empathy
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Why Empathy Matters More Than You Think (and why too much can hurt)

Why is it that we feel so much comfort when someone says, “I feel your pain”, “I get it,” “I know what that is like”, or “I’ve been there. It is so hard.”

These phrases transform our perception from ‘I am suffering alone’ to ‘Someone who cares about me understands this pain.’ Empathy is a dying trait, and one the world desperately needs a comeback. How did we get here? And how do we bring it back?

The Research

There has been a recent surge amongst researchers and educators about the need for empathy, and for good reason. This month’s newsletter takes on three big questions relating to empathy:

  1. What is empathy? What are the benefits and potential dangers of too much empathy?
  2. What factors limit our ability to empathize?
  3. How can you develop healthy levels of empathy with your students?

As always, you can count on us for high-quality evidence-based answers to these profound questions. Let’s dive in.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the intentional attempt to imagine what it is like to be in the emotional situation of another person. Biologically, empathy is the capacity to map another’s experience onto your own brain by using similar neural pathways. These neural maps will roughly mimic the experience of another in your own brain (hence, empathy).

Some experts claim we are not born empathetic (Heyes, 2018), but nearly all of us can learn and develop this trait. Exceptions include some people on the autism spectrum or those with psychopathy (Lockwood, 2016). When empathy does happen, there are two common pathways.

1. When you can relate to the experience of another (meaning, you’ve experienced something similar, like cracking your phone screen), you activate your own memories of that comparable situation and create an emotional response based on your own memories. This process involves the brain’s mirror neurons, insula, and emotion-based networks in your brain (de Waal & Preston, 2017). The two brain mappings (1. The person it actually happened to and 2. The person hearing about it) look nearly identical (Preston et al., 2007).

2. When you can NOT relate to the experience of another (usually because you have not experienced something similar enough, like living in a war-torn region with bombs exploding around you), empathy is achieved by trying to imagine what it is like to be that person. This is the “try to put yourself in their shoes” approach. Brain mappings look completely different in this scenario, compared to the first option above (Preston et al., 2007).

As you might imagine, the first approach typically produces higher levels of empathy due to greater emotional connectivity. Researchers describe this as affective empathy – feeling the same emotion as the other person, and compassion that motivates you to extend comfort.

You hear this when another mom smiles at you having your own mid-toddler meltdown in Target and says to you, “I’ve been there. Hang in there.” You feel it when the text message comes through from your best friend saying, “I know you get the biopsy results today. That was a pretty anxious day for me, too. I’ll be parked outside your house from 5:30-6:00 tonight if you want to hop in for a ride to talk.”

Why Should We Care?

What are the implications of having higher levels of empathy? In other words, what are you, your students, and society missing out on when empathy levels are low? To answer that question, here are a few of the benefits associated with empathy:

  • Greater compassion and altruism. Compassion involves a desire to help ease the suffering of another (Goetz & Keltner, 2007). Altruism is selflessly acting in a way to relieve the suffering (Batson, Ahmad, Lishner, & Tsang, 2002). Compassion and altruism cannot exist without empathy (Riess, 2017).
  • Reduces racism (Todd, Bodenhausen, Richeson, & Galinsky, 2011).
  • Reduces bullying and school violence (Santos, Chartier, Whalen, Chateau, & Boyd, 2011).
  • Improves relationships. From friendships to romantic partners, empathy boosts the quality of the relationship. (Block‐Lerner, Adair, Plumb, Rhatigan, & Orsillo, 2007).

Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

Yes! Empathy or compassion “fatigue” is a real syndrome that can impact anyone who becomes distressed by the suffering of others. It is common among care-givers and teachers who take on too much of the emotional pain of another, as if it is their own (Sharp Donahoo, Siegrist, & Garrett-Wright, 2018). Strategies to help you avoid compassion fatigue are coming soon – keep reading.

Compassion fatigue is a common struggle for people who are naturally more empathetic than others. Approximately 20% of the population can be described as being Highly Sensitive (Acevedo et al., 2014). This innate trait can be described as a heightened sensitivity to physical and/or emotional stimuli, including the emotions and mood of others. Highly Sensitive People (including Highly Sensitive Children) and ‘Empaths’ tend to have a higher baseline of empathy.

The takeaway here for you is simple. Empathy, like many other feeling states, can be destructive at its extremes. Just as it is healthy to occasionally experience mild anger (irritation) but not intense anger (fury at others), empathy also needs your delicate regulation. The context and the people involved can nudge you towards a healthy response that moves us all along.

Are we Losing the Empathy Skill? What Limits our Ability to Empathize?

One study shows college students are over 40% less empathetic than college students in the 1980s and 90s (Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011). Why such a shocking decline?

It is difficult to extrapolate exactly what is causing the decline of empathy. However, there is concrete evidence suggesting several factors shown to decrease empathy:

  • Stress: Acute, brief periods of stress inhibits people’s ability to be empathetic in the short-term (Margittai et al., 2015). Chronic stress puts prolonged strain on the body and brain that can, in fact, alter the brains’ stress response system – a process called allostasis. This level of stress, and the resulting allostatic load, reduces empathetic behavior (Feldman, Levy, & Yirmiya, 2019).
  • Cultural biases: People show a more empathetic response to people that look like them, act like them, and share common values (Riess, 2017). These biases diminish our ability to empathize with people suffering in other parts of the world, the struggles that accompany being of a particular ethnicity, and even showing compassion for people of a different political affiliation.
  • Social and Violent Media: (including violent video games) has a robust reputation for decreasing empathy, as texts and characters are dehumanized (Anderson, 2017). It is also possible that having fewer empathetic adult role models in the media is impacting empathy levels.

The study showing our empathetic decline (Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011) also points to the wide-spread use of social media that has contributed to reduced face-to-face interactions and the “me” culture prominent among millennials.

Based on these factors, a clearer picture emerges as to why you’re seeing a surge of headlines calling for a greater focus on fostering empathy in our education systems. The good news is, there is much that can be done to reverse these trends.

Practical Application

Below you will find practical tools to foster greater empathy among your students, that can work for you too. Be sure to check out the section at the end about how to avoid “empathy burnout”, especially if you work with students who’ve had their un-fair share of adverse childhood experiences.

  1. Teach the Skills of Empathy

Start by teaching the skills associated with being empathetic: good listening, perspective taking, and compassion.

How do you teach those skills? The same way you teach most things: role modeling, direct instruction, practice, feedback. Teach students to make eye contact, face the speaker, and restate key points or ask clarifying questions. To teach perspective taking, find autobiographical reading passages written by people often misunderstood. Present an issue and have students defend one side, and then have them switch and defend the other perspective.

Since healthy levels of empathy leads to compassion, support students to organize their efforts and do something altruistic for those they are learning to have empathy for. Will my son’s Kindergarten bake sale to raise money for the fires in Australia make a significant dent in that costly tragedy? No, but the dent that experience will have on their hearts has my chocolate chips and dollar bills ready to go!

  1. Find Common Ground

It can be tough for some students to connect with the experiences of those suffering in ways they cannot relate to. How can a student living in the burbs with 3 grocery stores within a mile of their home empathize with those starving in their mud villages halfway across the world? Or, bringing it closer to home, how do you help a student feel empathy for their classmate who just lost a parent, when they have never experienced that kind of loss?

Remember that empathy does not require one to have experienced the exact same circumstance. What is needed is a connection to the same feeling. “Have you ever been so hungry your stomach hurt really bad? Imagine feeling like that all the time.” Or “has your parent ever gone away on a LONG trip and you missed them like crazy? Remember what that felt like. That is similar to the feeling Sophia is having, only a lot bigger.”

Just for Teachers: Avoid empathy burnout

Witnessing or experiencing trauma at school (e.g. school shooting, student death, loss of faculty member, weather catastrophes, student adversity) is heart-breaking and can have a huge impact on you. How can you best care for your students without becoming consumed by the heavy weight of their experiences?

Those with a high capacity for empathy cannot “go numb.” Allostasis, depression, grief or sadness has alreadyset in. So, how can you find a healthy way to tune into the emotional pain of your students? There is evidence (Jeffrey & Downie, 2016) for the following three tools:

  1. Take the “I” out of Empathy. Too often, when someone is suffering, people think: How would I feel if this was happening to me? Turns out internalizing their experience does little to help you or them. Instead, focus on their perspective: How might ________ be feeling right now? Keeping this small distance from the experience helps you stay more resourceful and able to act on your compassion.
  2. Re-tool Your Mind. If you find yourself leaving school every day upset, sad, or in tears, a daily mindfulness routine can help you relax and recharge. Check out each of these three app options: Calm, Waking Up, or Smiling Mind. One of them may be right for you. Remember, unless you are serious about changing, shifting or upgrading your brain, nothing will change for the better.
  3. Put Your Big Feelings into Action. Pro-social behaviors can build greater resilience in you and increase your capacity to be with those who are suffering. Volunteer once a month at a food bank; clean out your bookshelves and donate them to a women’s shelter; donate money to a cause you are passionate about. There are endless ways to be your most altruistic self. Want to find a way to give back to your local community? Go to: justserve.org and type in your zip code for a list of local organizations looking for volunteers.

As social beings, it is critical that we continue to connect with each other, including (perhaps, especially) through struggles and suffering. It brings us closer together and helps us heal. From the suggestions above, take one small step toward healthy levels of empathy for you and your students. As educators, we’re here with you. We see you. You are not alone.

Citations:

Acevedo, B. P., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Sangster, M. D., Collins, N., & Brown, L. L. (2014). The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain and behavior4(4), 580-594.

Anderson, C. A., Bushman, B. J., Bartholow, B. D., Cantor, J., Christakis, D., Coyne, S. M., … & Huesmann, R. (2017). Screen violence and youth behavior. Pediatrics140(Supplement 2), S142-S147.

Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., Lishner, D. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). Empathy and altruism. The Oxford handbook of hypo-egoic phenomena, 161-174.

Block‐Lerner, J., Adair, C., Plumb, J. C., Rhatigan, D. L., & Orsillo, S. M. (2007). The case for mindfulness‐based approaches in the cultivation of empathy: Does nonjudgmental, present‐moment awareness increase capacity for perspective‐taking and empathic concern? Journal of marital and family therapy33(4), 501-516.

de Waal, F. B., & Preston, S. D. (2017). Mammalian empathy: behavioural manifestations and neural basis. Nature Reviews Neuroscience18(8), 498.

Feldman, R., Levy, Y., & Yirmiya, K. (2019). The Neural Basis of Empathy and Empathic Behavior in the Context of Chronic Trauma. Frontiers in psychiatry10, 562.

Goetz, J. L., & Keltner, D. (2007). Shifting meanings of self-conscious emotions across cultures. The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research. New York, NY: Guilford.

Heyes, C. (2018). Empathy is not in our genes. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

Jeffrey, D., & Downie, R. (2016). Empathy-can it be taught? Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh46(2), 107-112.

Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review15(2), 180-198.

Lockwood, P. L. (2016). The anatomy of empathy: Vicarious experience and disorders of social cognition. Behavioural brain research311, 255-266.

Margittai, Z., Strombach, T., Van Wingerden, M., Joels, M., Schwabe, L., & Kalenscher, T. (2015). A friend in need: time-dependent effects of stress on social discounting in men. Hormones and Behavior73, 75-82.

Preston, S. D., Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Grabowski, T. J., Stansfield, R. B., Mehta, S., & Damasio, A. R. (2007). The neural substrates of cognitive empathy. Social Neuroscience2(3-4), 254-275.

Riess, H. (2017). The science of empathy. Journal of patient experience4(2), 74-77.

Santos, R. G., Chartier, M. J., Whalen, J. C., Chateau, D., & Boyd, L. (2011). Effectiveness of school-based violence prevention for children and youth: a research report. Healthcare quarterly14(Special Issue 2).

Sharp Donahoo, L. M., Siegrist, B., & Garrett-Wright, D. (2018). Addressing compassion fatigue and stress of special education teachers and professional staff using mindfulness and prayer. The Journal of School Nursing34(6), 442-448.

Todd, A. R., Bodenhausen, G. V., Richeson, J. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2011). Perspective taking combats automatic expressions of racial bias. Journal of personality and social psychology100(6), 1027.

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