Empowering empathy to increase kindness

Brian H. Smith, PhD is an expert in youth development and has served as a member of Born This Way Foundation’s Research Advisory Board and as a Senior Research Scientist at the Committee for Children.

We all know empathy is important, but too often empathy fails to promote kindness. Read on for how we can empower empathy to increase the kindness in the world.

Escaping empathic distress

It’s easy to share in someone’s happiness or excitement. It can be much more difficult to feel strong empathy with someone who’s suffering. Empathic distress is when feeling someone else’s suffering makes you suffer. When we feel bad the natural reaction is to do something to feel better. When what’s making us feel bad is empathy for someone else’s suffering, one way to feel better is to comfort and help them. We all want to be that strong and caring.

But there are other ways to escape the distress of feeling another’s pain. Say you witness someone being bullied and it makes you feel bad. You could stick up for them or comfort them, but you could also take on the attitude, which is more common than we’d like to think, that they somehow brought it on themselves. You could just ignore what’s happening and walk away, or you could even join with the people doing the tormenting.

Empathic distress can cause people to focus on escaping the discomfort of empathy instead of doing something to make a suffering person feel better.

One thing that helps stop empathic distress from derailing your intentions to be kind is simply noticing what you do when you see someone suffering. Does your reaction follow your values? Is it how you’d like to react? Or are you unconsciously escaping the feelings in a way that works for you but doesn’t help them? Mindfulness practices are becoming more common and can help with this. But simply paying attention and noticing how you react to others is what counts.

There are also two emotion-specific skills that help people react positively to the uncomfortable feelings of empathic distress. The first is emotion awareness. Being consciously aware of how you’re feeling helps you avoid getting pushed around by emotions without knowing it. Being aware of what you’re feeling opens the door for you to use another powerful skill: emotion tolerance. Newer research shows that trying to make uncomfortable emotions ‘go away’ usually doesn’t work and often causes additional problems. The better approach is to recognize the emotion, accept that it’s happening, and still consciously choose to act on your values.

One of the best paths to increasing emotion awareness and tolerance is Social and Emotional Learning. The good news is that schools today are increasingly embracing this approach of teaching students how to be more aware of and able to cope with their feelings in ways that are positive and prosocial rather than letting their feelings push them to do things that harm others or themselves.

Expanding the circle of empathy

One of the problems with both research and popular ideas about empathy is that we too often think of empathy as a fixed trait- you either have it or you don’t. The reality is what matters is not how much empathy people have but who they have empathy for.

Far too often people’s empathy gets caught in this ‘In Group versus Out Group’ trap. It’s easier to feel empathy for your friends, your family, people like you, perhaps people of your nationality, race, religion, or people who share your beliefs and values. It’s much harder to extend the circle of empathy to people who seem like ‘the other’ or ‘not one of us’.

A simple example from research is that when people were shown pictures of hurricane victims they rated the suffering of people of their own race higher than others – which then had a big effect on who they said they wanted to help provide relief to.

An example perhaps we can all relate to is middle school- the age when bullying is at its peak. When teens hit adolescence their brains and hormones push them to focus intensely on peers and their social world. This often creates a powerful desire to fit in. One way middle schoolers (and even adults) figure out who’s in is by defining who’s out – and when that’s done in cruel ways it becomes bullying.

The solution is to expand our circle of empathy. Keep in mind that the more different someone is from you the more conscious effort you may have to make to understand what they’re experiencing. Empathy can be something you have but it can also be something you DO.

We often think about empathy promoting kindness. What if that’s partly backwards? What if kindness is actually one of the best ways to promote empathy- especially towards people who are less like us? What I’m talking about here is not ‘acts of kindness’ so much as valuing kindness, kindness as a norm, even kindness as a commitment. If we truly believe that kindness towards everyone is important that can empower us to expand our circle of empathy.

When kindness is a norm, a strong value we hold, it can help guide how we approach the rest of the world. The more we automatically bring kindness to how we think about everyone, not just those close to or most like us, the more likely we’ll be to make the effort to understand people’s experiences – even when it makes us feel sad or challenges the comfort of our identity.