I’ve recently published a mini-series about bullying on my blog. It’s a subject close to my heart for lots of reasons. When I started writing about it, the purpose was to look under the surface of what causes bullying, in hope of finding a way to prevent and tackle it.
There’s a plethora of examples of bullying to be found online, both in children and adults – but my interest was in finding a solution.
I appreciate the unlikelihood given the fact this is an age-old problem; but they say if you want something to change then you need to change the way you view it.
And in exploring the problem and taking the time to listen to various perspectives, I have gained a greater understanding of what sometimes drives this destructive behaviour.
Naturally, bullying doesn’t all come from the same place, and each different situation will need to be handled according to its own unique set of circumstances. But I’ve been fascinated at some of what I’ve discovered, and what’s really fantastic is that others also seem to be interested in what I’ve uncovered too.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from my little investigation is about empathy.
Empathy in Friendship
In the past, I’ve always considered myself to be empathetic to others; I like to think it’s what makes me a good friend. I make a point of listening and hearing people – and not talking over them.
I’m the (arguably annoying) friend who will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get you to open up about that source of fear/anxiety/sadness you’re hiding behind a brave face. I’m also the friend who will sit and thrash out ideas for how to overcome said issue, or simply provide a pair of broad shoulders.
Or cake – I find that often helps too.
Empathy in Life
There are certain genres of film (specifically war biopics) I’m not a fan of – yet I watch from time to time anyway. These movies are hard to sit through because they portray unimaginable human misery.
I endure them nonetheless because on a moral level I feel the least I can do is acknowledge what others have suffered in order that my life can be a little easier.
I owe them that – despite the empathy they evoke in me making the experience uncomfortable.
Similarly, reading is one of my greatest pleasures, and it’s rare I put a book away without finishing it – even if it doesn’t immediately grip me. (Some of the best books I’ve read have only got going halfway through; and in a really well-written novel, all the little details you initially thought were unnecessary fluff are neatly sewn together by the end.) Yet I’ve recently found myself unable to get past the first few chapters of books which previously I’d have hungrily devoured.
Since the birth of my daughter, I’ve discovered that like love, one’s capacity for empathy is limitless.
It’s the reason I can’t read a thriller about a child going missing without envisaging my worst nightmare coming to pass. And it’s not just imagining in an abstract way, but rather feeling it so profoundly that it induces a physical response. After the second nightmare I admitted defeat and put that particular book away for a later date. (The author should take this as a huge compliment – her descriptive writing made suspending reality all too easy: I was transported to a place so full of horror that I was left deeply disturbed.)
Empathy in the Home
Taking our partners for granted is possibly the feature most heralded to lead to relationship problems. It can be blamed for unhealthy communication – or its complete breakdown; infidelity can even be traced back to this issue.
However, I’ve learned from my inability to tolerate specific reading material that too much empathy is equally debilitating as too little.
While respecting and appreciating our loved ones is essential to the harmony of our relationships, taking them for granted – up to a point – is also necessary. We need to be able to leave the house believing we will see our loved ones that night – acknowledging the possibility of a tragedy every waking moment is exhausting; it’s also considered a mental disorder.
Empathy in Society
Of course the opposite also holds true: the most striking characteristic of a psychopath is their absolute lack of empathy, the absence of which permits callous and calculated actions – and explains why there’s a high incidence of these personality types in powerful job roles.
In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about the significance of Emotional Intelligence (EI), which is almost the antithesis of psychopathic behaviours. EI places value on reading, evaluating, and responding to others’ body language and cues – essentially, being empathetic.
The Power of Empathy
Empathy is one of those attributes held up as a particularly desirable trait; and in relationships it undoubtedly is: it’s what sets us apart from animals and allows us to live in a civilized society.
But it bears the capacity both to connect, and to devastate. It’s a spectrum, and navigating our way to ensure we straddle that which is classed as ‘healthy’ is often fraught with obstacles.
Ultimately, I’ve had my eyes opened to the fact that while we may not always comprehend the motivations and intentions of others (as is often the case with bullies), taking the time to communicate so we can begin to understand can mean the difference between discord and humanity.