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Educators must practice self-care before they can create safe and supportive environments conducive to teaching empathy to students.

Could empathy become extinct?

The thought of living in a world without empathy should be enough to get the attention of most people who work in the field of education

Key points:

If empathy were an animal, it would undoubtedly be on the endangered species list–potentially on the cusp of meeting a fate comparable to the woolly mammoth or the saber-toothed cat.  Since 1973, the purpose of the Endangered Species Act has been to protect endangered animals and foster habitat, which not only promotes safety and recovery from the events or circumstances that led to rapid decline, but also advocates and educates for future changes in policy, procedures, and society to ensure the animals are nourished and safeguarded.  In short, the endangered species list attempts to save animals before it is too late.  Although not a living organism, empathy is on the verge of becoming an endangered social skill.

Unlike extinct animals, empathy will leave no skeletons below the surface, and without immediate attention, empathy may vanish from the face of the earth, without any evidence that it was ever here.

Due to a variety of current technological advancements and societal development in the last 10 years, empathy is on the brink of extinction.  The thought of living in a world without empathy should be enough to get the attention of most people who work in the field of education. 

As educators, we are faced with the reality that empathy has been placed on the endangered social skill list.  Over the last 10 years, empathy has seen a steady devaluation due to several factors, including compassion fatigue, burnout, technology advancements, war, pandemic, and other outside stressors. 

As we look at the current workforce shortages in key occupational fields such as nurses, teachers, and law enforcement, it is evident that people are moving away from the “helping professions.”  Key phrases found in news articles and exit interviews often highlight “burnout” or “compassion fatigue” as reasons people are leaving the profession.  By definition, compassion fatigue entails “not having anything left to give.”  In addition to labor shortages in key professions, which are fundamental to our society, other influences are also working to quickly extinguish any semblance of empathy in our culture. 

Heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are online and more people are feeling undervalued. For better or worse, social media has changed the way children, adolescents, and young adults communicate.  Paired with the recent global pandemic, many people were forced to adapt to how they communicated with friends and family.  One unintended consequence was that social media has fostered an “I” and “me” culture among younger generations, which has only increased the steady reduction of empathy.  When social media accounts are rewarded for self-centered, materialistic, and boastful content, empathy is quickly replaced with envy or resentment towards others. 

So, if our younger generations of students are not learning empathy and our older generations of helping professionals are losing empathy; what can we do to stop the extinction of empathy?  Similar to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, we must protect empathy and create environments where it can flourish, while we educate and advocate for change.  How can our teachers create a safe and nurturing environment to grow empathy, when many of them have already given all the empathy the have?  When education continues to be overridden with more and more demands, and teachers struggle to climb out of the exhausted pit of despair, what can educators do to bring back the importance of empathy?

The answer lies in self-care.  Although it sounds counterintuitive to focus on ourselves to increase empathy, appropriate self-care is our only chance at saving empathy from extinction and passing it on to our future generations.  Although self-care may be a popular buzz word in some circles, it is often confused with mindless, negative, self-defeating behaviors.  In the same tone, self-care should not be limited or misconstrued to anything that is “fun” or “relaxing.” Self-care must entail intentional healthy behaviors designed to rejuvenate the mind, body, and spirit.  Against popular opinion, drinking a bottle of wine and scrolling Facebook is not self-care.  Self-care needs to focus on improving the basic functions, which can be found in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

According to Maslow, the foundational level of basic psychological needs must first be met, followed by the second level of safety and security needs, before a person can move on to the third level, which includes social needs such as love and belonging (empathy).  Based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can ascertain that individuals must take care of their basic psychological needs before they are able to show empathy.  Looking at basic psychological needs, Maslow highlighted food, water, shelter, sufficient rest, and overall health, which must be addressed before a person can move on to the next level.  Notice Maslow did not mention a spa day, day drinking, Netflix binges, or Instagram in the list of basic needs. How many people neglect the basic principles of self-care, such as eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, and getting sufficient rest only to ultimately push themselves into burnout, compassion fatigue, or empathy exhaustion?  If this sounds too simple, be aware that society has added complexity to our daily lives, which often overshadows our basic needs.

As mentioned previously, empathy is not a living animal on the endangered species list, but the extinction of empathy could have serious ramifications for humans going forward.  Can you imagine a community with no desire to help each other?  What will happen to our next generation when we ask them to “take a walk in someone else’s shoes” or “look at something from someone else’s lens?” 

Once our children stop being able to take a different perspective, we run the risk of losing a lot more than a social skill.  For now, educators must add empathy to the Endangered Social Skills List of 2023.  More specifically, educators must get selfish with self-care (real self-care), before they can create safe and supportive environments conducive to learning–only then can we pass on the magnificent skill of empathy to our current students and pave the way to ensure that empathy does succumb to the same fate as the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed cat.

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