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Empathy 2.0: Social Awareness

two people holding hands showing empathy

Written by Kimberly Thomson

Plainly, social awareness is the ability to understand and respond to the needs of others. More poetically, it is empathy 2.0. Through empathy, we understand how someone is feeling, but with social awareness we are both instinctual and thoughtful with ours and other’s feelings. This topic has become especially important now that we see pain more plainly. As our communities have become more isolated, our ability to read and understand each other depends greatly on trust. Imagine receiving a personal and delicate message from someone you barely know. How would you hear this kind of message, in comparison to one just as intimate, but delivered from a loyal companion? It sounds like common sense that we would hear the message from our good friend much clearer because the trust you have with that person allows you to feel safe and understood, rather than vulnerable and confused. Since we commonly rely on complete strangers to walk with us through our most intimate moments, these sectors often learn how to establish trust effectively and efficiently for the sake of the vulnerable recipient through the power of empathy. It sounds like a great idea, but trust me, your teachers and doctors and taxi drivers and police officers and salesclerks are tired of the empathy lessons because it leaves out a key element to communication success: thoughtfulness. Plugging in to how others feel for most of your waking hours is exhausting and leaves your brain on low power, where one can’t think much at all and become just as vulnerable as the recipient of the service. The provider becomes a part of the trauma, and they go off to seek their own healing.

There have been numerous responses to correct this imbalance. One example comes from the author Paul Bloom in his book, “Against Empathy”. Bloom argues that empathy is a useless emotion that should be replaced by “distanced compassion”. Brene Brown, author and PhD, proposed her own view on empathy. Brene is considerably more pro-empathy, but remarks on how empathy can become a struggle if we are not internally balanced and accepting of our own delicate parts. So while the debate continues as to empathy’s true merits, we know it’s one worth having. The more vulnerable we become, the more we need social awareness to resist the cycle of re-traumatization for everyone’s benefit. As a friend and doctor shared, “Before hearing of the idea, I never even questioned if empathy was the right thing or not. Empathy is the only thing that they attempt to teach us in med school. I’m curious about the idea that there’s actually an alternative that might be better.” So where does empathy end and social awareness begin? With the choice to learn more.