A reflection from student staff member, Sheila, about the work that creates empathy.
As a social work major, I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy. Social work is a profession centered around the idea of empathy when working with individuals in need. Social workers are encouraged to find the strengths of a person and empower them to use them, while being understanding of their life experiences and point of view.
The concept of empathy is often gendered as a feminine trait, and perhaps that’s why the field is dominated by women. According to Wendy Chin-Taner, a writer for Cultural Weekly, “Empathy hinges on emotional labor. To have empathy, we have to be able to practice active listening, be reflexive, self-critical, and be able to act on constructive criticism. In our culture, women are more readily expected to practice these skills and are socialized to do more emotional labor, which is why intersectional feminism is at the forefront of social justice allyship.”
Personally, I agree with Wendy, I believe that the amount of women in social work has to do with the history of women being socialized and encouraged to be the caregivers and show intense emotions, like empathy. There have been countless passionate and driven women throughout the history of civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and social justice movements. What sets apart these women, though, is their use of radical empathy, a topic I’ll discuss later.
Empathy & Emotional Labor
According to Suzannah Weiss from Everyday Feminism emotional labor is defined as the “exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations.” While, social workers are not the only ones that have to use emotional labor in their profession, they do understand the drain that comes from emotional labor and it is discussed frequently in classes and professional development.
As someone who works in the food industry, I know the necessity there is for servers or those working in retail need to have extreme control over their emotions when working with guests, in order to make sure the guest feel welcomed and taken care of during their time at the restaurant especially when they have a concern or complaint. Having empathy for another person (especially during a busy night at a restaurant!) can be challenging because you have to connect with someone else’s feelings and experiences, causing yourself to have deeper understanding of your own feelings. It’s important to note that societal and gendered expectations often place a greater burden on women to do the work of emotional labor. As FEM author, Anya Bayerle states, “Women are also frequently expected to appear empathetic and concerned for others while simultaneously suppressing any emotion that could be used to dismiss them as irrational or hormonal.” Often the emotional labor I practice at work is not just an industry survival skill but one that is expected of me because of my gender.
But, I want to move beyond just expectations and that’s what brings me to radical empathy.
While emotional labor is something that people often already have experience with, managing emotions in a classroom, workplace, or family setting; a newer concept is radical empathy. The first time I heard about “radical empathy,” I was confused, and oh so curious.
In recent years, I have lived my life following one tweet… yes you read that right. A tweet! I know what you are thinking… “but Sheila you don’t even have a Twitter!” ( it’s a confusing story about tumblr and screenshots, that’s not the point).
This tweet, by this person I don’t know, changed my life. “Don’t become who hurt you.” Based on some of my personal experience, I would have liked to become a hardened person, but I decided I wanted to be the person to lift up others. My hurt and pain does not need to become someone else’s trauma. It took a lot of emotional labor out of me to remember that in moments where I feel like I am being attacked or hurt personally, that the person doing whatever is making me feel uncomfortable might not be doing it knowingly harming me.
That they might be a person, just like me, who has dealt with trauma, has things about themselves they do not like, and has never had someone ask them “what is wrong?” instead of “what is wrong with you?”
Radical empathy is tough to define. At Stomping Ground, a summer camp that focuses on radical empathy, they define it as “actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others. To fundamentally change our perspectives from judgmental to accepting, in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others.” There are a few Ted Talks (see the links below) about what empathy is and how it impacts our ability to make connections with other human beings.
Radical empathy has had a huge impact on my life, shifted how I view the world, and how I interact with others. In the future, when I am a social worker, I believe it will allow me to better connect with my clients. It is not so much about putting yourself in the shoes of another person because you will never truly understand that person’s life. Radical empathy is more about striving to be with a person while they feel the feels, making sure that we understand our own judgement and challenging them so that we might accept everyone, actually where they are.
The real point is… Do you care?
Additional Resources for Learning about Radical Empathy: