With the world in crisis, our empathy levels are starting to wane. Here’s how to top up your quota and reconnect
Have you ever given your seat up on the bus? Or let somebody in front of you in the supermarket queue? Perhaps the person was elderly and frail, or a harangued parent with two tantruming toddlers. Either way, you felt their pain; you knew your seat or place would benefit them more, so you let them take it. This valuable commodity is called empathy, and according to a recent YouGov survey it’s on the wane, with 51 percent of Brits thinking empathy has declined during lockdown, compared to only 12 percent who think it has increased. So why, in a time where we need empathy more than ever, are we losing the capacity to feel for others?
“There are two great enemies to empathy: lack of time and high stress,” says empathy coach and host of the Empathy for Breakfast show Mimi Nicklin (miminicklin.com). “Lockdown has arguably had a wider reaching impact on our stress levels and our emotional wellness than any other event in recent history. When we are in ‘survival’ mode, the self – a more egocentric, protectionist and introverted focus – takes over, and we find it far harder to activate the parts of the brain responsible for empathy.”
Think of it this way, if you put yourself in the same scenario above, but instead of relaxed you’re hungry, stressed or late for an important event. Would you be as inclined to help someone else? Or would you just want to get on with your day with as little disruption as possible? What about if your own wellbeing was at stake?
Research shows that people will actually cognitively turn off empathy when they feel like they are unable to help or respond to someone in the way they ideally want to. The global pandemic has multiplied this feeling in us a thousandfold, leading to self-centred thinking and actions in some people.
“When humans are in fight or flight mode, or worn down to the ground with debilitating grief for what is normal, there is an instinctual self-survival,” explains psychology therapist, counsellor and life coach Michael Padraig Acton. “A simple example of this is when people panic buy. They aren’t thinking of their fellow people; of sharing or considering that there will be hardship for people that cannot access stock they are gobbling up.”
The problem with this ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude is that it can damage our connection to society and create a sense of competition. According to wellbeing coach and business mentor for sensitive souls Tara Jackson, this creates a ‘me’ versus ‘we’ mentality where people are no longer looking out for one another. “This will affect the more vulnerable or less privileged in society who may not have access to as much as others for various reasons. It also creates polarisation and demonisation of others that seem different to you, which can lead to more crime, more hatred, more anger and less agreement in how to deal with bigger issues affecting us on a global scale.”
The good news is that we are all born with empathy. And the extent to which we develop it depends on how much we nurture it. “The great thing about empathy,” says Mimi, “is that simply the decision to be more empathetic will make you more empathetic – the instruction to your brain will begin to activate your empathy more frequently and instinctively.” Here are just a few ways you can develop your capacity for empathy from today.
“We see a person with a lot of tattoos,” says Michael, “and depending upon your group you may think that is marvellous cool and creative, or a sign of something to be wary of. This is what we call ‘projecting’ our thoughts and feelings onto others rather than considering their context, feelings and thoughts. This tattooed person may be a very happy rock star. They could be hiding a severe burn mark they endured from an accident. The tattoos could be from a relationship where they were very much in love and wanted to symbolise this. The truth is, we cannot put ourselves in someone else’s shoes if we fill that person with all our thoughts, feelings and beliefs.”
Tara suggests, “Reach out to just one person whose life is different to yours and get to know them from a place of genuine care and with no agenda. Ask them questions about their life, what they are going through. Build a one-to-one relationship with them. By reaching out and listening to just one person you will be increasing your human connection, understanding and empathy, but even better, you will be affecting their life and thus the lives of others.”
“Curiosity drives our understanding,” says Mimi. “The more we meet and connect with those we don’t know, the deeper our understanding of others. I spend a lot of time explaining that ‘everyone is understandable’ – the more we encourage people to engage with those unlike, or unknown to them, the more we grow in our empathy.” And before you collar your next stranger, Tara says: “Don’t shy away from difficult moments or conversations. These are prime opportunities to increase empathy, as they often involve others who are experiencing something different to you, and often without a choice. For example, some people’s privilege may enable them to not have to think about conversations to do with money or race, whereas for others this is a daily part of their life. Be prepared to listen and understand.”
“Put yourself in someone else’s position,” says Tara, “and try to feel (even if you don’t understand) what they are going through. Also, if you are able to, reach out and offer support in some way. It could be helping a neighbour or elderly person with their shopping, offering your time and volunteering to help in some way, even if you have to do so remotely at the moment. Doing something that takes you out of your world and allows you to serve in a way that supports someone else with their needs.”
Michael adds, “ If we all were to do one kind act each day we would learn from the feedback of our actions. Kindness is not always received well but it is the intention behind a kind act that helps us develop fine-tuned and increased empathy.”
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