Cultural Humility and Empathy

As a traveler I used to believe that the most important part of experiencing a culture was experiencing relationships with people whom identified with that culture. I wanted to travel places and have experiences within cultures where I felt it was possible to get a more intimate understanding of another individual’s world view who is so far removed from the reality of my own. My experiences up until this point have profoundly had an impact on how I view the world and how I view myself in the world around me. I have com to the realization that I have neglected an extremely important aspect of experiencing culture, which is history. Truly sitting in knowledge and sitting with individuals within cultures that have been affected by atrocities of violence has felt exceedingly overwhelming to me. Unconscious self preservation can be an exceptionally powerful thing.

IMG_0002Learning about the Bosnian War and the genocide at Srebrenica and then turning around and actually getting the opportunity to be in the places where these things have happened, and with the people they have happened to, has been and will continue to be an incredibly unique opportunity to observe myself and my reactions to the things I am encountering. As future social workers I think we throw around the term “empathy” as a must-have to practice without really understanding what empathy entails. The social work dictionary defines empathy as “the act of perceiving, understanding, experiencing, and responding to the emotional state and ideas of another person”. I have come from such a [cherished]place of privilege to have lived a life where I have not had to experience the realities of war. From a social work perspective, I wonder how possible genuine empathy, versus conditioned sympathy in practice, is for Bosnians who have experienced so much trauma through the experience of war. Empathy requires vulnerability. It requires self-awareness of your own world views. It requires humility. Sometimes you will get it wrong. I hope to grow through this experience as a clinician and that my understanding of the responsibility of cultural humility and empathy in my practice will grow and evolve.

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