07/18/2013 09:17 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Empathy: Turning Outward to Change the World (At Least a Little Bit)

One of the first things you learn from your clients when you are a trauma psychologist is that no one can heal in a vacuum -- no one recovers alone. When something horrible and life-threatening happens to you, you need family, community and even strangers to come to your aid. Every mental health clinician knows this. And yet, as a culture we are becoming more and more removed from each other. Are we having an empathy crisis, and is there anything we can do to solve it?

I was in the airport lounge a few weeks ago waiting for my flight to take off. There was a woman weeping uncontrollably at my gate. She was doubled over, on the floor sobbing while her friend rubbed her back. As a clinician, my first thought was, "Maybe this is some sort of reaction to bereavement?" But it was just a guess. I looked over and noticed other passengers looking uncomfortable, most of them retreating deeply into the screens of their smartphones or laptops, desperately looking for an electronic reprieve from the raw emotion. It was like being in a room full of cyborgs. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't quite sure what to do either. When the weeping woman's friend looked up, I put on my best empathetic face and said, "Can I get you guys anything, some water or anything?" She looked at me thankfully, smiled and said, "It's okay. We have another friend who went to get us some food." It was a moment of connection in a world of disconnection.

It's hard to feel connected to others. It's painful. It's often much easier to retreat into our daily routines and busy ourselves with the mundane activities of our lives. And we need to do that. Don't get me wrong. But every now and then, we have to ask ourselves if we've retreated too much. Modern schools of therapy actually emphasize letting yourself feel and experience emotion, as opposed to running away from negative feelings. It doesn't mean we have to enjoy feeling bad, it just means we don't spend our lives tirelessly trying to avoid every difficult thought or emotion.

When it comes to traumatic events, the only thing that can stem the tide of violence is empathy. We have to allow ourselves to feel the pain of parents who have lost children to violence. We have to hear the plea of a sister who says her brother killed himself just because he was gay. We have to think about what it's like for soldiers who are deployed to war zones multiple times, only to come and home feeling isolated and numb.

The good news is that I don't think we are really living in a world of cyborgs. Empathy has moved mountains. It has created groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Moms Demand Action, A Million Thanks. This list is endless. The worthy causes that can rouse our empathy and motivate us to act are limitless. But to get to the point of action, we have to allow ourselves to feel.

Some months ago, I was at a rally organized by Moms Demand Action. Hadiya Pendleton's parents were there. But another mother was there too. She was one of many, many African-American mothers who has lost a child to gun violence. She carried a picture of her son on our march. He died over 10 years ago. Her pain was palpable. It made me feel queasy, actually. When I asked her what she was doing to take care of herself, to cope, she signed and said, "Nothing really." It was one of those awkward moments. I didn't know what to say and I just told her, "Please know that on days when you are too tired to talk about this, there are other parents who care enough to speak for you. We won't give up on turning the tide on gun violence."

Not all of us are going to start our own group for a cause. Most of us, like me, are mostly busy with our jobs, our kids, our daily lives. But if each of us figured out how to stumble through those awkward, highly emotional moments long enough to really connect with someone else, maybe we won't become a nation of cyborgs. Empathy helps us to act -- in big ways, small ways, tiny ways. As a psychologist, I happen to think connecting with other people might be our most important asset. I'm going to continue to stumble through those awkward and painful moments, because in the end, I think that's what makes us human.

For more by Sheela Raja, PhD, click here.

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