Over the course of our collective social isolation during the pandemic, I’ve noticed that it’s sometimes much easier for people to validate the struggles and stressors of others before acknowledging the toll of one’s own. I’ve seen how COVID-19 can intensify my friends’ very difficult living situations at home, put strain on years-long relationships, and even hamper the development of everything from new friendships to new job opportunities. And for those who are working, I hear stories of Zoom burnout and how difficult it is to have to work at home and live a “normal productive life” despite the emotional toll that social isolation has taken on us.
And yet, while I so often hear my friends tell their stories about the difficulties of their daily lives that have been amplified by this pandemic, in the same breath they’ll let slip or allude to a sense of guilt just for airing their grievances. Ever since April, from whether it’s a working friend battling depression or a recent graduate for whom it would have meant so much to walk the graduation stage, I’ve seen friend after friend lament about how, as bad as it is, it “could be much worse” or that “other people are going through more” than they are.
It’s hard to tell whether this is a broader social phenomenon, or whether this sample of close friends just happen to share this trait, but those that I talk to seem hardly able to escape thinking about their struggles in relative terms, rather than how, in absolute terms, living through this pandemic is a harsh thing for any human being to deal with.
In some ways, relative thinking can be a good thing, and is especially encouraged when it comes to talking about the different struggles of different groups of people. It allows us to decentre ourselves for a moment and acknowledge systems of oppression that reproduce injustice and inequality in our society along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, disability, class and more. It allows us to see the uncomfortable but important reality that some groups of people deal with unique and more serious struggles than other groups, and that these struggles arise for them due to nothing more than an unchosen social identity category.
I don’t think that viewing things through this lens is irreconcilable with understanding one’s own struggles. What I can say is that it’s disheartening see how the friends of mine that often extend the least amount of courtesy and understanding to themselves and their own plight often seem to be the most empathetic and the most understanding of other people’s problems, whether pandemic-induced, inequality-related, or otherwise.
Indeed, even for myself, I admit to finding it hard to take my own amplified struggles in this pandemic seriously. And given how disheartening this discrete lack of self-directed empathy is, it has made me wonder about what source of hope we might be able to find in tackling all this, and whether we might be able to extend that same level of empathy to ourselves.
In brief, what I’ve landed on is that I think it might be best, at least for now, to simply lean on other people for support, rather than to try and develop a sense of self-empathy. It might sound strange, but until this pandemic ends, I think it’s okay to accept our strength of validating and supporting others in their struggles and stressors, and just allowing our friends to do the same for us. I know that in the long-term it’s important to develop a sense of self-empathy and self-love, and by no means am I a defeatist in that regard. But I find it uncharitable, perhaps counterintuitively, to simply advise people to find that within themselves and figure out how to do that in such a challenging and tumultuous period of time. It’s an important goal, but hardly an easy one to take on at this time. So for now, maybe a shortcut of sorts can do us well. Besides, if the problem is social isolation, why should we try to fight it alone?