Empathy Overload: In times of crisis, focus on saving one starfish at a time

A woman with black hair sitting at a table holding her hand against her head looking stressed, reflected in a window.

I was chatting with a friend tonight, checking in to see how he is doing during all of the current goings on. He’s one of the most kind hearted, empathetic people I’ve ever met.

I’ve had managers in the past tell me that my level of empathy for customers is a benefit to the business, but that they worry that I may take my work home with me and continuously brainstorm solutions to problems without stopping. (They’re right.)

Empathy can be a beautiful super power. For those in the design and UX fields it’s especially impactful—you genuinely feel what your customers and clients feel, and it allows you to craft exceptional experiences as a result.

In times of crisis though, being empathic can shift from a super power to a stumbling block. My response to the current state of the world, between the pandemic and the police brutality, has been a burning desire to fix all of it at once. I want to support every single designer who has lost a job, I want to get on calls with all of the people to review portfolios and discuss career fears, I want to donate all of my money to charities that are helping support victims of covid, people who have lost jobs, people who need food, people who have been impacted by police brutality, etc. All I can think about is saving everyone at once… and it overwhelms me. And as much as I want to, I can’t fix it all. And it breaks my heart.

Being empathetic in crisis situations can drown you and impede you from making a difference.

When you hit a certain level of empathy, your mindset can shift from support to despair. The despair can set off a feeling of helplessness, which can in turn shift your mind into “shut down, self preservation” mode. That response keeps you from making a positive impact, even though making a positive impact is the one thing you want most.

I love the story of the man on the beach throwing stranded starfish into the ocean. Someone walks up to him and asks why he’s even bothering since there are hundreds of starfish and he’s hardly making a dent. He replies that he’s making all the difference in the world to the individual starfish whose lives he’s saving.

When you’re in the midst of a global crisis, or a local crisis, and tackling it seems so overwhelming that you can’t imagine your actions making a difference, take a step back and identify the smallest way you can start to help.

In the case of the pandemic, it may be donating food to your local food bank. It may be volunteering your time. It may be offering to spend 1 hour a week in an office hours Zoom session, supporting people who are out of work and looking for advice. It may mean writing to congresswomen and men asking for specific allocation of funds to support people impacted by the crisis.

That small action, when sustained over time, adds up to a big action. You’re making an impact. Getting overwhelmed and giving lip service, then not taking action won’t help anyone.

In the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, have conversations with Black friends and listen to their experiences. Stand up for people when you see them being treated in a way that is inappropriate. Attend a peaceful protest. Educate family members and friends. Donate and support the families of victims of brutality. Sign petitions. VOTE.

You don’t have to do all of these things at once. You don’t have to spend any money if you don’t have it. When it comes to creating lasting change, start small, and sustain. Don’t make it a one time thing. Pick something you can do over and over again, that will ripple and impact others and inspire THEM to do something over and over again.

If every citizen picked a small action that impacts social good and kept repeating it over and over, we could change the state of the world.

You can climb an entire mountain taking small steps — you don’t have to leap up the side, you just have to continually repeat stepping forward. Take that approach to helping people during this time of crisis, and you’ll make a real, lasting impact.




Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jennifer Aldrich

Jennifer Aldrich

Sr UX Writer @ Rocket Mortgage (Opinions are my own ❤) © 2014–2022) Jennifer Aldrich