Human beings remind me of turtles sometimes. Increase the stress in a human being’s life, and into the shell they go for protection.

empathy epidemic

At least with turtles you know when they’re hiding in there. You can’t see their head or legs. Oddly enough the hiding is visible.

Human shells are invisible – unless you know the signs. Personally I find that people don’t even know the signs they’re in their own shell, let alone knowing the signs of others.

So here we all are, in our shells, bumping around and into each other. Ouch!

When we can’t see ourselves and each other we are more likely to hurt ourselves and each other!

We can take another lesson from the turtle about coming out of our shells. Turtles re-emerge when it feels safe to do so. Turtles are notoriously slow and this can take longer than we like.

Humans have an advantage. We just need a little empathy and a little kindness to coax each other and ourselves out of our shells. We can do this on human time, not turtle time.

I want to invite you to join me in starting and spreading an empathy epidemic.

Before we can do that we have to explore how stress kills empathy.

Empathy is the antidote to apathy (stress)

Stress forces many of us into our shells. We retreat into safety and become preoccupied with:

  1. What affects us (and only us)
  2. What makes us feel better

We pull our heads in and in turn get tunnel vision. We shrink down the world. Over time, the stress turns into numbness.

Empathy gets switched off and the apathy switches on. Apathy is our turtle shell!

Let’s look at the word apathy. It comes from ancient Greek where:

  • a = without
  • pathy = feeling, passion, or suffering

So apathy is the absence of emotions and for our purposes, they are absent because they are being suppressed.

You probably already guessed that the origins of the word empathy are similar.

  • em = in
  • pathy = feeling, passion, or suffering

Empathy is the opposite of apathy and it’s also an antidote!

What if we take on a small daily practice of empathy instead. Slowly like when we have to warm up our frost-frozen feet in a warm bath. Slow so it doesn’t hurt.

But first: apathy can be a good thing

Before we try to turn around the apathy let’s appreciate our apathy. Our apathy is just trying to help us.

Really? Yes.

Your apathy part is like every other part of you – happy part, sad part, tired part, angry part, powerless Penelope part, other misfit parts.

They all have good intentions for you!

Your apathy part is protecting you from emotional pain – yours or others’ – because it senses your internal system is overloaded at the moment.

It makes sense to avoid emotional pain. The downside is apathy weakens your relationships and you miss out on the positive emotions that come when you connect with others.

Isn’t it dangerous to be too empathetic?

If you have been emotionally or physically hurt by others, starting an empathy epidemic will be harder for you than for someone who grew up experiencing the world as a safe place where people care about them.

You are an adult now. You can put up your boundaries or wear your shell of apathy more discriminately. Put it on when needed around people who don’t act kind or generous. Who are too busy protecting themselves from pain.  Or sometimes when you just need it mostly for yourself.

Another reason why an empathy epidemic is the answer

When you find yourself judging a person, you’re really just making up a story in your head. Stop that. Stop, Connect, get Curious and see if you can practice empathizing

Who says your judging part is even right? Who really knows what is going on in anyone’s life at any moment. Challenge yourself to move mentally beyond their rudeness or turtle shell behavior.

Be kind for the sake of kindness. That is your success. Success is not the outcome. Success is you spreading the empathy epidemic.

For those of you who are still concerned that an empathy epidemic is dangerous

According to Martha Stout PhD in her book The Sociopath Next Door 4 percent of Americans are sociopaths (harder to get statistics globally, but I’ve seen estimates that it’s more like one percent in the Western world). Chances are, you won’t need special powers to be empathetic.

What’s more likely is if you encounter a person who’s being unkind or angry, it’s because of their own pain and not because of a desire to hurt you. It’s their protective mechanism.

Meet their hurt with empathy instead.

3 steps to start an empathy epidemic

Start an Empathy epidemic. Extend empathy out to others in small doses, taking small steps. Remember it’s okay to emerge slowly from your own apathy shell.

  1. First, recognize your level of kindness and grow it from there. Kindness is bi-directional so you want to grow it toward yourself and toward others. Seeing the positive impact you have on others makes you feel good. The more good feeling you have, the less stress you have room for.
  2. Do good for the sake of good. Your “target” should be anyone and everyone. Let your colleagues know what you appreciate about them. If someone helps you feel good today, let them know. Get in touch with someone you know who’s having a tough time and offer to help. All it really takes to spread an empathy epidemic is small acts like these!
  3. When you find yourself judging someone, stop. Notice the story you’re making in your own head. Connect and get Curious. What’s happening for you that you’ve already made up your mind about this person? If someone does something to make you angry, take a breath, walk away and get Curious about how were they feeling. Assume that they meant well but  it was executed poorly.  Put it down.

Use my Plan-Do-Review process to track the spread of the empathy epidemic

Don’t remember Plan-Do-Review? Read the blog post here.

It will never be an empathy epidemic until we’re doing it consistently.

Remember, the empathy epidemic is good for you not just others because empathy bumps out apathy.


Image credit

Turtle” by Flickr user Charlotte Nordahl is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


This post contains an affiliate link. That means if you make a purchase through that link, I get a small percentage that helps me cover the costs of running this website.