Jun 24, 2013


What role does empathy play in our lives? Honestly, it plays a pretty big part. But it doesn't seem that many people get that. Everyone wants to be understood. Not everyone wants to try to understand.

I've read countless parenting books over the past couple of years. In almost each one, emphasis is placed on empathy. You want your kid to cooperate: empathize. You want your kid to do chores: empathize. You want your kid to stop yelling and screaming: empathize. You want your kid to eat dinner: empathize. You want your kid to get dressed, to be nice to you, to get to school on time, to say please and thank you, to do anything: empathize, empathize, empathize. Sure, there's a lot more to parenting than empathy, but empathy is the cornerstone. You start with empathy, and you're starting in a really good place.

Empathy has a few purposes. (1) It teaches the child that his or her feelings matter. (2) It teaches that you respect feelings, positive or negative. (3) It helps the child calm down emotionally, and it helps him or her to access the logical part of the brain. You empathize with your child, and not only can you start to solve problems together, but your child will learn to respect and empathize with you, then other people. It's an upward spiral.

What only a few of the parenting books hint at, though, is that it really shouldn't stop at having empathy for your kids. The same suggestions for navigating the tricky relationships of parents and children apply to your significant other, your friends, your other family members, coworkers, and even people you don't know.

It is important for adults to empathize with each other, but it's almost as though this drive to prove who is right or wrong takes over and empathy is forgotten about. At sixteen, right after my mom died, I could have used a lot more empathy from people around me. But, today, I feel the lack of empathy more deeply than I did as a kid. No one wants to hear about or even know that I'm a motherless mother. It's too uncomfortable, it's too depressing, it isn't happy enough.

I try really hard to be empathetic with my daughter's feelings. I sense I must be doing something right. She's a total sweetheart who will readily give me a hug and tell me she's sorry I'm sad if she catches me crying. But I worry. My mom provided me with the kind of empathy you find in unconditional love. We had some disagreements, but my mom focused on understanding why I felt the way that I did, no matter how irrational I came across. Then she died, that all disappeared, and it's been hard to recover the higher self-esteem she helped me find in myself as a young teenager. I worry that that could happen to my daughter. I worry that I could do everything right, only to die when she's young, before the job is finished, and leave her with years of therapy and pain and trying to recover something that is impossible to ever find again.

Every little bit of empathy matters. Think about how you feel when you have something irritating you and someone says to you, "That must be so frustrating." Then you think, "Why, yes, yes it is, and now I feel better." Or when you're sad and someone says to you, "That must be hard to deal with." "Why, yes, yes it is, and now I feel better." Think about how you feel if someone says those things to you, and think about how you could make someone else feel by simply saying those things back. In fact, one of the amazing things about empathy is that, sometimes, that's all a person needs to hear before that person can get started on solving a problem. Think of it as helping to open an door without doing anything more than basically saying, "I'm sorry" or "That's awesome."

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