The Meaning of Empathy

Recently I started putting together a presentation that I will be giving to schools about the bullying issue. The overall theme of the presentation is empathy.

I hadn’t looked up the definition of empathy in a while, so I went to Websters. Their definition says:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

As I read this definition a few times, I realized how truly powerful these words are. I was particularly interested in the part that said “without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated”. In thinking about what that means, it would really require us to make a sacrifice to be empathetic

…and I am OK with that. What I mean is that it works both ways, doesn’t it. For example, while watching the news and watching a particularly bad story about murder or some terrible crime, I’ll sit and say I can’t understand how someone could do that. At the same token, I shouldn’t understand how someone can do that. If I can, then that crime would make sense to me and it shouldn’t. In much the same way, people may struggle with empathy, because if you don’t have the ability to understand why someone can hurt so badly from bullying, then you don’t think that way.

When I read that children should toughen up and suck it up about bullying. When I read that kids will be kids and it’s only a youth problem. When I read that it’s OK for kids to punch back when bullied and get into fights. When I read that we can only work out our differences with bullies through aggression and to build a thicker skin. When I read all these things, I feel that I am reading ideas from those without the empathy to understand the victim in a bullying situation.

Teaching those that bully to be more empathetic to victims and care about others feelings. Teaching a bully to become a better person. Now that, to me is teaching empathy.

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Empathy

  1. I totally agree with you about the importance of empathy. That’s why I have students role-play various bullying scenarios when I do school visits, so that they can experience and “feel” the same situation from the perspective of the bully, the bully’s target, and the bystander. I also always emphasize the role of the bystander who can frequently stop or facilitate the bullying situation. Thanks for doing what you’re doing!

  2. Going by the definition presented, I wouldn’t say a failure to empathize with violent criminals (whether we’re talking murderers or bullies) is any more a good thing than failure to empathize with their victims. After all, the definition says nothing about agreeing with or justifying those for whom you have empathy. Understanding, being aware of, and being sensitive to others is a good thing, even if you disagree or disapprove of a behavior. The most dangerous of the qualities presented would be experiencing those feelings oneself.

    By understanding, being aware of, and being sensitive to the emotional and mental states that lead to violent behavior, we would be better able to A) recognize them before the behaviors occur and in doing take preventative measures, and B) teach those individuals prone to violent behavior better means of behaving in response to their emotional and mental states.

    We all get angry and we all feel vulnerable–two emotional states that lead (so I’m told) to bullying and violence. So why are some of us able to cope with these feelings effectively, while others turn to bullying and violence or self-destruction or any of the other ineffective responses?

    Teaching bullies empathy is an important component, I’m sure. However, is that possible when you say (or at least it seems to me that you’re saying) that they don’t deserve empathy in return?

    Or, to put it another way, is empathy alone enough to stop bullying? Are we sure that its a lack of skill in empathy that is the problem? That bullies just don’t get that they are hurting people? It seems to me that the bullies I’ve interacted with got that they’re hurting people just fine–they wanted to hurt people, because they got something out of hurting others that they were unable or unwilling to get in any other way. For some it was a sense of power or control, for others it was a sense of security. There are probably more things that they get out of it as well.

    It seems to me that if we understood what internal need they were responding to, and understood how others met that need effectively without hurting others, and could teach bullies to meet their own needs in an effective, non-harmful manner, that others’ feelings would become a higher priority and their ability to empathize would show through.

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