Empathy in Doses

After the tragic suicide of a university student made headlines, creating the usual swarm of outraged posts on social media and renewed vows of kindness, influencers, celebrities and analysts alike have called for the implementation of counselling support centers at educational institutions and a re-evaluation of the current mental health system.

A necessary, heartbreaking conversation has begun to spur.

“Be kind to everyone” – the bold text on Instagram stories spells out.

Friends have reached out to each other; people have come forward about their own struggles with depression.

“You can talk to me anytime” – my Facebook timeline, in a rare turn of events, appears inviting, welcoming.

I reach forward to tap the space at the top of the page, ready to write down my version of the kindness-urging posts. But my finger hovers above the screen and I withdraw, weakened in resolve by the bitter realization of my pretense.

The truth is I have not been there for everyone in my life. Have I tried to be? Certainly.

But I have experienced times when, weighed down by the burden of the emotions and qualms of others, I have withdrawn into myself, shut them out and searched frantically for my own peace of mind. I have ignored texts from troubled friends, scared of entering long, winding conversations that have no definitive solution.

The last few days have made me question so many things, about myself and about the way that we view kindness and mental health.

“You can talk to me anytime,” we say, urging people to come forward.

But I think of the times that people did come forward and I comforted them, held their hand through the darkness and waited till all was better. A lot of those times led to my own dark nights; lying awake and feeling emotions so horrifyingly consuming that they haunted me for days, weeks. The first time I experienced anything close to the clinical definition of depression, I had seen people I love go through tragedies they didn’t deserve to face and listened to their worries, their sadness.

It took me a very long time to get to where I am now; an aspiring psychologist eager to raise awareness on mental health and to make that the focus of my life. It took six years of studying psychology and a lifetime of struggling empathy, for me to reach a place where I can now say to someone, “You can talk to me anytime.”

Because I am now able to listen to the distress of a friend without making it my own; I am able to hold someone’s hand without feeling my fingers go numb; I am able to be there for others – without losing myself.

The reason that I write this is because I know it is easy to tell people you’re there for them but it is so much harder to be there all the time, every time. I know that when you love someone, it is almost impossible to separate their pain from your own. And I want to say that it’s okay.

It’s okay to want to take a breath of fresh air for yourself. It’s normal to feel enclosed, almost suffocated, by the grief of others and it is okay to take time out, to withdraw, gather yourself and recollect your thoughts.

It’s okay to not always be there, one hundred per cent, for everyone in your life.

What is not okay is making them feel guilty for bringing you down. It is not okay to force them to act like they’re fine or to tell them to ‘get over it’. It is not okay to expect them to heal at the rate that is most convenient for you. If you know someone is struggling but you feel overwhelmed by it, get them help. Reach out to counselors on their behalf, talk to professionals in the field for advice, and urge them to see a mental health therapist.

The world that we live in often gives us, through 280-character posts, a very black and white perspective, but you cannot possibly be a hundred per cent dark or a hundred per cent light all the time; even empathy has to be given and taken in measured doses.

Help, but help yourself too.

Be kind, but be kind to yourself too.

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