The Trouble with Empathy

As the year draws to a close I’m aware that a number of teachers are anxious about the ‘fate’ of their students over the holidays and in their future education. They have built strong relationships with the little people in their classes in the past year(s) – granted in many instances they see these kids more than their parents do, but I have found their levels of concern interesting because I ‘m wondering if they meet the criteria of ’empathy explosion’ (as per MindMatters ReachOut webinar, 7 November 2012).

Before I delve into this, let’s discuss empathy. As Brene Brown explains in this gorgeous clip, empathy is about feeling with people.

It’s clear that being empathetic is vitally important in supporting students with their behaviour and social and emotional learning. But there is such a thing as too empathetic or not empathetic enough and in my role as a School Counsellor there’s a very fine balance that I need to be able to maintain with empathy in order to be most effective in my role. As you can see in the ‘Empathy Continuum’ below, empathy erosion is a very real outcome if I am exposed to too many situations in which I am required to be empathetic. Not caring and that emotional numbness consistent with compassion fatigue would keep me from being present, caring and effective in my role and would compromise my ability to be of maximum effectiveness in my counselling interactions.

Empathy continuum

On the other end of the spectrum is empathy explosion which can occur when we are overwhelmed by what we observe in our students. Wanting to take children home and being overly engaged with them on a psychological level can also lead to practice that is unethical as we can overstep our professional boundaries. We must remember that these children are not our own and regardless of their background situations, we are limited in what we can and can’t control about their lives. Managing that sense of helplessness that occurs when we know that the lives of our students is far from optimal is one of the trickiest things to reconcile when working with young people.

As both empathy erosion and empathy explosion are states in which our effectiveness as professionals becomes compromised it is important that we are able to recognise them and take the appropriate action to get ourselves being present and working with kindness with our students. Remember in our work in schools its quite normal to find yourself veering to the ends of the empathy spectrum and that talking with someone about how you are feeling is the best way to manage any deviations from the empathy presence zone within the Empathy Continuum.