“I want you to undo it.” That’s all I could think to say in the midst of my pain. I knew it was not a fair request. I knew it could not be undone, but it’s all I had left. I was grasping just trying to stay in the moment because I knew what was coming next. It’s the act that always follows me getting hurt. In this act there are three scenes.
Scene 1: Self-hatred. The beating begins. The other person caused the pain but I take the beating. What’s worse is I do the beating. “How could I be so stupid? How did I let this happen? How did I get fooled once again? If I were smart, I would have listened to my gut.” The questions and the self-loathing go on for days. I usually stop about the time my eyes are ready to swell shut from all the crying. It’s then that the last harsh words are internalized, the curtain closes and I wait in anticipation of the next scene.
Scene 2: The lesson. So help me God if I don’t learn something from this pain. I cannot and will not just get hurt. There has to be a lesson in here somewhere. And the meaning-making begins. This part lasts even longer which I guess is a good thing. The lessons are always different and the experience changes with every hurt but I can tell you what happened this time. With the drop of the last tear my head cleared and I heard my own mantra… “This is what it means to be with me.” Here was an opportunity to say it again, the chance to be authentic knowing that every person has the choice to take me or leave me. I began the conversation in my head, gathered my thoughts, my questions, and challenged myself to stay focused. The most genuine and heart felt talks followed. It was the kind of “real” I have always wanted. As time passes and the play continues, I am learning to be a much better communicator. I can articulate my values and my deal-breakers in one breath. You’d be surprised how few people can do this. I can disagree without raising my voice. This is huge. I used to be a class act yeller and I hated it. There were lots of long nights and sore throats in the past, but not anymore. Now I can be bold and ask for what I need. Best of all, because I know myself so well, I can really listen. I don’t have to prepare my next argument while the other person is talking. I get to listen and really try to understand where they are coming from. What I have found is that when I practice empathy, it rewards me with a level of knowing someone that does not come any other way. We talk, we bond and the curtain closes on scene two.
Scene three: Thank you. Without the pain I would not know joy. Without the test, I would not study myself. Without you I would not grow. Without you I would never know the magnitude of true love.
It took a while you know. This play used to only have one scene, and after enough years of beating myself up I figured there must be a scene that followed. There had to be more.
And so as all good stories go, this one too, has a happy ending. I’m grateful for the lessons and grateful for the silver lining of this and every other dark cloud that has hovered over me in this lifetime. I am ready for an encore!
Empathy is the ability see and value what another person is feeling or experiencing. When we see someone crying tears of joy at an important reunion and notice ourselves choking up, that’s empathy. When we see someone struggling with a problem and feel an emotional pull to help, that’s empathy. It’s a core-skill for what psychologists call “pro-social” behavior – the actions that are involved in building close relationships, maintaining friendships, and developing strong communities. Some say it appears to be the central reality necessary for developing a conscience as well. While raising empathetic kids may seem like a daunting task, you should know that kids are empathetic by nature.
I imagine most of us do this already when we tell our kids to “think about how what you did made your sister feel.” We are inviting them to recognize that it is important to take another’s feelings into account. Here are a few more ways to help support our kids’ development of empathy:
- Help your kids put words to their emotions. Feelings are complex bio-chemical realities that take place in our whole bodies, but not necessarily involving our logical brain! Naming them can be trickier than we sometimes realize. We have so many words in our language to try to express the various shades of sadness, anger, and fear. Helping our kids find the right words that express what they are feeling is a great way for them to come to understand the feelings of others.
- Feel out loud. Modeling the behavior you want your kids to emulate is one of the best parenting srategies around. Kids are watching us all the time and what we do influences them as much or more than what we say. Share your thoughts and feelings about situations in the family, what friends are going through, what that kid at school your is complaining about might be feeling, and even what you see on TV. It doesn’t have to be a heavy lecture- just simply share what the other person may be feeling, how it affects you and that it makes you want to consider how to help.
- Include empathy as part of discipline. Make sure you include conversations about how people are affected by a problem as you are creating the solution. Have them consider how their sibling may be feeling after getting hurt. Show sympathy to the perpetrator too, so they can see how this empathy can guide consequences as well.
- Reward empathy. Pay attention to when your kids are responding out of empathy, reaching out to help, or changing their behavior out of concern for another. Let them know you recognize it and support what they are doing. Feel free to give them an “out of the blue” treat too – it won’t hurt!
- Be patient. Even as adults, we are not perfectly empathetic all the time. It’s a lot to ask kids to put others first and to have the emotional energy to notice other’s feelings all the time. As with all things, progress is slow and accumulates over time as their skills (and brains) develop.
Keep pointing these moments out and modeling the skills as best you can. Our kids will get there, just like we did!
I’d love to hear your comments and stories of how you model empathy for your children! Thanks for reading!
*Information adapted from a Steve Palmer article