The Limits of Empathy
Empathy involves taking on another person’s emotional state and perspective. This ability is so highly evolved and intrinsic to us social beings that merely observing another person’s pain activates the same brain regions which are used to process our own.
Although we are naturally empathetic, we are selective about the receipts of our sympathies. We are more likely to empathize with another if we share a commonality, and we are much less likely to empathize with the out-group, particularly where prejudice is involved.
In psychology, the moral circle refers to the extent of our moral consideration. That is, whose rights we deem worthy of protection. Certain individuals may include people but not animals, or all people apart from prison inmates, and so forth, within their moral circle. For psychopaths it’s less a circle and more one finite point including no one but themselves.
While compassion fatigue is studied among burned out individuals engaged in occupations which deal with people at their most vulnerable (and taxing), the phenomenon of psychic numbing is studied in the context of mass suffering — natural disasters, human rights violations, and the like.
Human beings, en masse, have at various points in history, appeared to have made peace with large-scale suffering. It’s not so much that we turn a blind eye to death, pain and injustice, it’s just that the magnitude of such suffering is hard both to grasp, and to respond to in an emotionally proportionate way.
Simply put, research shows the gravity of the situation doesn’t feel real to us, numbers and statistics are merely abstractions, reading “7,000 dead or wounded” feels not much different to “8,000” or “9,000”. Suffering doesn’t scale well.
Hence, during times of crisis, the issuing of early warnings and preventive measures before psychic numbing sets in is vital. (By now people have heard “flatten the curve” more times than they can count.)
Other antidotes to the phenomenon of psychic numbing include coupling easily digestible statistics with individual stories — putting a name and a face to the suffering, as well as empowering individuals so as to prompt feelings of responsibility and self-efficacy (e.g. “protect yourself and others by washing your hands frequently and maintaining social distance”).
One can be forgiven for responding to constant coverage of the pandemic with growing disinterest, rather than ever escalating panic. However, although indifference as a means of safe-guarding your mental state is understandable, there are better coping strategies than apathy or detachment — such as practicing self-care and self-compassion.
Distress — including guilt over the inevitable psychic numbing you’ll at times feel during this crisis— won’t do you or anyone any good. Acknowledging this is your first step toward self-compassion.