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A Little Compassion and Empathy Can End Cyberbullying for Good

04/01/2015 01:09 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT
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The other day, I watched Monica Lewinsky's impassioned TedTalk, The Price of Shame, in which she recounts her humiliating experience as "that woman" at the hands of the media and the political elite during her short tenure as a White House intern when she was in her early twenties. She spoke of the devastating toll to her emotional health, as well as the unending worry of her parents, who could only watch helplessly as their daughter, still learning to navigate life as a young woman, was mercilessly thrust onto the world stage for public ridicule, and branded with a scarlet letter.

Remember, this was 1998, just at the dawn of the digital revolution. Before social media. Before anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account could callously pontificate from behind often anonymous computer screens, as is the case today. However, when the news broke of her personal relationship with her then boss, she became the hot topic of many salacious news segments, talk shows, newspaper and magazine articles which were starting to become available online. Intimate details of her private life were often forwarded by email, where the gossipy public could openly snicker and use her life as a daily punchline.

Take a few minutes and imagine your most humiliating moment. Call to mind the deep, dark secret that you've held onto all these years for fear of repercussions. Think of your deepest fears, beliefs, or thoughts that you can't even bring yourself to share with your spouse, clergy, or therapist. Think of the embarrassing photo that you would never dream of posting to Facebook. Or maybe it's a video that someone recorded of you, when you didn't look your best, or when you said or did things that, in retrospect, would make you cringe. Go ahead. Take these few moments to remember.

Now think of everything you have done over time to ensure these private experiences stayed private. Imagine what it would feel like in your body the moment you realized that the rug was pulled out from under you. And now envision the feelings of free-falling when you realize these moments were not only shared -- without your consent -- with people you know, but with complete strangers the world over. What would it be like for you, knowing that your indignity has been gleefully and willfully shared as public fodder? How would you feel if you were repeatedly publicly ridiculed, harassed, and exploited?

Ms. Lewinsky's experience is no different from folks like the late Tyler Clementi, also a victim of unrelenting public shaming, witch-hunt style. Their experiences are no different from countless others who suffer in silence at the hands of cyber bullies. Even celebrity-bashing on social media threads appears to have become a public sport. Peruse any comment section following a celebrity fluff piece, and you will be bombarded by abusive remarks wishing the newsmaker harm, ill-will, or ill-health. Try watching any awards show while keeping tabs on your Twitter feed, and you will see running commentaries from the peanut gallery, each trying to one-up the other by making fun of the celebrities who choose to entertain us. It's schadenfreude at its very worst.

Madonna fell down a flight of stairs while singing and dancing? "She deserves it for being an old hag dressed like a whore," gossiped one commenter. Ashley Judd, rooting for her favourite sports team? "She's a bitch who deserves to be raped." The co-pilot of the doomed Germanwings flight had a history of depression and suicidal ideation? "People with mental illness are homicidal psychopaths." Kim Kardashian dyed her hair platinum? Honestly, I can't even keep up with the countless crass and offensive comments that are said about the Kardashians -- although I have noticed that family repeatedly being referred to as the KarTRASHians by folks like you and me.

The Internet is without a doubt one of the greatest innovations of our time. It, along with social media, has allowed us to connect with loved ones and like-minded people. It is an astounding tool for education and commerce. However, it has also created a climate where humiliation, trolling, and cyberbullying are as easy as standing on a virtual soap-box and snidely tapping a few keystrokes for the world to see.

So what exactly is cyberbullying? It can take on any form -- from the milder acts of gossiping or deliberately excluding others from online groups, to the more overt tactics of harassment such as insulting or rude comments, stalking, and threats. Cyberbullying is real and it is rampant. It is not just an adolescent problem. Each day, one in three people is needlessly victimized by the abusive behaviours of individuals who have lost touch with their ability to empathize and be compassionate. How did you make out on the visualization exercise at the beginning of this blog post? Were you able to put yourself in the shoes of someone being publicly ostracized? That is a sign of empathy -- the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Compassion, on the other hand, is the ability to feel concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others -- it literally means to suffer with someone. It's the exact opposite of schadenfreude, which is showing happiness at the misfortune of others.

You know, it's no wonder to me that the bulk of my clinical caseload in my private counselling practice is made up of individuals who have difficulty showing self-compassion. We've come of age in a society where anyone can say whatever they want to or about another person, judging others publicly and in full view. To be able to show compassion for oneself and for others, we need to first acknowledge that there is suffering. The very act of suffering is what we all share as sentient beings -- from the moment each of us is born, gasping for our first breath. Whether we are hungry or hurting, be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually, each of us has the ability to feel, and respond to pains, slights, or imperfections.

The beauty of living a more empathic and compassionate life is that the more it's practiced, the more we will be filled with kindness and warmth -- for ourselves and others. And the more we will realize that suffering is a shared human experience -- you feel it, I feel it, we ALL feel it. When one of us is singled out, each of us is too. We each need to play our part in acting with empathy and compassion.

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