A mentor of mine once told me we don’t learn how to be more loving or empathetic.
We’re naturally loving from birth.
The difference is small but significant.
We don’t have to strive to feel more or improve ourselves. This perspective is a cultural illness. It affects us when we internalize the industrial ideals of never-ending growth and linear progress.
Instead, we can become more skilled at revealing what’s been there all along.
Growing up, I shut down parts of my heart. There was the pain of broken relationships; the needs that went unmet as a child; stored grief for people and places that I lost connection with; the fear of being hurt or taken advantage of.
Most of us have areas of our hearts we haven’t visited for a long time. We change schools. We move homes. Our parents divorce. A loved one dies. Machines raze our favorite hideout in the woods. Few of us belong to a village that bears witness to the pains of these losses. Few of us have a community that helps us regain the trust we need to feel safe and welcome again.
And so in the absense of a empathic adults or a community to hold us, we abandon these challenged parts of ourselves. We don’t want to go there again. We don’t want to relive the pain or hurt. And so we close these inner catacombs and walk away.
Our work as parents includes a willingness to open those chambers again, to remove whatever blocks us from loving the way we were born to do.
Learn to cultivate empathy
That’s far easier said than done, I know. Much of my adult life has been about rediscovering these catacombs and opening them one by one. That’s not always easy. But the older I get, the more I consider it an adventure to rediscover my natural capacity for empathy.
And cultivating empathy is a vital role as parents.
We have so many other roles, of course. But being empathic with our children–and helping them grow their own capacity for empathy–has a huge impact on their development .
When we’re empathic our children can relax. There’s no reason for them to stress or be on high alert. They don’t have to defend themselves, run, hide, or fight. They feel they belong, that they have a home no matter what arises in them. In this environment, they develop the way nature intends them to.
That’s why cultivating our children’s empathy is a fundamental responsability as parents. We’re empathy farmers, to use a phrase by psychologist Robin Grille.
Our task is to create the best conditions we can to grow our children’s ability to relate to people, nature and all sentient beings.
Every now and then we might lose our cool, yell, throw a menacing look or otherwise frighten our child with our power and authority. We soon sense the muteness of disconnection. And most of us regret it afterwards, and wish we’d done it in a different way.
When our wounds get in the way
The hard truth is that sometimes we don’t want our children’s feelings to touch us. We’re too exhausted, on edge, incapacitated or triggered for some reason.
In those moments, empathy hurts us too much. We’d much rather turn away than stay with.
Our child’s behavior sometimes touches on our original hurts, the ones we’ve locked away. Every time our child takes us there, she reminds us of our unresolved pain.
It’s not that we’re insensitive, crude, monstrous or incapable of responding with soft attention and compassionate curiosity. We are all biologically capable of responding with love towards our child or our partner. But sometimes our automatic defensive reactions blocks our hearts.
It’s not that we are mean. We’re wounded.
So instead of facing our child, we evade her. We keep her a good distance from our pressure points. We block out our capacity for empathy and isolate ourselves from our child. And instead of healing ourselves, we pass on our hurts.
Notice how you block your empathy
When we block our empathic responses, we in effect censor our children’s emotions. To avoid engaging with our child’s feelings, we manipulate, dominate, control, belittle, opress or otherwise block the behavior. And we create a distance in the family.
”Empathy blockers save us the trouble of listening, but they cost us our connection with each other,” says Robin Grille. They frustrate our child, and with time create detachment, distance and mistrust.
These are some examples of empathy blockers from his wonderful book Heart-to-Heart Parenting.
- Downplaying–Oh, don’t cry. I’m sure it’s not that bad! It’s not the end of the world.
- Denial–There is nothing wrong; nothing for you to be upset about. Everything is OK.
- Reasoning–Don’t cry. Can’t you see that the other child didn’t mean to hurt you?
- The positive spin–Look on the bright side. Can’t you see, this probably happened for a good reason?
- Cheering up–Don’t worry. Here, let me tell you something funny I heard the other day. Here, have an ice cream. That’ll cheer you up.
- Advising/giving options–Why don’t you try doing this, or that? I think you should just ignore that so-and-so.
- The expectation–You should have known better. Get over it. Don’t let it get to you.
- Put down–Don’t be silly. Don’t be ridiculous.
- Diagnosing/labeling–You are being over-sensitive.
- Distracting/diverting–Hey, have a look at the pretty puppet.
- Stealing the thunder–Now you know how I felt when the same thing happened to me.
Listen with your heart
If you recognize any of these behaviors, chances are you’re human.
And that means you can learn to remove the blocks by owning your reaction and healing your hurts.
This might mean getting some rest, reaching out to a friend a therapist or a coach for support, or finding some space to decompress.
The practice is continuously to develop your ability to listen with genuine interest in your child’s emotional world.
When you do, your child learns that all her feelings are valid. Anger, fear, sadness, shame or joy are all welcome.
“Listening,” says Grille, “is at the heart of connection, and if we can’t listen well, we cease to be an influence in our children’s lives.”