Empathy in a digital world

Being empathetic in a digital world can be challenging.

Never before have we been so connected to the world around us. Social media, 24/7 news reporting and the proliferation of portable technology means that we have access to whomever and wherever we choose at the touch of a button. While on the surface this should cultivate more empathy, it does in fact breed apathy and indifference. We’ve become so saturated with the despair, heartache and terror of others that it’s hard to empathise with their situations, no matter how grave or inhumane they may seem. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all been guilty of glancing at a devastating photograph or hearing a dreadful news story, only to simply continue to go about our day. This lack of empathy or ‘compassion fatigue’ is not a new phenomenon but it’s certainly one that’s becoming more prevalent in our fast-paced, ever-connected society.

Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is a condition characterised by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It’s a condition that, in the past, has been more common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as, therapists, nurses, psychologists and first responders, and was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.

Symptoms may include hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude

In recent years however, the condition has been more widely diagnosed, and is exacerbated say journalism analysts, by the media, which has caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news broadcasts with often decontextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering. This has caused the public to become cynical, and even resistant to helping people who are suffering.

It’s true that harrowing images of suffering, shown day-in-day-out in the media can leave us fatigued or numb, but occasionally they still have real power. For example, the recent photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach sparked a mass outpouring of empathy and moral outrage, and led to people taking to the streets to demand their governments open their borders to refugees. So what makes this story more emotive and compelling than others?

“What really brings such images to life, and can help overcome our fatigue, is if we hear someone’s personal story. We need to recognize a part of our own lives in theirs. While we can hear their story in the media itself – for instance in a news interview – the best way is a face-to-face encounter,” explained Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy.

With demanding careers, hectic social lives, wallets full of gym memberships, partners and other commitments of everyday life, we all too often tend to rely on the Facebook ‘Like’ button as a form of communication

And this leads me to my next point… Empathy or compassion fatigue in not just limited to the wider world but is infiltrating our personal lives too. With demanding careers, hectic social lives, wallets full of gym memberships, partners and other commitments of everyday life, we all too often tend to rely on the Facebook ‘Like’ button as a form of communication rather than picking up a phone or arranging a catch up. I met a close friend for a drink just the other day and we laughed about that fact that we considered liking someone’s Instagram pictures every now and then, keeping in touch. It’s madness.

As Roman says, “On a more personal level, I think we need to move beyond the emotionally illiterate world of online ‘Like’ buttons. If you see, via Facebook or other platforms, that a friend has done something interesting or has gone through something tough, like a family death, don’t just ‘Like’ their post or write a one-line comment. Phone them or Skype them and have a real human interaction.”

Empathy, or a lack of it, is becoming a greater problem, and one which can prevent us from feeling happiness on a truly meaningful level. So how do we avoid “empathy fatigue” without becoming emotionally overwhelmed?

Practice empathetic listening

We’re often guilty of doing a lot of talking but not much listening. We become blinkered by our own thoughts and don’t take the time to listen to what others have to say. If you’re in an argument with your partner, or cannot come to an agreement with a colleague try and focus on two things: What are they feeling and what are their needs? By thinking about the other person rather than yourself, you will often see the situation more clearly and be able to react in a more considered and empathetic way.

Cultivate curiosity about strangers

“Having a conversation with a stranger at least once a week is a good prescription for empathic health. Talk to the guy who sells you a newspaper each day, or the quiet librarian living across the street. And make sure you get beyond superficial talk and discuss the stuff that really matters in life: love, death, ambition, hope,” says Roman. Taking the time to walk in someone else’s shoes and understand their feelings will not only help you empathise with their situation, but you may also learn something about yourself as well.

Focus on empathetic decision making

Before making a decision, big or small, try and consider the wider implications for others. For example will saying what you are thinking at this moment hurt or upset those around you, or are the clothes you are buying made in fair and humane environments? The majority of our actions have implications for others and being mindful of this will help you and those around you live fuller and happier lives.

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