Increasing Empathy Takes Time


I was a bit of a chubby kid. I might be winking in this picture but it’s a bit hard to tell.

Ron age 6

And kids are total dicks cruel. So I found out about the whole being chubby thing at about age 6. Prior to that I just ran around the farm feeling like a normal happy kid.

Then life sucked for a while.

The insults kids come up with are pretty basic. It’s the first thing that comes to mind. Or they parrot something from TV or a movie.

“Fatty, fatty, two-by-four,” was the start of a song those little pricks kids used to shout at me. That one was annoying because it seemed to suggest they were using a mathematical formula to quantify my fatty status. The song also voiced a negative opinion on my ability to pass through a bathroom door.

“Hungry, hungry hippo!” — a chant that made me curse the popular Hasbro game.

But, the best childhood insult by far was the final line of a 1984 Oh, Henry candy bar commercial: Three big circus strongmen sit on the high end of a seesaw. A single candy bar rests on the other end, somehow outweighing them. Finally the bearlike guy in the middle says:

It’s that big chunk of fu-u-u-u-dge!


This candy bar advertising campaign came out when I was a 12-years-old. The same year Prince came out with “Purple Rain”. So good things did happen that year.

Yes, those guys were total dicks unkind. But the whole “Big chunk of fudge” punchline is oddly effective. There’s literally no defence to being called a big chunk of fudge. It makes no sense but it just works. And who can resist good comedy? No one. It’s ubiquitous — people love an effective joke.

No kidding. That shit is pretty funny. It’s way funnier when it happens to someone else of course.

One reason I developed empathy and became the Coach I am today is because I was exposed to bullshit like that.

I wish I could say that I learned the importance of compassion right away. I knew what it was like to be insulted and attacked. But shit rolls down hill.

So I pushed a few kids around trying to feel better about being pushed around. And I was not popular in elementary school, go figure. I wish I could say I got it together in high school. But instead I was crippled with insecurity. I looked down on those that looked up to me. I looked up to people who didn’t even notice me. I cared about the opinions of people who actively disliked me.

In my first year of high school I was riding the bus home and getting bullied pretty much daily. Lots of thrown objects. Lots of shit talking. I would crouch down in my seat to duck the thrown stuff. But I’d still hear them talking shit about me. My bookbag was taken, filled with garbage. Notes ruined. I was taunted about it the next day.

And then one afternoon I just lost it.

I was on the bus and someone threw something at me. Which wasn’t new. It had been months of this stuff. It was constant.

But on this occasion I snapped.

I’ve never had tunnel vision before or since, but that’s what I remember. A black tunnel with two faces at the end of it that I tried very hard to put my fists through.

The fight got broken up. God bless the giant farm boy who did that. And after that? Reprieve. No lie. It sounds like an after school movie, but once I stuck up for myself those guys didn’t want to bully me anymore. Not one bit.

Bullies like an easy mark. They don’t like the taste of their own blood. They don’t like to fight people who no longer give a shit about getting hurt. It’s too much like work.

Shakespeare said, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.”

I made myself a less easy mark by fighting. That’s part of the reason why I still box to this day. (My awesome wife is my coach, by the way.) But my journey towards self-acceptance was just beginning. I was still affected by the experience of being bullied in a way that was hard to escape.

Years later in therapy I had the realization that I was letting the actions of mean kids continue to affect me as an adult.

It was a huge realization for me. When I framed it in that way, allowing those kids to continue to have power over me made no sense. Children are dicks cruel. They have no frame of reference. They like to see big reactions. If they hit upon a way to get a big reaction, they’ll continue what they are doing until the source of that amusement dries up. Sometimes that’s adorable. Sometimes it’s insufferable.

Why would I let a bunch of little jerk children continue to affect my self-image as an adult? By the time I sought therapy I wasn’t chubby or unacceptable. I had friends and a significant other. I had a career in TV. I was a man.

That realization made a huge difference in my life.

Through this process I learned to respect my feelings and the feelings of others. I used to laugh at my own feelings. I thought I was weak for having them. But we experience what we experience for a reason. Developing empathy for self (and others) is a process of honouring yourself and respecting that you’re still valid and good when you are at your weakest.

Which we are. All of us.

Some people have more innate empathy than others. But empathy can be learned, like any skill.

Common humanity dictates that we share many of the same experiences. At times we might feel victimized. At times we might be the aggressor. I think of myself as a good person, and yet I’ve been a bully. Should I have known better? Yes. But learning is a process. Like learning the alphabet before learning to read and write. I had to learn what pain was, and learn to respect my feelings about that pain. Only then could I reframe it. Then learn from it and move past it.

In my case empathy was learned the hard way. But I’m glad of those lessons now. Because empathy can change my client’s lives, and it can change the world. I know it changed mine. If you’re interested in that kind of change, our contact details are below.

Ron Dykstra
Co-Owner Iron Lion Training
1485 Dupont, #312, Toronto, ON
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