My youngest son is a bit of a daredevil. It’s not uncommon to see him jumping from 5 steps up on the stairs or diving headfirst off of our bed. He’s bumped and stubbed and jabbed himself so many times that sometimes I find it hard to feel bad when he hurts himself. In fact, I often find myself rolling my eyes when he starts crying over having hurt himself yet once again! I find myself getting frustrated with him, annoyed by his clutziness and I often enter lecture-mode that I somehow expect my 2 year-old to find utterly interesting. Needless to say, my actions often don’t help the situation. At times, I find myself at least sympathizing with his plight, sorry that he’s hurt himself. The rarest moments however are when I truly empathize and connect with my son when he is hurting.
Brené Brown has done extensive research on the topic of empathy and has an informative video about empathy vs sympathy:
Empathy drives connection.
This is an important point to remember. The times when my son is hurting and I chastise him for not being more careful are not moments when we draw closer. In fact, they are moments when I might be ever so slightly pushing him away, alerting him to the fact that “it’s not safe to go to daddy when I am hurting or in pain.” That’s not what I want my son to feel.
Brené Brown references Theresa Wiseman who has researched the concept of empathy in a variety of professions. There are four keys aspects to empathy:
- Being able to see the world as someone else sees it.
- Being nonjudgmental upon seeing the world from that person’s perspective.
- Recognizing the emotions that person must be experiencing.
- Being able to communicate to that person that you understand what they’re experiencing and going through.
Empathy is a vulnerable choice.
Once we understand what the other person is experiencing, empathy requires us to access those same emotions in ourselves. We have to put ourselves into the other person’s shoes and feel what they are feeling at that moment. This requires us to be vulnerable, to admit that we are hurting right alongside the other person. Vulnerability can be scary, but it is a necessary component to being able to empathize with those around us.
Rarely can a reaction make things better. What makes things better is connection.
In order for connection to occur, we must find the courage to be vulnerable. In that vulnerable state, we can reach within ourselves, find the emotions the other person is experiencing, empathize with what they’re experiencing and the end result is connection.
The root of many of our problems lies in our lack of secure emotional connection with those around us, especially those closest to us. I’ve discovered that in those moments when my son is hurting from whacking his toe on a toy he left out or when he is crying because he jumped off the couch and landed on his face, if I reach inside me at those moments and remember what it was like to hurt myself as a kid, I find it much easier to relate with him and empathize with what he’s experiencing. The temptation to lecture is no longer there. And most importantly, I find my son more likely to run to me for comfort when he’s hurt. I’m building connection with my kids and that makes my heart happy.