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Empathy: Turning Outward to Change the World (At Least a Little Bit)

July 21, 2013

When it comes to traumatic events, the only thing that can stem the tide of violence is empathy. We have to allow ourselves to feel the pain of parents who have lost children to violence.

By Sheela Raja, PhD

chi-hadiya-pendleton-mother-photograph-20130130One of the first things you learn from your clients when you are a trauma psychologist is that no one can heal in a vacuum — no one recovers alone. When something horrible and life-threatening happens to you, you need family, community and even strangers to come to your aid. Every mental health clinician knows this. And yet, as a culture we are becoming more and more removed from each other. Are we having an empathy crisis, and is there anything we can do to solve it?

I was in the airport lounge a few weeks ago waiting for my flight to take off. There was a woman weeping uncontrollably at my gate. She was doubled over, on the floor sobbing while her friend rubbed her back. As a clinician, my first thought was, “Maybe this is some sort of reaction to bereavement?” But it was just a guess. I looked over and noticed other passengers looking uncomfortable, most of them retreating deeply into the screens of their smartphones or laptops, desperately looking for an electronic reprieve from the raw emotion. It was like being in a room full of cyborgs. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t quite sure what to do either. When the weeping woman’s friend looked up, I put on my best empathetic face and said, “Can I get you guys anything, some water or anything?” She looked at me thankfully, smiled and said, “It’s okay. We have another friend who went to get us some food.” It was a moment of connection in a world of disconnection.

It’s hard to feel connected to others. It’s painful. It’s often much easier to retreat into our daily routines and busy ourselves with the mundane activities of our lives. And we need to do that. Don’t get me wrong. But every now and then, we have to ask ourselves if we’ve retreated too much. Modern schools of therapy actually emphasize letting yourself feel and experience emotion, as opposed to running away from negative feelings. It doesn’t mean we have to enjoy feeling bad, it just means we don’t spend our lives tirelessly trying to avoid every difficult thought or emotion.

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