“There is emerging evidence saying that things like willpower and empathy don’t run out and it’s more our understanding of how those work that makes us think that they’re going to reach the bottom of the barrel.” — Ella Jane
I think it’s fair to say that the Australian Bushfires remain top of mind for many of us. I’m sure we have each been moved, affected, dismayed or perhaps directly impacted by the ravages of this season’s fires. It’s a sombre time for our country, even while we’ve seen so much courage, generosity, and solidarity emerge.
It hasn’t been a normal holiday season by a long shot.
When massive and devastating events happen — and not just to us, but to others around the world who continue to hurt — it’s easy to feel quite helpless and anxious, even emotionally paralysed. “Compassion fatigue” is described as a gradual numbing to trauma over time, almost like a sensory overload that trips the care switch. And yet, researching how compassion works has yielded surprising insights into empathy and willpower that are downright counter-intuitive.
I’ve always unconsciously thought of empathy as a finite resource — which is how I also think of willpower. Turns out, both qualities aren’t limited and are capable of being continually renewed and expanded. They are even linked. The ability to empathise requires overcoming your own perspective in order to walk in someone else’s shoes. Likewise, willpower — which requires self-control — is the ability to look at your future self and seek your own good. Willpower is what enables “Present You (to take) a hit to help out Future You.” In the case of exercising, it’s feeling the pain while holding out for the eventual gain.
Studies increasingly show how empathy and willpower aren’t depleted like fuel, but rather ebb and flow like emotions. And like emotions, they can be controlled. It’s about framing, identifying the self-talk, and understanding self-fulfilling prophecies: labelling ourselves as having poor self-control actually leads to less self-control. And empathy doesn’t erode on its own but can be renewed and reinvigorated. It’s also a crucial part of self-care, ironically.
Best of all, understanding that empathy and willpower are not finite reserves means that they are always there for the taking. And that’s both powerful and empowering.