Reflections on Brexit and the lessons it teaches about empathy

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So we’ve left the European Union.

After four years of headlines dominated by the ‘will we, won’t we’ rollercoaster that was Brexit and seemingly never-ending arguments between Leave and Remain, Labour and Conservative, politicians and constituents, not to mention friends and family, the moment many of us thought we’d never see came, and went, with uncharacteristically little fanfare. 

On the 31st January 2020 the United Kingdom left the EU. The country must now take stock and unite to face the future, together. How do we, as a country divided like at no other time in our history, reconnect with each other while still maintaining a strong relationship with our European cousins? Is empathy the solution, the very thing that will reunite a once-United Kingdom?

The Fallout of Brexit

Back in 2016 in the aftermath of the Referendum on leaving the EU, which sparked this four-year period of uncertainty, anger and fear, our co-founder Amanda Davie felt compelled to write a personal blog on her thoughts and experiences: What’s Love Got To Do With It? The Fallout – and Falling Out – Of Brexit.

In it, she described her experience of Brexit and asked what had it done to our collective mindset? 

“Here is my microcosm of the fallout of Brexit…,”

wrote Amanda.

“My mother and I aren’t talking (and those who know us intimately might say this is no bad thing!); my best friend isn’t speaking to her husband; I can’t watch the news without wanting to throw something at the TV; my fellow European mums at the gates of our local school, where 25 languages are spoken, look like rabbits caught in headlights; my Italian client doesn’t know if her shiny new pan-European job is a safe bet; my French client needs his business contract to be signed so that, as an employer, he can carry on contributing to the UK economy; and the waitress serving me today has, with a heavy heart, decided to go back to Spain even though she knows the job opportunities here are better.” 

Up and down the country, cortisol levels went through the roof. People were in fight, flight or freeze mode. Meanwhile, serotonin and endorphin levels temporarily left these usually calm shores. We had a neurochemical imbalance. 

Brexit messed with our collective psyche and hampered our ability to perform. We were waiting for – hoping for – clarity to emerge from the chaos. What we didn’t know in 2016, is just what a long wait we would be in for.  

What does empathy have to do with Brexit?

Where did the love go? And what does love have to do with it anyway? Very little, certainly, if you gauged the mood of the nation over the past four years. 

Empathy is a different matter, however. Empathy has everything to do with Brexit. Bear with us and we’ll explain…

Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to each other. It’s the practical skill of being able to put yourself in another’s shoes; to truly understand where they are coming from – and why; and to do this without judgment. 

It is a skill that can be developed, and countless professional coaches will both practise the skill and help clients embed it into their everyday relationships – inside work and out. 

In the book Born For Love: Why Empathy Is Essential And Endangered, award-winning science journalist Maia Szalavitz and renowned child psychiatrist Bruce D Perry explain how empathy develops, why it is necessary both to human happiness and for a functional society, and how it is threatened in the modern world. 

They explain that, from birth, when babies’ fingers instinctively cling to those of adults, their bodies and brains seek an intimate connection – a bond made possible by empathy, the remarkable ability to love and to share the feelings of others.

Up until the 2016 Referendum, the biggest threat to our empathy levels appeared to be technology. More specifically, screen usage. It draws us away from those fleeting but all-important human interactions and moments of connection. It’s what leads young children to demand “Look at me” when parents reach for their phones. 

Fear – the enemy of empathy

Following the Referendum, however, it seemed there was another enemy of empathy within our society – fear.

When the amygdala – the part of our brain that processes emotions – in our reptilian brain is triggered by fear, survival kicks in. Our brain is hotwired to keep us safe and keep us alive, above all else. Empathy naturally gets pushed down the pecking order as we close ranks to protect ourselves and our own in times of fear.

The fear of the unknown that the nation has collectively, and constantly, been experiencing in the last four years has closed us off to empathy. We lost our empathy for one another and the ensuing arguments, bitterness, anger and resentment was the result. 

Moving on and moving forward 

The period of change has only just begun. If we follow Elisabeth Kubler–Ross’s Change Curve, we have experienced shock, denial, anger and depression and confusion. 

Perhaps the lack of conversation around January’s exit date was the first sign that we have now, as a nation, moved into the acceptance stage. 

What we must do now is move on and adapt to a post-Brexit UK. The only way to do this is by developing empathy for one another once more.

It is painfully clear that, on the subject of EU inclusion, we’ll never be in agreement. Yet we have to get along together, we have to commune, we have to function as a nation. The alternative is unfathomable. 

So we must find ways to empathise with each other, to put ourselves in one another’s shoes, to relate and to see the debate from another person’s perspective. 

Empathy is the capacity that can reunite us. We don’t have to love each other, we don’t even have to like one another, but we have to be able to empathise. 

And yes, empathy is a skill that can be developed, and one that many of our clients master through our coaching work. Drop us a line if you want to learn how.

We’d love to help.

Comment (1)
AffiliateLabz / February 15, 2020

Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂

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