Expressing Empathy

When my kids were young I just wanted them to be happy. When they were crying, agitated or sad, I immediately attempted to fix whatever was troubling them. I scrambled to change their focus and turn their attention to something positive. I would reassure them that everything will be better soon and it will all turn out okay. In fact even now as a parent of adult children, I still struggle with wanting to fix their problem.

There is nothing wrong with the desire to bring relief to someone who is suffering. It’s a natural response. However, insisting that a person come out of their immediate experience and into the one you believe they ‘should’ be having can be more damaging than helpful. Remember, “fixing” has a lot to do with what remains uncomfortable within YOU. You can’t keep your child or anyone else from being upset.

While I strongly believe in positive thinking, this doesn’t express empathy. When we only focus on the positive, rather than acknowledge a person’s feelings, we are actually invalidating them. Put yourself in their shoes and once someone feels fully heard and supported in their emotion, it may then be appropriate and encouraging to help them see the bright side.

The kindest and most caring thing we can offer our suffering child, friend or partner is to simply sit in validation of their discomfort- holding their hand and staying close.

In an atmosphere of empathy, we all begin to learn that while certain emotions may not feel good, they are not dangerous. We can accept and process our feelings as they come up instead of stuffing them. The feeling that we are understood helps develop resilience.

As we learn to trust the wisdom of our present experience, we see that love is whole, strong, never partial and alive even in the darkness. Compassion and understanding shines the jewels hidden in the dark.