“Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work.” – Daniel Goleman
For generations people have been demonstrating the skillful ability to be empathetic. Right now, someone is putting empathy into action because they understand that we are all connected. Yet in the home of those enduring domestic violence, empathy is very low. Perpetrators of domestic violence most usually lack the ability to empathize and this detachment makes them void of feeling guilty within. Victims in turn do not learn empathy skills and they are at risk for internal instability.
When it comes to a national disaster or upon hearing about someone’s traumatic experience, empathy is often a first response. It crosses borders of countries, dissolves racism among sectors, removes gender inequalities within communities, unites social groups, and positively impacts lives. Yet, many in society still yearn for empathy to be put into action.
Those deeply involved with meeting social needs often want to throw their hands in the air and exclaim, “How can people not feel what others feel?" "Why are they not acting to bring relief to the suffering?” "Obviously! Good people are leaving this earth". "They just need to be encouraged to put themselves into another person’s shoes"; as we say, they need to “feel what others feel.”
But really, is it that simple to feel what another feels? Putting empathy into action is a skill. For some people empathy comes naturally, it is a gift; however, we can all learn to empathize and do it well for the enhancement and sustainability of lives and nations. People who have gone through a traumatic experience suffer from extreme loss, pain, and separation, along with the psychological, physical, and spiritual debilitating consequences. They do not need pity; they require empathy in action.
When we possess and put into action all three forms of empathy, the outcomes will positively benefit those affected and those providing empathy. Empathy is not only understanding another person’s feelings; it is also acting on that knowledge. The three forms of empathy should cohesively work together:
1. “Cognitive Empathy” – is the ability to know how the affected person feels and what they are thinking. Cognitive empathy on its own can cause one to become detached, cold, and show indifference rather than caring as the person tries to understand another person’s situation without internalizing his or her own emotions.
2. “Emotional Empathy” – is the ability to physically feel what others feel. When we see emotions expressed, mirror neurons are fired off in our brain, which creates an echo of that state inside our own minds. Emotional empathy alone can lead to the inability to manage our own emotions, cause psychological exhaustion and many times paralyze us so that we are unable to act.
3. “Compassionate Empathy” – is the ability not only to understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but to move into action and help, which will bring some sort of relief, comfort, or confidence that things will get better. Compassion empathy alone can lead to persons feeling guilty or looking negatively upon themselves if they are unable to assist the person in the predicament.
Domestic violence undermines a person’s fundamental human right. Various acts of domestic violence are committed every second across the globe. We can no longer associate domestic violence to being a woman’s only societal issue. Research does shows that women and girls are at a greater risk of being victims. However, men and boys are also victims of this cruelty. Likewise, men as well as women perpetrate this crime. Domestic violence cuts across all racial, religious, political and academic lines. It touches all social groups in society and no country is left unscathed.
Various challenges present themselves as many work toward a world free of domestic violence. Such challenges are, but not limited to:
• Many people see domestic violence as a ‘private’ family matter because the word ‘domestic’ is used and so they take a hands-off approach, thinking, “It’s not my business what goes on behind closed doors.” They become passive bystanders to acts of violence, although “wherever and whenever the human rights of one are violated the human rights of all are in jeopardy.” – Sherna Alexander Benjamin
• The lack of empathy towards the plight of victims, which leads many in society to blame the victim. They try to understand if the situation is as bad as is being stated: “Why is the victim silent, remaining in or returning to such a volatile environment?”
• Domestic violence is an accepted social norm and a common experience in some societies.
• The lack of prevention education across all borders and illiteracy on the direct and indirect financial, psychological, and physical cost to society. Financial cost run into billions of dollars annually. Psychological cost is seen by the presence of various mental health disorders. And the physical cost is seen by the scars, disfigurement and death. But the cost of silence cannot be quantified.
As nations grapple with the horrible effects of domestic violence, there is a crucial need for empathy in action. Empathy for the girl child, enduring the pains and humiliation of genital mutilation. Empathy for the woman being beaten, psychologically traumatized and sexually assaulted. Empathy for the boy, who is being neglected, physically abused and sexually assaulted. Empathy for the man, who is being sexually violated as an act of psychological warfare. And empathy for millions of women and girls across the globe whose first sexual encounter will be a forced one.
Empathy in action should come from all sectors from policymakers to law enforcers, from politicians to religious leaders, from educators to students, from communities to individual families and from families to you and me. Therefore, a few things need to be done:
• We need to accept that domestic violence is present; it is real and it kills.
• We need to listen attentively and honestly to what is being said, by those who advocate for victims, by those who speak from experience and by those who are silent.
• We need to have open conversations which will bring about a change of social norms, disseminate information, spread awareness and empathize with victims of this atrociously blatant but subtle crime.
• We should give non-judgmental feedback during and after conversations, and position ourselves as allies.
• We should facilitate environments for victims to feel safe to use their authentic voice, reclaim their lives, and break their silence without fear, intimidation or society’s backlash.
• Relentlessly we must act, putting empathy into action and making sure that such actions are motivated by all three forms of empathy consistently.
Empathy in action is our responsibility. The more you cultivate it the more natural it becomes. The more we see human rights violations the more we should think about our freedom and act to free others who are imprisoned. The more we look to pass blame is the more guilty we become. And the more we see domestic violence as ‘private’ is the more we approve the death sentence of millions.
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes, we must interfere when human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” – Elie Wiesel
This article was published in APAWANN Magazine and on Caribbean News Now and republished on the Organization for Abused and Battered Individuals.