The Energy Cost and the Power of Empathy

empathynoun em·pa·thy \ˈem-pə-thē\

the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions

the ability to share someone else’s feelings

Some analogies seem credible, but fall apart when considered carefully: the mind as a blank slate or even as computer hard drive, for example.

But analogies work when they bridge one person’s understanding with another’s—such as how the iPhone battery life reveals the energy cost of anxiety or being an introvert [1].

Despite the popularity of the iPhone, battery life has plagued the device, prompting each time a new version is released dozens of posts on how to increase battery life.

Often, battery life is being drained unnecessarily by Apps running in the background, thus not apparent by simply looking at the screen.

And herein lies the analogy: anxiety (living in a constant state of impending doom, having a constant internal, and negative, conversation with yourself) and introversion are states in which even though the person may appear to be functioning well—or even extremely well—the stress of anxiety and introversion are draining that person’s psychic and even physical energy.

The consequences are often heavy: exhaustion but being unable to sleep soundly or at all, aches and pains in joints where the tension rests, and assorted seemingly unrelated health issues. As well, the response to environments hostile to the anxious or introverts is to flee—a flight that in fact is a running to a place where they can try to stabilize, to recharge.

The energy cost of anxiety and introversion also significantly reduce a person’s ability to concentrate, to focus.

For teachers, then, Michael Godsey’s When Schools Overlook Introverts is an important addition to carefully considering the many ways in which student engagement and achievement may be signs of anything except student effort or learning.

Just as living in poverty drains a person’s ability to think in ways similar to being sleep deprived, anxiety, stress, and introversion often impose energy costs on students that significantly impact their learning.

Godsey highlights that school functions overwhelmingly in ways detrimental to introverts:

The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts. In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.

Beyond the emphasis on collaboration, schools are generally noisy, and few opportunities or spaces exist for students to be alone. For introverts, a school day may often be something to endure, forcing those students to spend a great deal of time outside of school simply recharging instead of attending to homework or studying.

Introversion, like anxiety, can have cumulative and very negative consequences—especially when those predisposed to either do not have the support of family, friends, teachers, or co-workers who can empathize with experiences unlike their own.

As I have noted about anxiety [2], having to explain constantly ones introversion is yet another energy cost.

For teachers, especially, we must be aware and then willing to empathize with students whose measurable outcomes in the classroom may be windows into something quite different from their effort or learning.

For the anxious, the stressed, and introverts, the empathy of others not only avoids one energy cost but also allows the space some need to recharge.

See Also

How to Teach Introverts, Nancy Flanagan

[1] Alone in my office, my back to the door, the office mostly quiet, I write—I, an introvert, drained and fighting the internal-dialogue demon of anxiety. As many writers are, as many writers do, we write in quest of empathy.

There is the soft sound of rain on the leaves outside my office window. Rain asks nothing of anyone. For an anxious introvert, few gifts could be greater.

[2] More on analogies. Know the scene in Alien when the alien bursts through Kane’s chest? The moment right before that is the constant state of impending doom of anxiety. Anxiety is a physical manifestation of a psychological response to the world.