“The Contagion of Emotions” – Empathy

Empathy: “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; also : the capacity for this ” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

On Sunday night I was drawn into a Twitter discussion facilitated by Louiza Hebhardt (@equilibriumctc), a teacher and counsellor with a focus on teacher well-being. Her regular discussion #teacherwellbeingchat provides a great opportunity for educators of all levels and from all location to connect and discuss the importance of maintaining emotional, spiritual, physical and mental well-being. After all, how can we adequately look after our students’ well-being without first looking after our own?

Sunday’s discussion focused on ‘The contagion of emotions.’ In places like schools, where large numbers of people gather and bring with them all the thoughts, feelings and experiences that form their lives, emotions are bound to run high. Sometimes these emotions are positive, other times they are incredibly negative. Louiza posed three questions to participants:

1. Emotions are contagious. Discuss.

2. How do you think empathy plays into the contagion of emotions?

3. Instead of a Q3 next is T3 (T for Task). Watch this –tinyurl.com/bhmkeqv and then let us know what happened. (<—Take a look at the video…great clip)

The discussion about empathy was particularly interesting and relevant to me. I believe anybody who chooses a career/profession/vocation that deals with people and everything that makes them who they are (strengths, difficulties, life experience, etc.) must have an innate ability to empathise with others, particularly when those people are at their most vulnerable. As educators we teach human beings, not just sponges whose sole purpose and motivation for being is to soak up content knowledge. For so many students at risk, learning about English, Maths, Science, etc. does not rate highly on their list of needs. External factors influence their behaviours, attitudes and ability to cope at school. This is where, as teachers, we are called to empathise – not necessarily to lower our expectations of the student, but to understand why they might be struggling to meet those expectations at a particular point in time and consider how we can help them to proactively change that.

It also became clear during the #teacherwellbeingchat that it is crucial not to mistake sympathy for empathy. They are two different reactions. Sympathy implies ‘feeling sorry for’ and taking that person’s problems and emotions as your ownl. Empathy, on the other hand, suggests understanding, consideration, and a willingness to help where possible without projecting somebody else’s negative emotions onto oneself. This is something that I find a challenge in my pastoral care role. When I work with students whose lives are in turmoil (and this sadly happens more often than I had ever expected), I find it difficult, not so much to detach, but to avoid being drawn into ‘feeling sorry for,’  which I know is not as helpful as empathy. I am getting better at it, but it is still something I have to consciously think about.

Hence it was incredibly worthwhile for me to follow and participate in Louiza’s discussion. Engaging with others from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences allowed me to reflect on how I respond to my students and their troubles, and perhaps how I might be more mindful of this. Another resource focused on staff well-being that I find particularly useful is a newsletter called Vital Staff, sent out by one of our wonderful school counsellors. Jarrod Lamshed (@jlamshed) , author of the blog Connected Learning, also made a very pertinent post recently focusing on the need for balance in our lives. Such discussions and publications emphasise the need for us to look after ourselves, in order to avoid ‘the contagion of (negative) emotions.’

But let’s keep the positive emotions contagious, shall we? 😀

Thanks to @MarkeetaRP for suggesting the above video during #teacherwellbeingchat!

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