Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient being. One needs empathy in order to have compassion, something we are running short of these days it seems. A recent study reveals that adolescents have about 80% less empathy today than they did 20 years ago. A little frightening if you ask me. So, how important is it to feel empathy, to have access to one’s vulnerable feelings in order to feel for another? I’d say it’s of critical importance. Many of our troubles today are rooted in a lack of feeling vulnerable emotions. Everything from anxiety and depression to bullying can be traced back to a loss of feelings.
To care is to make one’s self vulnerable. The instinct to care is just that, an instinct. It’s not something to be taught but something we are born with. When we sense vulnerability in another our instinct to care for the other should be activated automatically. For many this is not the case. Instead we harden. So what is going wrong? Why are we losing our ability to care, to sense vulnerable feelings in others and to respond accordingly?
Many of us have grown up experiencing wounding in various forms. Some have experienced physical wounding while others psychological and emotional or all of the above. If we did not have an attachment to someone to shield us from this wounding, if we did not have someone who we felt believed in, accepted and loved us unconditionally then the wounding would have been too much to bear. The brain is an incredible organ. It knows exactly what to do to keep us safe. If we are in danger of being hurt the brain simply turns off our ability to “feel” those emotions that would be painful. Ironically, we are most susceptible to being hurt by those closest to us, i.e. our parents, and therefore we are most vulnerable in these relationships. If we felt disapproved of, disregarded, not favored, inadequate, rejected or abandoned chances are our brains did what they are intended to do and helped us lose touch with our tender feelings. We then became what is called “defended” and in essence “stuck” developmentally.
So having lost our tender feelings at a young age we became hardened and we lost our ability to respond to tender, vulnerable feelings in another. Perhaps we became a bully or turned to dangerous activities or substances, or found ourselves in abusive relationships. I can remember losing my tears when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Significant wounding events in my life were too much to bear and I began to harden, to toughen up. This led to a complexity of issues that I spent the following 20 plus years trying to untangle. I still, to this day, have difficulty experiencing certain emotions. I am not thawed out completely but am working towards softening day by day. I still, when stress is high, when I anticipate being hurt or when my frustrations mount, can become hardened as a defense mechanism. When this happens those I love get hurt and I have to find my way back to my heart and allow myself to feel those emotions that I am trying to avoid. Easier said than done at times.
Our children are living evidence of this a lack of empathy and feeling. Violence is increasing like never before in our schools and in our communities. We see children harming themselves and harming each other. 1 out very 5 girls will be cutting themselves by the time they reach adolescence. Dr. Gordon Neufeld refers to what is happening with our kids as “tribalizing”. They are in a flight from vulnerability and wounding and re-attaching to each other instead of staying in relationship with the adults responsible for them. Kids simply cannot teach each other empathy nor can they help each other grow up, mature and reach their potential. In fact, the arena amongst children is the most wounding of all. Our job as parents, teachers and caregivers is to support our children to mature and to meet their true potential. We must keep our kids close emotionally and psychologically more fiercely than ever and never allow anything to divide this union. They need to be nurtured and given time to grow and develop into resilient, viable, and indepdendant beings. Although popular in western society, exposing our kids in the name of independance, is not the answer. We first must win their hearts, invite them to depend fully on us and only then do we have the power to do the job of parenting.
I see this defended-ness in organizations too. We have leaders that are dominant types without the caring feelings so needed to lead effectively. Power is used in a contrived and unnatural manner leading people to feel abused. Our offices are made up of bullies and those who are actually sensitive must hide their feelings to survive. It is up to all of us – teachers, elders, caregivers, parents and leaders to heal our communities and collect the children. To teach them, to thaw them out and to help them regain their feelings. First, we must do this for ourselves and each other. We must model this for the future generations.When I speak to the issue of lateral violence the root cause is intergenerational wounding and resulting defended-ness amongst people. A loss of tender feelings. I see this being perpetuated everyday amongst people and fairly unconsciously. It’s happening in our offices, schools, homes and communities. So how do we change this?
The first step is reflect on ourselves. To ask ourselves if we are hardened? Do we have access to our vulnerable emotions? What emotions can’t we be with? Do we have access to our tears? How resilient are we? Can we accept that which is not working in our lives and grieve in order to let it go or do we hardened with each disappointment?
We must first soften our own hearts before we can melt the heart of another.