Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Ask Sahaj is a series from The Lily with Sahaj Kaur Kohli, a therapist-in-training and advice columnist. She will be answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Kohli, please send her an email.

Dear Sahaj,

As an immigrant, I am struggling with the pain of what’s happening in my home country and in my friends’ home countries (like the recent attacks on Armenia and Palestine, and the coronavirus crisis in India, among others). I’m struggling with empathy fatigue, and I don’t know how to deal with it. I feel like I am carrying so much pain every day, even though I’m far away. I try to help by donating and spreading awareness, but ultimately, I feel helpless and like I am not making that big of a difference as one person. It’s exhausting.

There is also an intense guilt I feel for having privileges living in the West that those in my home country don’t have. Everyone here is celebrating the next phase of coming to the other side of the pandemic and I feel torn. How do I come to terms with this guilt? How do I hold space for what’s happening abroad and what’s affecting my extended family and loved ones, while also taking care of myself?

— Empathy fatigued

Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)
Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)

You are navigating a lot of stress, and you are feeling an intense and wide range of emotions. It makes sense that you are struggling.

The empathy fatigue you are describing and feeling is a form of burnout, and acknowledging what you are feeling is a great first step. You don’t want this empathy fatigue to turn into indifference and apathy, so something needs to change. You cannot carry this pain you feel and carry the pain and trauma of your loved ones and also show up more presently as a source of support without taking care of yourself. You are not meant to be the sole vessel in which the world’s or your community’s problems (or solutions) are contained.

Your pain needs to be acknowledged, addressed and released.

There’s an urgency that I sense in your question, and while completely valid, it’s prohibiting you from slowing down or taking a step back. You, and many other people, are jumping into the deep end without inflating your life vest first. I know that self care may feel counterintuitive or contradictory to empathy — How can I even bother with taking care of myself when so many people in my community/in other parts of the world do not have access to their most basic needs or are dying or are without?

But here’s the thing: Self care is not the antithesis of community care; self care is a form of community care. You are aching to be of help and service, but you do not have an infinite amount of resources. You have reached burnout because you’re starting to run on empty. Just because you feel safe and privileged across the world does not mean that you are unaffected by the various traumas in your home country. By engaging with these traumas, videos, images and news without any boundaries, you are also dealing with prolonged stress, living constantly in fight or flight mode, and this will inevitably (if it hasn’t already) take a toll on your physical and mental health, which is subsequently prohibiting you from being able to show up more presently and fully to support your loved ones.

Your pain deserves to be acknowledged, addressed and released.

The emotional burnout is related to your sense of helplessness, too, which may be tied to two things: a lack of control and isolation. While you can’t control what is happening in other parts of the world, you can control how you are contributing to the solution where you are and how you take care of yourself.

Consider creating a day-to-day routine. Set boundaries around how much and how long you are engaging with the news and social media. Return to the basics of focusing on sleep, hygiene, eating well and drinking water. Do something small that’s just for yourself. Take breaks, get outside, move your body and allow yourself to incorporate some fun and joy into your day-to-day life. Give yourself permission to rest, slow down and refill your buckets so you can better show up for others.

If you can create smaller, more attainable goals, you will be able to honor your own principles and values of wanting to be of service to your community while also incorporating self care and building your self-efficacy. Remember that every individual has a sphere of influence. The people who follow you on social media. Your colleagues at work. Your nonimmigrant origin friends. These are all people you have direct access to who you can educate and raise awareness for. And regardless of how you engage these communities, trust that it is enough to focus solely on your family and friends, too.

You mention feeling torn between what’s happening abroad and what’s happening where you are. For many people, feelings are binary — good or bad, right or wrong. You are allowed to feel many, contradicting emotions at the same time without trying to suppress any of them. Sadness can exist with hope. Pain can exist with feelings of celebration. I encourage you to embrace it all.

Guilt is a warning sign, an indicator that something may be amiss, but it also — like all feelings — does not need to be accepted as fact. As a child of Indian immigrants, I can also empathize with your guilt. It’s a negative loop of having more access to resources and opportunities and feeling more guilty for it. Even in your question I can sense you trying to rationalize your exhaustion and helplessness with the fact that others may have it worse right now. But here’s the thing: Your privilege and ability to self care is not a result of a zero sum game. You did not benefit at the expense of loved ones or your community abroad. I worry that you and so many others are talking yourself out of your own struggles because others have it worse.

I am also sensing grief. The grief of not being able to help or fix your loved ones’ problems. The grief of losing, or hearing your loved ones lose, people in other countries. The grief of not being able to visit or be with your loved ones during this time. The loss of your home country as you remember it. The grief associated with your feelings or community/personal losses not being acknowledged by your Western counterparts.

Are you letting yourself process or seek professional help for how this may be impacting you? Do you have people you feel like you can share all of your feelings with? I’d encourage you to communicate with your colleagues, friends and loved ones about what you’re fully experiencing. To join a support group or to seek professional help. A part of being in community is not just being of service, but it also looks like asking for help and knowing that you do not have to feel the way you feel in isolation.

Remember: You will only be as good to others or the causes you care about as you are to yourself. To actually show up in your community, for your friends and extended family abroad, it’s imperative that you take care of yourself, too.

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