Whether it’s caring for kids, parents, coworkers or our community, many people feel utterly tapped out because of all the extra caretaking thrust upon us as the pandemic has upended daily life over these past two years.
Putting someone else’s needs first, yet again, can feel like the worst way to soothe burnout.
But what’s called “other-care” actually holds a key to well-being, explained Jamil Zaki, Stanford University associate professor of psychology and author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”
How could caring for others possibly help cure the fatigue we feel? Zaki shared the counterintuitive, science-based truth of the matter.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: Can caring for others really be more fulfilling and sustaining than caring for ourselves?
Jamil Zaki: What’s interesting about this question is how backward our intuition tends to be on this subject. One of the most optimistic, uplifting and reliable findings from social psychology, in the last 10 or 15 years, is that helping others provides a fast track to improving our own well-being.
Spending money on other people makes you happier than spending money on yourself. Supporting someone through their stress reduces your own. Spending time helping other people makes you feel like you have more time for yourself.
Here’s a less uplifting but equally reliable finding: People don’t know those truths.
If you ask people what will make them happy, they say that they would prefer to spend money on themselves. When people feel low on time or stressed, they are less inclined to help others, even though helping others would actually alleviate these problems.
Because of these perceptions, we often employ poor strategies to pursue our own well-being rather than listening to the evidence.
CNN: Are you suggesting that self-care and alone time don’t benefit us?
Zaki: Not at all. But by themselves, they don’t seem to be the font of happiness, well-being and peace that people sometimes believe them to be.
When we are lonely or stressed, our minds can convince us to circle the wagons and only think about ourselves. This can turn out to be a totally counterproductive strategy.
The lonelier someone was on a given year, the more they focused on themselves that year, according to a 10-year longitudinal study. But the more someone focused on themselves in a given year, the lonelier they became the subsequent year.
This is a massive problem in our culture due to the hyper-individualistic narrative we are taught. Pressure to achieve and serve our own goals, and then eventually prove to ourselves that we’re happy by purchasing elite consumer goods, drives people directly into this spiral.
If you have the misconception that the best way to pursue happiness is to buy a bunch of things, it’s not really your fault. Unfortunately, what you’ve been told is often wrong.
CNN: How can we reframe our thinking about other-care so that our efforts benefit rather than deplete us?
Zaki: The benefits actually come not from the act of helping itself but from how you interpret it.
If we focus on the burden rather than on the difference we’re making, or why we care enough about someone to help them in the first place, the effort tends to deplete us.
If, instead, we focus on the benefit of our care or on how we are nurturing our connection to the person we’re helping, that very same act can enliven, soothe and revitalize us.
Intention and focus help, too. Move from your perspective to their perspective and focus on what’s going on with them. Forging that connection can put our own stress into perspective and tap us into a broader sense of who we are.
CNN: You write about the healing power of stepping out of our own small stories. What are the best ways to gain that big-picture perspective?
Zaki: Connecting with others is often impeded by our own relentless inner chatter, which amplifies when we’re stressed. Stress can trap us like plastic wrap stranding us in ourselves.
Zooming out on our own life is one way to poke through the plastic wrap. That’s referred to as “untethering.” If we can elevate to 10,000 feet, we can ask ourselves, what does the landscape of my life look like? What do I want it to look like? Then we can zoom out even farther to the broader landscape of my family, my culture, our civilization, our universe.
Caring for others can help us connect, yanking us out of the quicksand of the self — the trap that our mind can sometimes become.
CNN: How does self-compassion tie into empathy?
Zaki: Unlike self-care — taking a bubble bath, zoning out on Netflix, or other activities that disconnect us from what’s causing our suffering — self-compassion involves facing our suffering and acknowledging the hard moment.
The key is to be kind to ourselves through our suffering, treating ourselves the way that we would treat someone we love. The worst thing you can do is what Buddhism refers to as firing a second arrow by layering on shame or feeling bad about feeling bad.
Once we have self-compassion, then we can connect with other people who need us.
CNN: What’s the impact of suffering on empathy?
Zaki: There is a great deal of evidence that when people undergo trauma, they grow kinder, at least for a time, and especially toward people facing similar circumstances.
People who have suffered from assault, chronic illness or other really severe struggles tend to want to turn around and help other people. For instance, many veterans with PTSD become counselors for other veterans with PTSD. Peer counseling is also very common for people who have suffered from addiction.
CNN: Why is switching perspective so essential?
Zaki: We tend to tie ourselves into a knot psychologically by focusing on ourselves. A lot of my work is helping people see that knot and untie it.
This moment — with work, school and social support systems disrupted — is stressful. But remembering our greatest priorities, and how each action matches or mismatches those priorities, can help.
If you ask people to list the 20 things that matter most to them in life, almost invariably, the top items have to do with being there for other people — in particular those we care about. Community, connection and kindness are perennial, podium-level values.
We’ve made choices to have families and live among community for a reason. Family and community aren’t always going to bring us joy at every moment, but they’re still what matters most to us. Remembering that can give us back a sense of autonomy over our caregiving.
CNN: How have the concepts of self-care and other-care changed over time?
Zaki: Early models of self-care were actually rooted in community.
In the 1960s, for example, the Black Panther Party set up community-based self-care in the form of mutual-aid efforts toward preventive medicine, exercise and nutrition to compensate for marginalization that left many Black Americans with lack of access to high-quality health care.
Mutual aid is not lost today. During the pandemic, grassroots organizations have popped up all over the world to provide assistance to those most vulnerable.
It’s important to realize that in the history of self-care, self is not always an individual person; it can be a community.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach, and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America.”