It’s not a punctuation error, putting a question mark in that title. It really is a question I have. Can you teach empathy? I’ve done a fair amount of reading lately about empathy, as it is a pretty central concept for successful counseling relationships and every text-book I read treats empathic tendencies as if they’re something we bring the table as part of who we are. As if being empathic is ingrained. So, my question is, are you born this way or can you learn?
I am old enough now to embrace parts of me that I think are good and admit them without worry of judgement for being pompous or haughty. (It took close to forty years, but I have finally realized liking yourself is not a crime against others.) One thing I am proud of is my empathic nature. I want to be clear that when I use this word I don’t mean sympathy. My tendency is not a simple, “aw too bad” one. What I do, and always have done is readily put myself in someone else’s shoes. Ask The Husband, I believe he’d tell you it is the thing he loves and hates about me most. Not only does this make arguments difficult as I try to see ALL sides but through our life together I have turned him into an over-tipper with the detailed stories about the server’s life that I spin while he calculates his 15, no 20, no 25% tip.
This can be a difficult characteristic for others and myself. I’ve especially had to learn to navigate my emotions in our new world of 24 hour sensational news coverage that blasts us with increasing violence and despair. However, no matter the potential sadness, I think this quality makes me a good friend and pretty good at my job as coach and future job as counselor.
When I had kids and started to question how to pass on this trait, I had to first discover where it came from in me. I still haven’t figured out the answer exactly but I know one thing that opened my eyes to the world was my love of reading. Strange, right? Let me explain. I was often a lonely kid, so my books became my friends. I devoured stories and non-fiction rapidly and with my whole self. Even as an adult I have been known to disappear into books for days on end and deeply miss the characters when they are gone.
All that reading, about all those different types of people and events, opened my often little world to the idea that there are people far away and even next door who lead very different lives, and it isn’t always easy to see a person’s troubles on their face. I am not sure why, but this stuck and it shaped who I am as an adult.
So what do I do with my kids? I want them to know they are great but that they also have great responsibility. I want them to know they can think highly of themselves without looking down on others. I want my kids to carry the same burning desire I have to truly know other people and then do all they can to make the world better for all of us.
This means I won’t hide them from the world. We’ll watch movies and read books and have conversations, together, that lend themselves to viewing themselves in the global landscape. I don’t want to scare them, or inspire guilt for all that they have. I just want to them to know there is a great big world out there and we’re all just people trying to get by in it, even if that looks different everywhere they turn.
This post was inspired by the novel Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. Ladydi grew up in rural Mexico, where being a girl is a dangerous thing. She and other girls were “made ugly” to protect them from drug traffickers and criminal groups. This is a tough but compelling read and should be on anyone’s “empathy booklist”. .
P.S. Looking for more parenting guidance and tips for self-care? Check out From Chaos to Calm a guided training to help you feel better in this tough season.