Is empathy being lost? Here’s what we could do about it

⚠️ Note to the reader: this article briefly discusses male violence against women, hate speech and bereavement, and is a general discussion on empathy. It is not intended to minimise how challenging it can be for some people to express it.

There’s now a thing called Empathy Day. Whilst we can acknowledge with any ‘Awareness Day’ (like ‘World Kindness Day’ or ‘World Mental Health Day’) we should be able to demonstrate that we understand someone else’s struggle, or that we care for others every day of the week, that’s just not how the world seems right now.

If you navigate conversations on social media you’ll know there seems to be an escalation in hate. Trolls, unsolicited DMs and displays of misogyny, (erroneously) trying to “justify” male violence against women is just one example. The United Nations International Day for Countering Hate Speech campaign explains that this is on the rise worldwide. Whilst some try to argue their take is “free speech”, others (dismissively) claim it’s because “we’re breeding a generation of snowflakes”; they insist we all just need to “Man Up”. It feels harmful, unhealthy and actually quite extreme.

A lack of empathy doesn’t always show up as hate though. It can be in the subtle ways people – including friends and family – try to “help”, but potentially do more harm than good.

Let’s take bereavement. Undoubtedly one of the worst things a person will have to navigate during their lifetime – and one you would hope we have lots of empathy for – yet seems to have a short shelf life in terms of what society is prepared to indulge. Collectively, we seem to be growing impatient with people who can’t seem to “snap out of it”. We assume something is ‘wrong’ with anyone who is not conforming to the Typically British idea that we just need to “keep calm and carry on”. The problem is, that’s not helping either.

One of the things I talk about in Answers in the Dark, is how when someone is grieving, ‘society’ – a completely amorphous entity by the way, with no face but a very loud voice – tries to instil on us how we ‘should’ be feeling or what we ‘should’ be doing to heal. We only seem to be given permission to grieve for a very short time, and if we’re still talking about it a few weeks later, we’re told we should be “over it” (which, of course, is absolute rubbish). All grief is valid. Everyone is different. It takes as long as it takes. And yet, the implication that we’re grieving wrong means our grief goes underground and we stop talking about it.

Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing – not career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.

Audrey Hepburn

What is empathy?

Sympathy and empathy are often conflated. I’ve offered some insights below.

Sympathy – “I am so sorry this has happened”. This recognises that something bad is taking place, but at the same time acknowledges that we may not know what that person is going through. This is when people tend to say “I can’t imagine what that’s like for you” (which some grieving people say doesn’t actually help). It is often enough, however, to say “I am so sorry this has happened”, especially when we’re not in a position to help.

Empathy – “I can relate to this”. This might be something we say internally, not necessarily to the person disclosing their pain; it also says “I hear you”, without feeling a need to interfere. It’s important to consider our language here though: “I know exactly how you feel” is neither sympathy or empathy if it potentially derails the conversation, pivoting to being about us, rather than the person going through a difficult time. It’s therefore more helpful to say “I’m so sorry this has happened” (sympathy) and add “it makes sense you feel that way” (empathy). If we don’t know what to say, it’s better to say that, and add (as Brené Brown suggests) “I’m just so glad you told me”. Remember, not every problem a person tells us needs “fixing”; sometimes listening and responding empathically is enough.

So why is it then, as Jamil Zaki calls it in his Ted Talk below, that there’s an empathy shortage?

He explains that when our ideas, values or feelings clash it becomes too hard and we abandon it altogether. He gives politics as one example of this “empathic black hole” where we tune out people we disagree with and, even worse, “savour their pain”. For those of us who have a deep level of empathy, the emotional labour involved in keeping the peace can be exhausting, as if we’re running a marathon every day.

Thankfully, as Zaki offers, empathy is not a personality trait, it’s a skill. The research determines this because, quite simply, people who were paid to show empathy were able to do so. This also reduces the assumption, for example, that empathy is gendered and that women are more empathic than men; that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it’s not that we’re either empathic or not, we can grow to be helpful; we’re not stuck at one level of empathy or another.

The good news is, like resilience and courage, we can learn to show empathy – the more we do, the more we will – and there are benefits of doing so. People who show empathy have better connections, and forge strong friendships.

Here’s what might help:

Practice Engaging. When people believe that empathy is simply a trait – e.g. they’ll say “this is just how I am” – they shy away from accountability for their actions and the need for meaningful change; it’s a convenient mantra for not trying to adapt. Whereas when people believe they can be helpful, Zaki argues they will be; his research identified that those who believe empathy as a skill work harder at it, especially when they’re feeling empowered. One example of this was Sue Rahr‘s police training in Washington, U.S. As Rahr explains, “If you’re overly aggressive in your initial approach, you’re going to provoke resistance.” Her cadets would practice defusing situations by slowing down, asking questions and paying attention. As a result her officers use of force declined, especially towards people with mental illness. (Other examples of this in policing include Cheri Maple’s thoughts around “Fierce Compassion” – recognising there are times when we need to be “warriors”, but often that can be the last resort.) Practice makes peaceful.

Know Your bandwidth. Lacking empathy can also be a sign of Compassion Fatigue, as can profound cynicism. People who are particularly vulnerable to this include first responders and Blue Light Services, but, as Juliet Watt explains, it can potentially be anyone who is repeatedly exposed to another person’s pain without having time to reset and recharge. Thankfully compassion fatigue is treatable, with regular restorative acts of self-care. Learn to recognise your early warning signs; if you’re growing intolerant to other’s problems, it may be useful to step back, let someone cover and take time to reset.

Listen. Understand. Connect. To improve our empathy shortage we could move forward with purpose, especially when it’s hard. As Zaki offers, we can point our curiosity at people who anger us; take time to listen to their fears and frustrations to see if there is some common ground. As Marshall B. Rosenberg also writes in his work around non-violent communication, understanding what matters to each of us, is a step to building bridges. Are we as invested in helping other people needs be met as we are in our own? It’s so much “easier” to judge than to take time to understand and connect, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t try.

© Delphi Ellis 2022

Published by Delphi Ellis

Counsellor, well-being trainer and author helping people find their mojo and get their sparkle back. Explores dreams on the telly. Drinks tea (the best way) milk first. © Delphi Ellis - Helping You Sparkle™ All rights reserved.

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