We like to think as mothers that we have it in spades. We are the ones picking our little ones up off the ground after they fall. We are the ones who feel that body stretch in stiffness during a tantrum due to tiredness. We feel their pain keenly when they come home from school and tell you that nobody would play with them. And we are the ones whose own heart aches when they tell us “that he doesn’t want to go out with me anymore.” We understand their pain because their pain is our pain.
But why is it we are so quick to dismiss the pain of others in our general community? When Tent City was in full effect last summer how many of us wondered “why can’t they just get a job?” And before many of us were mothers and lived with toddlers how many of us thought on an airplane, “Why can’t they just do something to control their child?”. Is it because we don’t know them personally that we allow ourselves to mock and judge someone? Or is it because we remove ourselves from the pain of others? Either physically by being at home on our couches holding our devices? Or is it because we only have so much empathy to give?
“Use every part of your body to read what their body is saying to you. Often empathy is reached when we truly put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.”
I like to think that empathy is a skill. This is what I teach my own three children. It is something that we can learn to master. Not something we are born with. We have to work at it the same way we have to work at becoming really good at kicking a soccer ball or doing well in math at school. Empathy is something we can all strive to do well.
Below are some tips for working on empathy that help make interactions with people, even in moments when there is no conflict, easier and gentler. I’m not an expert, nor do I have any training in this, these are only my own observations.
As I always tell my children try and interact with people with your whole self. If you are talking with someone, buying a coffee from someone, or whatever it is involve all of yourself. Use your eyes to see how they are looking at you. Put down the phone. Notice if they have been crying or if they seem happy. Use your ears to listen to what they are saying. Don’t just anticipate what you think they may say. Use every part of your body to read what their body is saying to you. Often empathy is reached when we truly put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.
Online being present can be more than just a sad face emoji when a faraway friend posts something vague. I have a friend who lives in Bucharest. We used to live within a bus ride of each other and used to spend many mornings sitting and having coffee and chatting while our children scrambled around us. I miss her dearly and our friendship has become cheerful comments on each other’s Facebook posts. Her father passed away recently and I knew I couldn’t be there in person to comfort her so I let her know I was present for her anyway. A direct message when a phone call was not possible. And I know that I will continue to be present for her and check in to see how she is doing.
Ask The Right Questions:
Secondly, ask meaningful questions. Let’s say you know your friend’s mother is undergoing cancer treatment. This can be a stressful and sad time in anyone’s life. Instead of a throwaway “how are you guys doing?” ask instead “how can I help you today?” Does your friend need her kids picked up after school so she can take her mom to an appointment? Does your friend need dinner cooked for her tonight so she can have one less thing to worry about? For kids asking meaningful questions can really just be the fact that they ask the question. My advice to my older kids is to always ask “tell me about what is going on.”
Online asking meaningful questions can be crucial to expressing empathy even to strangers. For example; in an online group there is a post about someone who felt they were treated rudely by another person in a public place. The attitudes of those responding are split. Some are supportive of the poster, but others chime in with their own interpretation of what they think happened. This can quickly devolve into a snark session. But asking meaningful questions can bring the empathy back into the post. Ask the poster “how are you feeling about this now?” sometimes the act of just posting can have the desired effect. Acknowledging their feelings, their need to vent can help calm frayed nerves, even online. This can be achieved through asking the right questions.
And finally I teach my kids and try myself to act in a significant way. Actions can often speak louder than words. This is true when it comes to empathy too. We can’t always take away someone’s pain, or understand it completely, but we can take some of the pressure off of them too. If I see a mom in a store with a tantruming toddler I’ll be the one asking her if she needs a hand. If my kids see a kid at school who is upset during class they know to ask the kid if they need help with their work. It may be harder to act significantly when we are witnessing something online but even there actions can speak louder than words.
And those actions can be our own reaction. If we see something online that angers us, makes us quick to judgment we need to take a moment and react with our whole selves. That means asking ourselves “why is this person saying this?” Then we can ask meaningful questions of ourselves. “Are they going through something right now that we don’t know about?” “Is this person’s anger a reaction to something I don’t know about?” And then we can act in a significant way: instead of a glib comment on a Facebook post try and engage your friend in person. Or if you are unable to act in a significant way over the phone, or email, or messenger. Touch base and remind yourself that behind those comments is someone who has thoughts and feelings just as valid as your own.
As mothers we open our hearts so much to our own children and all it takes is a little practice and skill to open our hearts so much more. Taking the time to work on empathy is a small way to add a little brightness to the world.