Whenever I watch or read the news nowadays, I am left feeling like there is not much empathy left in this world. Every now and again, a positive story is mixed with the ever-negative news, but for the most part, it is mostly all the things wrong in the world. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”. In counseling, we are constantly reminded, that it is our duty to be empathetic with our clients. In every day conversations, I hear some of the things that people say, and I am just truly uncomfortable. I wonder if people think about what they say before they say it. Sadly, I recognize that it seems to be a sign of the times. With social media on high alert for everything that occurs daily in our world, our reactions are less evaluated. Our thought processes are to update social media immediately after something happens without even taking the time to consider what it is that is being posted. With a world that is waiting for us to make a mistake and immediately digitally immortalize our mistakes, empathy seems to be a lost skill and trait.
Why Do We Need Empathy?
Douglas LaBier’s article Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder? How to Heal Your EDD may have been written in April 2010, seven years ago, however, it seems to be quite fitting in today’s world. In a country that is socialized to be very individualistic, I listen to the clients that come into the office and sometimes wonder if they have ever even heard of this word. LaBier gave a great example in his article where he refers to a husband whose wife wanted him to contribute more to his family but could only experience his own needs. This is a great example that demonstrates a lack of empathy on a daily basis in general conversation. Another example are a husband and wife who comes in for therapy for their child as they are in the middle of their divorce but spends the entire time trading jabs at each other and tries to make their child choose a side to the point that the child breaks down in tears in the session. On a grander scale, we have to only look at the ongoing political atmosphere in this country. We read articles about the President of the United States hanging up on the Australian prime minister and we have to recognize that this is a widespread problem. The lack of empathy is everywhere in our society. When we consider all these scenarios, there is no empathy in the way we work or communicate with each other; and dare I say it? Do we even respect each other? Empathy seems to be a lost skill in our society. LaBier’s empathy deficit disorder seems to be a very vital issue in our society and world today.
Empathy allows us to connect with each other and to understand and share in our humanity. Empathy gives us common ground to allow each other to be truly heard and listened to; it allows us a space to experience some of the emotions and feelings of what it takes to be someone else. We can connect on the most basic human level. Carl Rogers recognized the importance of giving each other unconditional support free from judgment and prejudices. LaBier recognized that a lack of empathy keeps people disconnected, isolated and stuck in their own self-centered spaces that are not in sync with the kind of world we now live in. When I was a teenager, the concept of globalization was still unbelievable to many. This was back when the internet was in its infancy and social media did not exist (yes, a world with no Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+) and people still had to have filters on because accountability still existed. Yet, with the expansion of the internet and the advent of social media, globalization may now actually seem like an obsolete term.
Empathy In Counseling
Empathy is an essential ingredient for successful therapy. Empathy allows counselors to step into our clients’ stories and experience their worlds with them so that we can forge strong bonds to build an effective therapeutic relationship that allows us to journey with our clients. LaBier noted that empathy allows tolerance to grow and we can deepen our understanding and acceptance of others. Empathy allows us to focus on how we are similar and we can connect and help each other. It does not focus on the differences between us so that we can separate ourselves; it does not force us to isolate ourselves. This therapeutic tool changes the dynamic in counseling. Clients have the chance to share their stories and are able to connect with someone who does not impose judgments or criticize them. Clients are experienced as they are and given the chance to examine themselves and see who they want to become. Clients experience a safe space that allows them to explore themselves in a way they do not get to outside of those walls. I have heard clients apologize countless times for talking about themselves too much in therapy. They find it hard to process that the entire therapy is about focusing on themselves. This shows that clients are feeling unheard, disconnected, and unappreciated by those around them. In a sense, clients also get the chance to finally connect with themselves because they do not get the opportunity often to work through their emotions and align their feelings with their thoughts. So this says to me, that a lot of times we are walking around completely unaware of what is happening inside our own bodies.
Susan Eaves, in Angela Kennedy’s May 2008 article titled, Impressing the Need for Empathy, mentioned that low emotional intelligence and self-centeredness in children seem to be resulting from too much emphasis on academic achievements. Eaves also noted that empathy allows for reduction or ending of cruelty, aggression, and bullying because we are then able to put ourselves in others shoes and we can begin to understand how the things we do affect them. The culture we now live in seems to be focused on immediate gratification and with social media being such a big part of our lives, people have forgotten that there are consequences to the things we do and say. Oftentimes, we feel that there aren’t consequences because we do something and we are not immediately aware of any resulting consequence, we believe that that’s the end of it. Coupled with the belief of the lack of consequence, the idea that what we want is more important that another person’s needs, empathy begins to diminish before it even develops. Eaves recognized that the lack of empathy spreads from a small scale to larger situations where aggression, cruelty, and a lack of remorse are pronounced behaviors.
As counselors, we have to help clients see the lasting consequences of their behavior. Universal law recognizes that no behavior goes without a consequence. This goes back to basic physics (for those of us who had the pleasure of this class). Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Demonstrating empathy and compassion to clients who struggle with these traits may help them to learn and develop these traits. Helping them to understand that words and actions have consequences and examining the consequences that may have gone unnoticed may also help.
On a personal note, until I started my degree for counseling, empathy was not a word that I used or referred to often. Because of my training, the value of empathy was learnt. It may be possible than many people may not even understand the concept of empathy. And as LaBier highlighted the difference between empathy and sympathy, I would expect that many people may mix up the terms in daily usage, if they are even aware of a difference. Sympathy allows you to hear another person’s story but it is still only perceived through your own thoughts and beliefs. Plus, one may consider, is empathy inherent? Or is this a skill or concept that one has to be taught? Can empathy be a concept like love and hate? We may believe that we are born knowing how to hate and love, but I think it is a little different. We are born with the capacity for love, for hate, and for empathy. However, we have to be taught how to do these things. LaBier highlighted an important distinction that I think many clients struggle with. As we get older and chase the things that we thought of or dreamed of as children, we sometimes get caught up with equating the things we have with who we are. There should be a very firm distinction here. LaBier points out that it is with this lack of distinction that things change for many clients because they lose touch with true reality and believe that they are completely self-sufficient. This goes against the basic understanding of humanity and that is we are all connected and dependent on each other for survival. We are social animals and we need each other.