Would you like a world in which everyone only looks out for themselves or one in which people genuinely care about one another? How about in your family? Would you prefer to have a spouse that believes only his experience is correct or one who treats your perspective as valid? Would you like your children to be egocentric and indifferent or would you like them to have a sense of how their choices affect other family members? If you prefer the second option from each of these possibilities, you are choosing behaviors that grow out of empathy. Empathy has numerous benefits for individuals, families, and the world.

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What is empathy?

At GreaterGood.com, empathy is described as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” On PsychologyToday.com empathy is said to be analogous to walking in someone else’s shoes. Ronald Riggio, PhD, says that the common form of empathy is “empathic concern: the ability to recognize another’s emotional state, feel in tune with that emotional state, and if it is a negative/distressful emotion, feel and show appropriate concern.”

For me, I think of empathy as a state of taking in another person’s experience, especially their emotions, as fully real, accurate, or valid (even if their story might contain irrational thinking or inaccurate data). In other words, when I empathize with my daughter, I hear her feelings and experience without adding anything of my own to her story.

“When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good.”

~Carl Rogers

Why does empathy matter?

Most of us who are now adults, grew up learning that some emotions were acceptable and others were not. Depending on our gender, our parents’ own emotional awareness, and various other factors, we learned which emotions we could safely share, how we were allowed to show them, and how fully we could express each feeling. Here are a few examples to illustrate:

  • Born in the early fifties, Joe adopted the common belief from his time that men and boys shouldn’t show weakness, which was then defined as related to emotions of sadness, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and compassion. Boyhood habits of stifling his crying, internally berating himself or feeling shameful whenever he felt nervous or fearful, and outwardly displaying a “tough guy” attitude lasted long into adulthood.
  • Jen, who is in her forties, learned — like many women throughout the ages — that any actions that could be deemed “aggressive” by her elders were not acceptable. Thus emotions like anger, frustration, and even confidence or pride were ones she worked hard to hide else she be told off and punished for being “too boastful,” “too conceited,” “unlady-like,” or “spoiled.”
  • Sue’s mom wanted her daughter to be confident in this “man’s world,” so she directly and indirectly encouraged Sue to “toughen up,” admonishing expressions of self-pity, worry, and self-doubt. Sue in turn notices her own discomfort — and harsh reaction to — her own daughter’s whiny-ness, “irrational” fears, and any other behaviors that seem “baby-ish” to Sue.

We might read about these individuals and judge some of their adaptations as helpful and others as harmful. Regardless, the truth is that their full and healthful emotional expression is compromised as adults in part because certain emotions weren’t accepted as valid during their early childhood. They still have feelings internally, but are constrained in allowing them and expressing them in a productive manner, and it affects their overall quality of life. In essence, they are living cut off from parts of their authentic selves.

How empathy impacts emotional freedom

In my experience, empathy is deeply connected to self-acceptance and authenticity because it helps us keep our emotional wholeness intact. When our experiences, and the emotions we feel, are greeted in an empathetic manner, they are being accepted as valid. Thus the inner message we get is: “Yes, how I feel is how I feel. It’s normal, natural, and acceptable to feel this way.” From here, it’s easy to believe in our inherent worth: “How I feel is normal and acceptable so I am normal and acceptable.” Even if we want to change how we feel, what we feel is still “okay.” Even if we later choose to evaluate whether or not our feelings stemmed from accurate or inaccurate data, our feelings were true in the moment.

"When we don't try to change our child's experience by denying, minimizing, justifying, or correcting, we're saying 'There's nothing you have to change to be worthy of my love and acceptance." ~Shonnie Lavender

Empathizing with our children is essentially saying: “How you feel is how you feel. It’s normal, natural, and acceptable to feel this way.” When we don’t try to change our child’s experience by denying, minimizing, justifying, or correcting, the bigger message we’re giving is “I accept you as you are. You are loveable as you are. There’s nothing you have to change to be worthy of my love and acceptance.”

How emotional freedom affects our families

While it may seem “new agey” to some, being able to fully feel and appropriately express our emotions, can have a significant positive impact on our families. Here are several reasons why.

  • Our children learn primarily through our example. Let’s say, for instance, that we want our daughter to grow into a woman who will choose to be in relationships where she’s treated with respect. There is value in her ability to constructively express anger to her future intimate partners when they treat her unlovingly, dishonestly, or disrespectfully. If you, as her mother, are uncomfortable with expressing your own anger, part of the message you send is that she too should not express her anger to anyone.
  • Emotional discomfort leads to unhealthy emotional expression. When we suppress certain emotions, they’re still in us. For example, if a dad grew up hiding his sensitivity (for fear of being “unmasculine”), his daughter may feel a distance from him since he doesn’t easily show how moved and evoked he is by her presence.
  • Emotional freedom helps us know each other authentically. When we’re comfortable expressing our truth and experience, we’re seen as we are, not merely as the person we think others want us to be. While it can be challenging to be with our angry child or sad spouse, we learn about who they are in these moments and can be more supportive to them by using what we learn. For instance, if our son allows us to see his nervousness before athletic competitions (versus hiding it because he’s “supposed” to be confident), we can brainstorm relaxation techniques he can use immediately before his games.
  • Being real fosters our connection and helps us live in a mutually-respectful way. When we “see” and “get” each other, we’re more likely to recognize our interconnectedness. In this state, we often find ways to work together and create results that are equally satisfying for all. For instance, when I can express my frustration with my daughter’s behavior in a non-judgmental manner, it’s easier for her to see her impact and, perhaps, to choose to behave differently.

By responding to our children with empathy, we foster the development of their emotional intelligence, acknowledge the validity of their feelings, and communicate that they are loved and accepted exactly as they are. I think that most parents desire these results, so the first real challenge is to identify what gets in our way of being more empathetic parents. Find out in post two of this series!

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Also in The empathetic family

This series focuses on the whys and hows of using empathy in our families.

  1. Empathy — the “vitamin” for emotionally healthy families
  2. Empathy at home – Easier said than done
  3. How we can become more empathetic

View the entire series

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