bay Area, but I’m still with you in spirit!) - and I noticed a name tag stuck on a sweater. It said “Amy. Favorite Childhood Game: Pretty Pretty Princess.” My eyes welled up with tears.

No, I’m not so nostalgic that a childhood game will bring me to tears. It was where this name tag came from and what it represented that created this swell of emotion. It was the tag I wore on Canvas’ Dream Day 2020 - an amazing event led by Jena and others that encouraged women to dream with God about the future. That day in early 2020 was one of the last times the women of Canvas were able to freely be together. And it’s not lost on me the irony of Dream Day happening right before a global pandemic.

I know my unpacking tears were an outward expression of my grief - grief that I hadn’t had a reason to wear that sweater in an entire year, grief that the ‘dreams’ that we worked hard to identify might not be in the cards at the moment, grief for the tumultuous year in general, and grief that I miss friends - due to COVID and my move.

As we mark the year anniversary of shelter-in-place and COVID changing our daily lives, I think this unpacking experience was a reminder from God of one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned the past year. What’s different a year after COVID vs. pre-COVID is that I ALLOWED myself to feel this grief. I allowed myself to text a few others who were at Dream Day and to share my sadness/vulnerability with them. I practiced empathy, allowing myself to feel these emotions, even though other people have had it way worse than me.

If that sounds selfish, bear with me. Let’s rewind to March of 2020 …

About a week or so after shelter-in-place began, I was lying in bed and praying to God about the anxiety/stress I was feeling with my child (and husband) home 24 hours a day - no school, no playdates, no playground, no one to play with … except me. I felt like I couldn’t come up for air. But almost immediately, I shamed myself for feeling this way, for praying about this when people were dying and medical professionals were risking their lives going into work exhausted emotionally and physically day after day. So, I prayed for them and went to sleep.

A day or two later, I saw Dr. Brené Brown had a new podcast called Unlocking Us, so I listened while doing laundry. It felt like she must have been a fly on the wall when I was praying to God a few nights before. Because she spoke exactly to what I had just experienced and she had a name for it: comparative suffering.

She said times of fear & scarcity often trigger comparison. Who’s got more? Who’s got it better? And, “What’s crazy about comparison, when triggered by fear and scarcity, is even our pain and our hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. So without thinking, we start to rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel.

Yep, that sounded familiar.

But here’s the thing: our emotions don’t respond well to being told to go away, to being told you are not in pain enough to be allowed. She explains when we deny our emotions, they double down. They ‘burrow, fester and metastisize’ and they invite shame. We say ‘I am a bad person’ because I feel [insert emotion] because of [insert why] when other people are experiencing [insert situation you deem worse].

Comparative suffering is dangerous, because “The entire myth of comparative suffering comes from the belief that empathy is finite.” But she says empathy is NOT like pizza. Yes - on a Friday night, if I eat six of the eight pieces of pizza (lay off me, I’m starving!), you get stuck with only two. But if I am empathetic with myself, there is no correlating negative impact on the amount of empathy I can have for you. In fact, it’s the opposite. She says, “The surest way to ensure you have a reserve of compassion and empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings.”

Empathy is not an either/or. Empathy + ourselves = more empathy for others. That is so cool and inspiring.

So, if you were like me in 2020 and needed permission to feel your feelings, here it is. Have empathy for your pain, grief, anger, etc. Do it for yourself, which in turn will help you do it for others.

As Brene Brown says, “Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world.”