A look at empathy

This is a muddled, multi dimensional look at my thoughts on empathy. Touching on what empathy is, empathy’s role in parenting and self-empathy.

Empathy is so powerful. I’ve learned that not everyone is capable of real empathy. I first truly felt it from my therapist and it hurt like hell. The grief of knowing what I had missed out on was unbearable. Being seen and heard, having someone completely empathise without demanding anything in return and without losing themselves in me. Wow. It is such an incredible gift to have and be able to give.

Empathy doesn’t judge or look to change. It doesn’t criticise or condemn. Empathy doesn’t ask for anything in return. Empathy respects and validates. The authenticity of true empathy can be felt. It is a healing wonder.

Empathy doesn’t say, ‘I agree with you’ it also doesn’t say, ‘I feel sorry for you’ it simply says, ‘I see you’.

When my kids hurt themselves, even if I think it’s not that sore to warrant the blood curdling cries, I don’t question the validity of their tears. I simply see them, ‘that was really sore, I saw you hurt yourself… that hurt so much…’ or just sit with them while they cry. If they’re crying or getting angry at me because I won’t let them watch more tv or have another biscuit I don’t tell them off for being demanding or spoilt. I don’t shut them in their room sending the message that their negative emotions are intolerable. I hear them out. ‘You’re really angry with me because I won’t let you have another biscuit… it’s so annoying when you want something you can’t have… it’s hard when you really want something but you’re not allowed it.. I understand.’ This usually makes them cry louder, shout harder, complain more incessantly or collapse in an emotional heap. That’s the full force of the feelings expressing themselves through their body. (On a side note, often when I witness this I think – ‘how many times did I suppress those feelings in any given day during my childhood as these needs were never met?’) When my kids have calmed down I’ll explain my reasoning, when they’re ready to hear logic and reason. ‘Remember we agreed you’d finish watching that programme then turn the telly off because it’s good to not watch too much tv. Let’s go play in the garden.’ Or ‘I know you love this biscuits but you already had two and it’s good to eat a balance of different foods, how about some carrot sticks/an apple/a drink of water…’ Feeling sorry for them, giving in or entering into a battle of wills takes their power away and it takes away mine too. My kids pain isn’t a problem that I need to fix or relieve them of. That would teach them they are incapable of coping with emotions and difficult situations. Empathy gives me a valuable tool in parenting but it also gives my kids power and the vocabulary to help them understand themselves and articulate themselves in the future.

Empathy and boundaries work together in harmony when attempting to build a deep connection in relationships. This is a steep learning curve for me as I’m doing this with no blue print for how to parent in a healthy way. I’m learning on the job, trying to follow my instincts, accepting guidance from my therapist and reading a lot!

Empathy allows me to take myself out of the equation and see the experience my child is having as being theirs. It helps me parent from a less easily triggered place which in turn helps the kids. The hurt, neglected child in me grieves the lack of this in their life but the adult in me knows that if I can practice giving it to my kids then perhaps one day I will be able to give it to myself.

When someone empathises with us our defences go down. When we feel less defensive we feel more open to curious observation and creativity. That’s where healing happens. That’s where we learn. The connection between two people. The bridge that says ‘I’m not afraid of your pain, in fact I understand it… I know it won’t destroy me to bear witness to your suffering.’

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