When Empathy Goes Out The Window

IMG_0312Until recently I thought I was really good at empathy. This was something I didn’t need to work at – heck, it came naturally! If someone was feeling pain, I was right there with them. My challenge as a young woman working in social work was to turn down my empathy so that I could be of use and make it through the day.

What I’ve become aware of through understanding and playing around with Brené Browns explanation of empathy, is that for me to be genuinely empathetic, particularly with those I’m closest to, I need to be conscious and act against my “natural” reaction to their pain.

Here’s a story from last week to illustrate. My daughter – singing bird – has been through a rough patch this fall which began with her breaking her arm. She got a cast and after two days of the weepies, was up and running. Then a week or so later I got a call from her school informing me she’d taken a bad fall, her body colliding with the concrete playground. Singing bird doesn’t cry easily so when I arrived at the school office to find her in a wimpering ball, I knew it was bad.

What I’d advise a client or friend to do in this situation:  When you get your daughter home, ice pack in hand, find a quiet comfortable place where you can simply be together. Create a nest of coziness. Give your child a chance to feel all that she’s been holding in at school, her fear, her pain, her embarrassment…. Without expectations simply spend time with her. By giving her a chance to experience her emotions you’re allowing an important opportunity for her to heal, emotionally and physically. What you’ll be providing is a gift because so often we aren’t permitted our feelings. We’re told, through words and/or actions, to act appropriately. Translation:  don’t express feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, jealousy and even pain.

What I did: When we got home, I helped her out of the car and made her comfy on the couch. I got an ice pack for her head, band aides for her hip, some pain medication and a tasty melt in your mouth homeopathic remedy too. To make sure all of her senses were “soothed”, I found a television show for her to watch to further distract her from her feelings – I mean to make her feel better – heck isn’t it the same thing?

Even as I write this I’m cringing. I missed a rich opportunity to connect with her and more importantly to simply be with her – keep her company through a hard and healing time. Empathy. I avoided it. No doubt, it felt instinctual to go into fix it mode – to make her all better – to put the pain behind her.

Later that afternoon it dawned on me what I’d done. I called my sister and described the incident and how I’d missed a real opportunity for empathy. She thanked me because she was taking her daughter to the dentist for multiple tooth extraction the next day and was encouraged by the reminder.

We don’t have to fix pain or make it go away and it’s actually better if we can find a place within ourselves that allows us to be present.

(If you haven’t seen it, this short animated piece, narrated by Brené Brown is worth watching!)

What does it take for YOU to BE WITH your child when they’re in discomfort – physical or emotional? Please share in the comment section below!

For me, I know that sharing my story with you will help raise my awareness so that when my next empathy opportunity comes, and I know it will, I’ll BE there.  Thanks for reading!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

4 Responses to When Empathy Goes Out The Window

  1. Fernanda Lee November 19, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    Hi Lisa, thank you for reminding us of our own biases. It is awareness and it is practice and it is a choice. I will share the video with my graduate peers. Thank you for your honesty.

    • Lisa November 21, 2014 at 11:09 am #

      Hi Fernanda,
      I love what you high light! Awareness and practice. Yes – and the best part is that we don’t have to get it right the first time – we can come back around and practice again and again. Parenting is a work in progress!
      Thanks for sharing your voice here.
      Lisa

  2. Kathleen Callahan November 22, 2014 at 10:44 am #

    Wonderful article, Lisa! It will be a pleasure to think of you the next time I try to put this into practice!

  3. Lisa January 25, 2015 at 7:36 am #

    Kathleen thank you!!

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