Donald Trump has proven over and over that he is incapable of empathy. Being called upon to relate to the pain of another person is like asking a toddler to drive a space shuttle. He CANNOT do it. For him, every experience is a mirror— he is always, always assessing himself to bolster a very brittle ego. This explains his obsession with the number of people at his inauguration, the popular vote count, etc.
His response to Hurricane Maria made this empathy deficit abundantly clear, and it has done great damage. Below are some actual quotes from Trump, followed by what might have been said by someone capable of empathy:
Trump: “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack”
If Trump had empathy: Whatever it takes, Puerto Rico, we are there for you. We will get you the aid you need. We will help you rebuild. Your problems are our problems—you are not alone.
Trump: “I know you appreciate our support because our country has really gone all out to help”
If Trump had empathy: I know you are frustrated. I know you are scared and feel abandoned. But the US looks out for its citizens. My promise to you: we will not let you down. We will get you the food, water, medicines, and other supplies, and we will find a way to reach those who are isolated. We are Americans. We do not abandon our own.
Trump: “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help”
If Trump had empathy: Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruzhas been fighting for you. She has let me know what you need and I am grateful for that. She will not let you be forgotten. And I promise you this: neither will I.
Trump: “We’ve only heard ‘thank yous’ from the people of Puerto Rico,” he said. “It is something I enjoyed very much today.”
If Trump had empathy: When I look into your eyes, I see strength. I see resilience. This is what will get you through the next difficult months. I cannot take away your pain, but we promise we will help you rebuild. Puerto Rico will emerge stronger than ever.
Trump: “What’s happened in terms of recovery, in terms of saving lives – 16 lives that’s a lot – but if you compare that to the thousands of people who died in other hurricanes that frankly were not nearly as severe”
If Trump had empathy: I mourn with you. I feel your sorrow at the loss of your loved ones. Every life is precious, and this disaster touched each of you in a devastating way. You will recover, but it will be a hard, trying journey, perhaps made easier because you KNOW are not alone. We are with you, Puerto Rico. We are with you.
As we hear of the continued anguish in Puerto Rico, we must demand that other leaders in Washington step up. We cannot leave them without food, water, and the tools needed to rebuild. We must NOT let the suicide rate on this island continue to rise.
We must give them hope. They are a resilient people, but even the strongest among us needs help at times. If our president cannot send this message then we must:
To this day many people prefer taking, rather than giving. They are always asking life for more, wondering what more they can achieve, get and experience.
But turns out that giving is not just more important than taking, not just what we – as humans – should naturally be inclined to, but also the thing that gives us true satisfaction and can improve own life.
Without having tried it, however, there’s no chance you can know what the real benefits are.
There are many ways in which helping others, sharing, caring, giving what you can, doing good deeds, etc. can make you a better person and help other people too, while making the world more peaceful.
In case you want to live better and also contribute beyond yourself, here’s how helping others can turn your whole life around:
1. A sense of purpose
Let’s admit it. We’re all looking for meaning in life.
Often, focused only on ourselves and living the daily life, we forget there’s more behind all this.
There’s purpose beyond materialistic possessions, reaching our goals in life, getting a new job, finding the right partner, or else.
When you start doing more for others, and less for yourself, you receive more than you can imagine.
You find meaning in your life if you decide to volunteer, or to just be a better person and always help when you can.
So if you still haven’t found true meaning in your life, ask yourself what you can do today to help someone in need, or to show somebody that you care.
2. Volunteer, and you’ll be happy and healthy
According to a report by Harvard Health Publications, volunteering and the level of happiness and health in people’s lives are closely related. Let’s break this down.
For a start, when you join a volunteering organization, you’re part of a community, you feel like you belong. You’re taking part in something bigger than you, and it makes you smile and be truly grateful.
You start feeling good about yourself, and often can’t even describe it to others in your life. There’s nothing selfish about it, and you don’t even need to talk about it. It’s this feeling of contentment, where you don’t need to change anything, or to ask life for more, you just help others and feel happier day after day. What’s more, it’s great for the mind, body and soul too.
It’s one of the most natural stress, depression, loneliness and anxiety relievers. No need for medicine, spiritual practices, special programs, or else. You just need to go out there and start helping people.
It’s a therapy for the soul to see those in need smiling because of what you’re doing. And that makes you sleep better at night, feel good about yourself, and your other problems you thought you had in life don’t seem like a big deal now.
3. Doing good can help your professional life
You won’t be helping others with the goal of exceeding in your career, of course, but it will increase your chances of landing a job a lot, as a government study suggests.
How does this happen?
Well, turns out the skills you build while volunteering make you a better candidate for employers. It lets you explore new fields too, and you acquire knowledge at the same time. Then, you can easily put these into practice in whatever career you pursue.
What’s more, if you’re determined to excel at this, there are plenty of volunteering programs that offer further training. Things like that look good on your CV too, show that you care about the community, are open to side projects, and know how to work with other people.
Once you give it a try, you’ll end up becoming a better communicator, understand the real meaning of teamwork, will somehow start brainstorming ideas and solve problems more creatively, will be managing your time better and thus become more organized.
When all these are first experienced at an unpaid position, where no one expects you to do your best and there’s no pressure from superiors, you learn the skills necessary to move to the top of your career in the future, even before you’ve started a job in the field.
4. You build relationships
You know networking is crucial for your success in life and in business. Well, helping others can help you with that too. First of all, you’re connecting with people in a more meaningful way than usual when you’re doing good for the sake of making their life better. That’s the social aspect and it also gives you fulfillment and makes you feel great.
But you also meet other people doing the same, potential employers, influencers, and more. This expands your network and you can never know what opportunity will come out of this.
At the same time, you’re feeling more confident and comfortable around new people and let go of social anxiety. That lets you make friends too, which will stay in your life even when you’re not doing this anymore.
Once you land a new job, or open a new chapter in your life, socializing and putting yourself out there won’t scare you. You’ll be free to approach new people, and will effortlessly communicate without fear of rejection or wondering what to say.
In a nutshell, helping others is one of the most profitable, practical and satisfying things you can do with your life. And it doesn’t need to be big. You can complete smalls tasks or join a community that cares for a cause you’re passionate about.
Powerful service to others is based in one fundamental element and that is connection. We strive to create a space of connection that will help to build on feelings of trust, openness, acceptance and unconditional care for another person.
As we go through academic preparation and learn from the less formal interactions in our lives, we learn how to create this space of connection with others; we learn how to let others know that we are present and engaged. We learn how to send the message that we care.
Offering compassion as we develop connection with another is our way of saying that we care and that it is safe. Curiosity sends the message that we have a desire to understand and to explore the nature of an experience.
When these two elements come together, the results can be magical.
What is compassionate curiosity? And how do we engage in that energy? My understanding of this most beautifully combined process of exploration involves an intricate balance of energies that can open deeper experiences of conscious service.
When we bring curiosity to our experience of compassion, we gain greater capacity for understanding of our own experience as well as that of another. Curiosity keeps us exploring and opens us up to deeper levels of willingness.
When compassion guides our natural curiosity, we learn to probe gently in order to connect within and with others in this process of life and learning. It is in this place that we enter a space of authentic empathy.
Curiosity directs our compassionate energy. Compassion creates a space of acceptance and healing and helps us transcend judgment.
“Compassion does not create fatigue. Lack of self-compassion is exhausting.”
Whatever energy we are creating to welcome others and to serve others is only as powerful to the extent that we include ourselves.
How can you take the position of compassionate curiosity with yourself?
Consider how you respond to you when you feel you have made a mistake or when you decide that you have not lived up to your own standards. Are your words sweet or salty?
In those moments of sadness or fear, can you be present to your experience? What do you tell yourself? Are you open to feeling better or are you mired in self-punishment? How do you soothe your tender heart?
What about those times when you have just nailed it, you experience a personal victory or success? As the sense of humble pride and confidence arises, how do you greet it? Do you quickly shut it down because it is conceited to feel good about yourself; you don’t want to appear boastful and bigger than your britches. Do you immediately downplay your joy because you don’t want others to feel jealous and ultimately, not like you?
Is it possible to embrace it all in a way that honors our full experience? Can we be present to ourselves whatever the moment brings?
I am learning this in my own life now. I realized with guidance from helpful people that I am always talking to myself anyway, so why not make it encouraging and comforting? What if I came to myself from a place of compassionate curiosity? How would that change things?
I imagine how I would respond to a small child or someone I love deeply, and I take that approach with myself. That is the quickest route I have found so far to engage in self-compassion and self-love.
So, what does this have to do with finding joy in service? Joy naturally springs from the same place as compassion and curiosity, love and belonging. One of the bravest actions we can take is to explore with curiosity and compassion that place where our joy lives. And when we find it, feel ourselves light up, and open up to receive and follow our joy, we demonstrate self-love. When that overflows to others, we are engaged in conscious service.
Join The Conversation
I remember when I first heard the term compassionate curiosity like it was yesterday. The words went directly to my heart and set off bells inside my soul. I was attending a workshop and listening to an eloquent and wise speaker. I am beyond ecstatic to welcome this man as my guest on the next episode of Serving Consciously at www.ctrnetwork.com on Friday February 10, 2017 at 12:00 Noon (PST).
Gabor Maté is a medical doctor recently retired from active practice. He was a family physician for two decades and for seven years he served as Medical Coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital.
For twelve years he worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with patients challenged by hard-core addiction, mental illness, HIV and related conditions. For two years he was the onsite physician at Vancouver’s unique Supervised Injection Site, North America’s only such facility.
He is internationally known for his work on the mind/body unity in health and illness, on attention deficit disorder and other childhood developmental issues, and his breakthrough analysis of addiction as a psychophysiological response to childhood trauma and emotional loss.
Dr. Maté is the author of four best-selling books published in twenty languages on five continents, including When The Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection and the award winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction.
Gabor is the recipient of an Outstanding Alumnus Award from Simon Fraser University and an Honorary Degree of Law from the University of Northern British Columbia, among other awards.
He frequently addresses professional and lay audiences in North America and internationally on issues related to childhood development and parenting, physical and mental health and wellness, and addiction.
He is Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Criminology, Simon Fraser University. His next book, Toxic Culture: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a World of Materialism will be published in 2018.
You can tune in live on Friday February 10, 2017 at 12:00 Noon (PST) at www.ctrnetwork.com. Just click on Listen Live and you will be in! And of course, if you would like to interact with us, please call in during the show at 1-844-390-8255.
Living in poverty is more than not having enough money to meet an arbitrary threshold. For many, a life in poverty is one of perpetual disappointment, missed opportunities, self-loathing and blame. Recognizing these feelings in others, and the impact they have on us professionally, is an important step in creating change. A simple transaction at a thrift store, or a quick inventory of gas purchases, can open our eyes to so much more.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself browsing the racks at a nearby thrift store, shopping for clothes for my upcoming second child. As I haphazardly tossed one-dollar onesies and two-dollar leggings into a growing mound in my cart, I observed another woman, presumably a mom like me, anxiously moving through the store aisles. She carefully scrutinized each item and, even more carefully, examined the price tag. Surveying items that held promise, she would look at the cost and quickly place them back on the rack.
I encountered this woman again at the checkout. She had ended up with four or five items—clothing for a small boy–and paid for the items using carefully counted nickels, dimes, and pennies.
As I got back to my car, I couldn’t help but feel great sorrow for this woman; too poor to buy many of the second hand items she wanted for her young son, and pulling from the bottom of the barrel to provide him with a few essentials. As a mom, I could intimately relate to the deep-seeded desire to provide for your children, and the failure and humiliation we feel when we can’t do that as well as we feel we should.
I, however, had visited the thrift store because I am thrifty, not poor. I can’t stomach the prices at fancy children’s clothing stores for items my child will likely wear once. I have never been unable to purchase clothes for my kids for financial reasons. I have never had to worry that my family won’t have enough of what they need.
Of course, my assumptions could be off. There are undoubtedly multiple scenarios for the woman’s behavior, and there are certainly those who would presume this mom’s prior bad choices or poor money management had gotten her to the place she was that day. But as a social worker, these are the experiences I can’t help but internalize and analyze. Like many social workers and other helping professionals, I can’t help but feel the pangs of sadness and anxiety, observing the lives of those who struggle to make ends meet.
These observations offer a window into the reality of living in poverty; an unending series of difficult decisions and stress, feelings of unworthiness and humiliation, excited to watch your children grow, but scared about what it will mean for your tight budget. Research increasingly points to the impact of poverty on cognitive functioning and physical health, which is likely no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field. As social workers, observing and internalizing these feelings is a part of what makes participating in this profession so profound, yet often so painful.
This is certainly not my only experience which offered a glimpse into the daily lives of the poor, and if you gathered a group of social workers to discuss, they could most likely build a long list. Both in practice and in our daily interactions in the community, we see it. Some are more obvious. Observations of diapers not changed because there are too few to get through to the next pay, bare cupboards during a home visit, moms who stay with abusive partners to keep a roof over their children’s heads.
Others are less obvious. One dollar lunches at a fast-food restaurant, kids in too-small clothing. A mother snapping at her child who asks for something at the store, not out of anger at the child, but anger with herself for always having to say no. I keenly remember, several years back, watching a low-income parent at a birthday party interacting with the other moms and dads. One mom was gleefully sharing about an upcoming family event in the community. “Only five dollars per child!” she exclaimed. I saw the other mom hesitate, look down, shame in her eyes. Five dollars per child? Easier said than done.
My father, a life-long advocate for low-income people, has many times encouraged people to take a glance at the gas pumps in any given community when they stop for gas. In wealthy and middle class communities, pumps will show recent purchases of $30, $40, even $50 dollars. Full tanks, gas flowing until the pump clicks, symbolic of the abundance in the community. What about a glance at the tanks in poor communities? Purchases totaling $2, $4—gas purchased one or two gallons at a time, as money becomes available (sometimes borrowed or found) — to support a single trip to the store, or the doctor, or work. This strategizing with scarcity is a prime example of the difficult day-to-day decision making that plagues many in low-income communities.
Much like identifying signs of child abuse and neglect, social workers are often the first to observe these seemingly insignificant behaviors. And while others may be quick to blame poor judgement or character deficits for these unfortunate circumstances, we as social workers can see them as symptoms of a larger problem. We can choose to believe that all people, regardless of income, have the desire and the right to care for their families, have meaningful work, and participate in the community. We can choose to view these conditions as motivation for why we must take care of one another.
Internalizing the pain that these families and individuals feel, day after day, is an occupational hazard that we can’t completely avoid. Sometimes these feelings can seem like a burden too great to bear. Compassion fatigue is very real, and we must always remain mindful of the need for rigorous self-care. But it is important not to ignore these instincts, as it exactly these feelings of empathy and care for others that are at the root of our profession, and that can serve as a call to act. I would encourage us to use these experiences and our reactions as ammunition to become better helping professionals.
These interactions can provide us with needed inspiration to keep going in our pursuit of social justice. In daily practice, there are small opportunities. We can provide families with information on free community events so parents can still feel the pride and joy of giving their child a new experience. We can organize a clothing swap among low-income clients to share gently used items. If there are no options for free diapers in our community, we can work to create one. When interacting with clients, we can consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional implications for those living a life clouded by scarcity. More broadly, we can bring these issues to light to our decisions makers, locally and beyond, in the hopes of developing sustainable solutions.
During the weekend, yet another hate crime occurred in the LGBTQ community when a mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida left 49 dead and 53 injured. Families and friends of LGBTQ communities across the world are still recovering from the initial shock of the news. Among the victims was Enrique Rios, a New York social worker, on vacation visiting friends when his life ended in tragedy.
As I write this article, I am not only writing as a social work professional, but as an individual all too familiar with the sight, smell, taste, and fear hate crimes create. I am feeling shattered, upset, angry, and confused.
Words do not come easily to describe the cruelty and madness in this news. It is painful, but it should not leave us without reflection, and the message of Love Wins. How can we as social workers take this message and make it a model, an approach, a perspective, a theory, and apply it in our practice?
How can we take the pain and trauma that people experience and transform it into universal love and support? How can we open our eyes and explore the power resonating within us with such rich emotions? How can we recall such emotions and integrate them in the way we support individuals?
An immense number of supporters across the world have gathered together and paid respects to the people who lost their lives and the bereaved in this act of senseless violence. People across the world united to show what love can do, and how love can be used.
“When big events happen that touch the gay community, people immediately come here,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
“There’s been no significant development in the gay rights movement that hasn’t had a presence in the Village,” he added. – New York Times
More than 5,000 people gathered in Soho, London UK, and became silent within seconds altogether and maintained their silence for an extended period to show their respect for the deceased and their families and friends. More than 1,000 people in Athens, Greece came together to light candles and have a peaceful walk to show their empathy and willingness to accompany the bereaved in their journey of grief. People in France, across the US, in Korea, in the Pacific, in South America, all gathered to say one thing… LoveWins.
If love is so powerful, why do we as social workers not make this part of our everyday professional life? Social work, among other things, is an act of advocacy for human and civil rights. Our role stresses to influence policy makers, to influence localities, and to explore support systems in the community.
Love may be the one tool that may bring all these together and facilitate our work to a larger extent. Love may be an answer to the service user’s life. Love might bring different people together and teach them how to BE together and inspire us to help educate and learn from each other. Love may be the tool that will teach people to become more tolerant and eliminate discrimination, prejudice, oppression, microaggressions.
Love may be the tool that will forge strong relationships between community partners to provide holistic social services. Love may be the tool that will enable all people to stop hating each other.
Do we as social workers not pledge to promote the well-being of individuals, families, groups, and communities? Let’s teach people how to love and show them that difference is not a scary thing.
You probably became a social worker because of something personal that happened in your life. I remember starting my social work education and meeting my fellow students. At the introduction, they told their stories about having a difficult childhood, having a disabled brother, parents with addiction and so on.
We dreamed of being a social worker to help others who are facing the same problems. We were super motivated, young and willing to change the world. But, then our teachers told us that we only can help heal others if we first heal ourselves. They invited us to tell our stories, to share our personal pain, and as we now know healing starts with sharing.
My own story is about a difficult relation with my parents as I was not the daughter they would like me to be. I was rebellious and my parents got desperate. At one point, my father told me he wished I had never been born. In that moment, there was only one way to survive which helped me to develop a very strong belief in myself. It felt as if I was on my own and I had to give myself a happy childhood. And I did!
Becoming a social worker was another step in my healing. I learned to receive friendship and love, and I learned how to be vulnerable while at the same time still feeling this strong belief in myself. I was able to feel a deep compassion and build strong relationships with my clients who trusted me. This made me not only a good and qualified social worker but also a spiritual social worker.
Now I’ve started a new episode in my spiritual journey. I’m connecting our Social Souls to build a strong community of social workers who really want to make change happen. In this community, we still share our stories and support each other on our journey. It’s a safe haven where you can work on your dreams feeling connected and supported.
This is my story, and I’m sure you have your own story. You are walking your own spiritual path, and it may sometimes feel hard to follow in order to hold on to your dreams. When things get difficult, you’ll feel your own pain again. That’s okay. It’s a part of your path. It reminds you of the place you came from. It makes you human and humble. But, also remember how this made you strong, but you must be sure to keep walking. May your spirits guide you ❤
If this speaks to you, you’re very welcome to join my our community.
Whilst politicians appear concerned about the monetary deficit invoked by refugees, many people are currently concerned with what appears to be a deficit in compassion.
This is particularly with regard to the current humanitarian crisis of refugees, for reasons ranging from their numbers, their religion, and their reasons. What we are seeing is dehumanisation, which arguably has two facets – the first being mechanistic dehumanisation, where we believe others are lacking basic human traits such as warmth, emotionality, and depth. The second form of dehumanisation is animalistic dehumanisation where we see others as lacking human uniqueness – elements such as rationality, maturity and moral sensibility that separate humans from other species.
But, how does this happen? There are many theories about how dehumanisation can occur on both a personal and societal level. Here we are going to consider the theory of cognitive dissonance, alongside ideas about how our social environment can have an impact.
Cognitive dissonance theory stipulates that we feel uncomfortable when we hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. We also experience cognitive dissonance if we act in conflict with a belief or value. For example, my health is important, but I binge on pizza every night.
How much dissonance we experience depends on how important our personal values conflict with our beliefs. If I need to get up early, but I’m staying up late watching a film, I might feel a tad conflicted. However, if I have a very important interview tomorrow, I will feel more conflicted about staying up late. If the interview is for a job I don’t particularly want, suddenly it’s easier to stay up.
The level of dissonance is also affected by how much information we have supporting each belief. Usually it’s harder to hold on to beliefs which have a mountain of evidence against them. However, linked to the above paragraph about values, conflicting evidence is most likely to change beliefs we don’t value very much. If our belief is very dear and important to us, conflicting evidence can actually make us strengthen the belief and hold onto it tighter in order to erase the conflicted/dissonant feeling.
If we are in ‘dissonance’, we somehow need to make these two conflicting beliefs balance out again – essentially so we don’t feel like a hypocrite.
There are several ways we can do this. In the example ‘refugees need our help’ we could:
add extra cognitions to justify ourselves (‘help at home first’)
ignore conflicting information (e.g. avoiding the news)
change the cognition which causes conflict (‘they are not victims, they’re economic migrants not refugees’), and finally…
change our behaviour to make it in line with the original belief (i.e. doing something to help).
Another example might be that I believe I’m a ‘good person’, but I do things which do not fit with ‘good person’ labeling. For example, ignoring a petition about a humanitarian crisis. To resolve this conflict, I could choose to act congruently with my values and sign or take alternative action such as making a donation. I could, however, seek out people who support my lack of action, people who think online petitions don’t have any impact, to make myself feel better. I could also seek out information which confirms my altered cognitions consisting of news stories about refugees being terrorists or liars. As another alternative, I could alter my beliefs about what a ‘humanitarian crisis’ is to make it something that is not my problem or not a real humanitarian crisis.
I believe many of these things are happening en-masse at the moment with the current refugee crisis. Here are some of the ways people are resolving cognitive dissonance to make ourselves more comfortable and less compassionate.
Firstly, we can reduce the human element of the crisis. This includes likening refugees to animals or insects, and using anonymous numbers without corresponding personal touches. Refugees have been called a swarm by the UK Prime Minister in addition to other using references such as cockroaches and towns being ‘swamped’.
Large numbers of refugees without individual cases to humanise them can lead to facelessness and a lack of true understanding or empathy toward their plight. Perhaps that’s why it took a photo of a single child, Alan Kurdi, alongside the numbers, for people to remember these numbers are not abstract. Each refugee represents a life, and nearly half of Syrian refugees are children. On top of this, Britain has only taken in a trainful of Syrian refugees – the apparent swarm is currently missing in action.
We can also create an us-and-them situation.
“The decision to cooperate and expend resources for another’s benefit is a dilemma of trust since the ultimate benefits depend on everyone else’s willingness to do the same”. – M. Brewer (1999)
The dynamics of this are complex and contingent on multiple levels of belief systems and environmental safety. However, lack of trust helps us dehumanise and conflict with ‘outgroups’, alongside feelings of superiority, assuming the moral absoluteness of the ingroup, and feelings of fear/threat over resources.
At the moment, people in Britain are fearful of their job security, worrying about paying rent, food prices are rising, and the media is playing up to stereotypes of people who are trying to swindle the taxpayer in order ‘get something for nothing’. This is in light of a long list of Britain’s elites squandering taxpayer money on moats, chauffeurs, and second houses. It isn’t difficult, therefore, to foster a lack of trust in others to create a threat from the outgroup ‘stealing’ jobs or money, and add extra cognitions which justify lack of action with a sense of “help at home first, what has anyone ever done for me, we don’t have the resources”.
People generally find it hard to dehumanise others without a corresponding dehumanising environment. To start with, we have people feeling under threat as explained above which leads to Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Study documenting ways to foster dehumansing environments. This includes living in an unpredictable environment and the UK arguably had one of its most unpredictable elections ever in 2015.
Beginning with smaller abusive acts such as fake stories about misuse of the Human Rights Act, anti-immigration rhetoric being framed as economically sound in spite of contrary evidence), and minimising individual social responsibility to do anything. This plays with the fact that the British public are disillusioned about politics, and presumably their ability to make any meaningful broad-scale change in light of this.
Additionally, Zimbardo notes the role of providing people with a solid ideology or rhetoric for unpleasant actions. Perfect case examples include, but are not limited to, Donald Trump in America and UKIP in the United Kingdom. In both, it allows them to perform dehumanising acts against certain groups whilst feeling ‘justified’ in doing so. For example, a parent may beat their child ‘for their own good’, or a politician might argue that ‘real’ help does not come from accepting refugees – it is ‘for their own good’ to find a bigger solution that does not involve accepting refugees.
This also involves lack of adequate information about what is happening to refugees – shelters have been torched, refugees have been ‘tattooed’ with permanent-marker numbers in the Czech Republic, refugees including babies and children have been pepper-sprayed by police and by the public. Additionally, there are ongoing deaths in Calais and 2,200 refugees have died at since since July this year. The Still Human Still Here campaign raises awareness of the horrific destitution facing refused asylum seekers in the UK alone. This atrocities are not hidden, and it can be found on any search engine. But why would you seek this information out only to increase your sense of discomfort when it can be avoided?
Again, it goes back to threat – economic migrants want to steal our jobs and money, refugees are economic migrants, therefore refugees are a threat. Therefore, the refugee humanitarian crisis is also linked to misinformation about migrants more generally.
People of the UK overestimate numbers of immigrants nearly doubling the true number, alongside overestimating other social issues such as unemployment and teenage pregnancy. A University College London study found that immigrants who have arrived in the UK since 2000 have made a net contribution of £25bn and were less likely to receive ‘benefits’, tax credits, or live in social housing.
The NHS owes a huge amount to people who were not born in the UK and tight immigration rules are negatively impacting the NHS due to lack of nurses. One can ignore this information or add cognitions which allow the facts to be dismissed such as assuming the study was mis-conducted or done on incomplete data, suggesting we’d have fewer foreign-born nurses if there was more ‘space’ for people born in Britain, or that we wouldn’t need as many nurses if we had fewer immigrants.
Unfortunately, this ‘economic migrant’ and utterly false ‘welfare benefit’ rhetoric has placed the British public nicely in a position to alter their belief about the intentions of refugees, reducing cognitive dissonance because one can believe that ‘their’ home countries are safe; ‘they’ are here only for ‘our’ money and jobs; ‘they’ have no legitimate reason to be here. If the other’s intentions can be considered illegitimate, manipulative, or meaningfully harmful, it makes it easier to dismiss their beliefs, actions or values.
This dissonance has very real and deadly consequences. 67% of the British public would support sending troops in to France to stop what have been termed ‘immigrants’from entering the country. Refugees are being treated like criminals. Although there are petitions to allow more refugees into the UK, news outlets showing how individual people can contribute, crowdfunders, websites helping people to share a room in their house, viral videos of Germans cheering arriving refugees, and grassroots campaigns. However, there is still a widespread sense that refugees are a horde to be rid of rather than fellow humans to be welcomed with open arms and kept safe.
The discomfort of the humanitarian crisis is apparent for anyone who has had even remote contact with news of the situation. However, the way to resolve this discomfort is not for us to alter and add beliefs until we feel safe in our inaction. It’s someone else’s problem, we need to tackle things in home countries alone, we will ‘open the door’ to anyone if we let in refugees, and that’s bad, we have enough on our plate, there’s no room, im(migrant)refugees take up our resources and they’re only here to steal our jobs but also to not-work and they take all our benefits anyway.
Enough is enough. We have to stop using a lack of compassion to resolve our own discomfort and face up to the hard truth. Otherwise, history will not look kindly upon this period of time.
We are drawn to service work for many reasons. We want to help others, we find human beings fascinating, and we are called to make ourselves available to the suffering of others. The work can be engaging, demanding, and draining. For those of us who are introverts, the energy expending and restoring aspects of the work can be critical.
The introverted brain is more active and stimulated relative to the extroverted brain. Because of this, extroverts will feed off the energy of social interactions while introverts will get drained. The type of interaction matters such that superficial banter is more exhausting than a deeper conversation. However, social energy expenditures need to be followed by periods of restoration in order to prevent burnout. The quality of our attention also matters to how energy is spent and during work time. We can bring mindful attention to our practice and, through that presence, engage in higher quality care and self-care simultaneously.
The default mode of the brain is self-talk. Neuroscientists have confirmed this self-referential thinking as the default mode network of the brain (DMN) and have mapped its pattern of activation. This is how we spend much of our time—engaged in storytelling, projecting ourselves into the future, dragging along the past, and generating opinions about the present. As introverts, we may be more prone to this internalized self-talk.
In clinician groups that I train in mindfulness that often include social workers, I survey the participants and ask them how often their DMN is active during sessions with clients. The range spans approximately 30 to 70 percent of attention on the task at hand and the rest rattling around loose in imagination. The average tends to be 50 percent. We are all well-meaning and care for the people we serve, but these informal surveys reveal that we can do a lot to improve our attention. Closing this gap and shifting from the DMN to the experience of the encounter-at-hand will, no doubt, make us more empathetic.
A regular practice of mindfulness meditation can help us to be more present. Studies by Yale’s Judson Brewer and others have shown that experienced mindfulness practitioners can more readily withdraw attention from the DMN and redirect to the embodied experience of the present moment. In addition to a regular meditation practice, you can bring mindful attention into your work hours.
Mindfulness works by focusing attention on something happening in the present moment such as the physical sensations of breathing. Each time attention moves away from the breath to the DMN, you refocus your attention on the breath. This process is repeated as needed, which is usually quite a lot!
I teach a technique that I simply call “divided attention.” If, as the survey suggested, a large chunk of our attention is not with our client, then we can take let’s say 10 percent of that attention and ground it on the breath. That is, we aim to be mindful during the service time such that we speak and listen with an awareness of our breathing body. Now, close to 90 percent of our attention is with our person because we have steered our attention away from the DMN.
This kind of attention takes practice. It’s easy to get caught up in the stories of the moment—our own and those of the people we treat. Having a regular daily silent meditation practice can help us to develop the skills necessary to be mindful while communicating. When we bring our full presence to the work, it tends to be less exhausting because we are getting the benefits of mindfulness practice through the service hour. Mindfulness helps us to bring a sacred attention to the work. It conveys that we care deeply enough to be present and becomes the vehicle of that presence. Compassion, empathy, and equanimity will follow.
We can also take the moments between sessions to have mindful breaks. Instead of peering into your smart phone, take three minutes to be with your body and mind. These little mindfulness hits can help to keep your energy tuned during the workday.
Mindfulness practice is a form of quiet solitude that is especially important for those of us who are introverts. It can be beneficial for everyone, but we need it for restoration of energy. Being mindful during sessions, as suggested above, can help to offset the energy drain that inevitably occurs in social work. Getting yourself on the cushion on a daily basis will also help to build a foundation of energy that can be drawn upon in all the challenging situations of your life.
Depressed, ugly, unlovable, coward, idiot, defective—the list is endless. When people have a long history of punishing and berating themselves, they can become fused with the concepts these thoughts construct and take on the belief that their true self is faulty. Clients (and if we are honest, most of us) therefore walk around with notions of who or what they really are, and more often than not hate or shame themselves for it.
But, whatever particular set of epithets our personal history has led us to fuse with, one thing most of us share is that we intensely dislike and often criticize ourselves for whatever self-concept we hold.
Most of these labels arose from painful moments in our history. The pain, and often shame, that these events elicited became attached to the memories of the events and the labels our behavior, experiences, or entire self received on those occasions. In turn, our very notion of self becomes aversive—something to move away from.
This can lead to self-hatred and self-shame and take many forms, including suicidal ideation, self-harming behavior, self-chastising or self-aggrandizing talk, putting on a mask and pretending, ruminating, self-shaming, and dissociating.
Fusion of our sense of self with content or labels of experience is often prompted and reinforced by caregivers or peers, through statements like “Little Joe is such a shy boy,” “You asked for it!” “You’re such an idiot for not seeing this,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” and so on. Soon enough, that other-initiated talk can turn inward and become self-sustained disparaging self-talk.
Is it any wonder that deep-set self-hatred is so prevalent? Because of this dynamic, it is clinically crucial to promote a more flexible sense of self that can help clients disentangle themselves from rigid self-concepts and the limitations they impose on behavior.
As mentioned, our self-concepts are largely the products of our learning histories, especially in relation to our caregivers and attachment figures.
Early on, children have no more language for their inner experience than they do for the experience of their senses. And whereas learning to orient to sensory experience is necessary for physical survival, the world of inner experience only acquires significance because it is important to other humans in our lives. It is through social interaction that we learn modes of interacting with our inner experience. This is why it is so common for people to recognize their caregivers’ voices in their self-talk.
When caregivers are stressed, absent, overworked, avoidant or overcome by emotion, chances are they will not respond in ways most conducive to children learning how to recognize and name their inner experience and accept it as normal. Under these conditions, children might be told that they are angry when they are in fact hungry, that they are hungry as the clock strikes noon, that they are not (or should not) be sad when they are feeling sad, that they want ice cream when in fact their caregiver wants ice cream, and so on.
Repeated such experiences during early development may lead to children having difficulties in learning to name what they feel or want with any precision. Their inner experience might have received so little attention that they have no words to describe it. In many cases, they will have learned to fear, deny, or judge their inner experience rather than notice and accept it as one may notice and accept the changing weather. The world of inner experience can thus become an unfamiliar, unstable, treacherous territory, full of darkness, threats, and defects. And that, in turn, will further feed self-hatred, shame, fear, and a sense of unrelenting inner conflict.
In clinical settings, clients who are unable to understand, tolerate, or effectively communicate their inner experience may say that they do not know how they feel or think. They might be unable to describe inner sensations or name their emotions, perhaps only locating feelings in their heads; or they may react aversively to any attempts at helping them contact inner experience, such as through eyes-closed mindfulness exercises.
Because we learn our relationship with our inner experience and concepts of self largely from our attachment figures, the way caregivers respond to our bids for connection as children can have a profound impact on our later behavior in relationships with both our selves and others. A history of consistent reinforcement for connection bids could result in a secure attachment style, whereas a history in which such bids were consistently ignored may lead to an avoidant attachment style. A history in which those bids were consistently punished could produce an attachment style that’s fearful.
These styles could in turn be reflected in individual styles of relating to inner experience: secure and accepting, avoidant and dismissive, fearful and critical, or disorganized and unaware. Of these, only the first style would naturally incline the individual toward self-compassion. The others would naturally fuel different forms of self-hatred, self-shame, and inner conflict.
It takes a specific learning history and a deliberate context and community to build an accepting and kind relationship to one’s own experience—a relationship that consistently reinforces compassion for one’s own aversive experiences and those of other people. When that history is missing, a healing relationship, such as the therapeutic relationship, might provide a privileged context for building a new learning history that fosters self-compassion skills.
In this way, the therapeutic relationship offers a setting in which a different approach to the self and one’s own experience becomes possible. This can range from helping clients learn to receive their negative self-concepts with strength, wisdom, and kindness to helping them transform a sense of self that is unstable or disorganized. Within this context, clients can also adopt a more flexible sense of self.
The arrest of 12 and 13 year old boys for aggravated robbery and murder respectively in West Auckland a couple of weeks ago highlights a growing malaise in society. The incident itself is a tragedy for the victim and his family, but what is alarming to me is that the two offending boys are victims too — of whatever circumstances led them to offend and now, potentially, of the justice system as well.
The bi-polarity of the justice system, which recognises only victim and offender, clearly fails children in these situations. The stories of those like twelve-year-old Bailey Kurariki (NZ 2001), James Bulger’s ten-year-old killers (UK 1993) and eleven-year-old Mary Bell (UK 1968), all of whom were charged and sentenced, point toward a “punishment system” that in no way takes into consideration that these children were too young to be held solely responsible for their actions.
A system that believes kids can be guilty of violent crimes without asking, “How did they become capable of violent crimes?”, is one that lacks empathy and compassion. Having empathy and compassion for the kids does not diminish feeling for the victims. It simply acknowledges the existence of complex situations that don’t follow “victim/perpetrator” patterns.
It could be easy to decide, instead, that parents are at fault, but even this logic is too simple. What we are dealing with is the result of generations of dysfunctional family systems, poverty and inequality.
Until this dynamic is acknowledged and a new system is designed to deal with it, we will see more and more children creating victims as well as being victims of their upbringing and of the justice system.