Empathy or Avoidance...Which Do You Choose?
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. I've gained an even deeper understanding of what true empathy really is (and how it's very different than sympathy) from Brené Brown's insightful video. I highly recommend you watch is NOW - it's only a few minutes long (you'll be glad you did)!
Did you catch that…there are four parts to true empathy:
- Perspective Taking (this can be a full time job within stepfamily dynamics!)
- Staying out of Judgement
- Recognizing Emotion in Other People
- Communicating on an Emotional Level
There's no doubt about it - the ability to respond with empathy is a relational skill that's very valuable. Especially within the complexities of stepfamily life. In many of our blog posts and through much of our teaching, Mike and I stress the importance of learning to give empathy to all the members of our stepfamily.
Why is this so important?
It's common for everyone living in the same stepfamily to have very different perspectives. Understanding the perspectives of our family members can increase our ability to connect with one another. Empathy is the key to understanding and it drives connection! It's actually pretty amazing - an empathetic response to stressful situations can ease conflict and create more peace in our homes.
Early on in our stepfamily journey I'd bought into the belief that kids are "emotionally sturdy" and able to easily bounce back from loss and other painful emotions (by the way…this isn't true for most kids). Children living in stepfamily dynamics often experience troubling emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, guardedness and resentment. Back then, I didn't really know how to give empathy and emotionally support my daughter. Instead, I often used distraction and tried to paint a "silver lining" around her struggles. For more about "Emotional Coaching", click here.
According to Dr. Dan Siegel: "Empathy is important when helping kids process their feelings. Helping children "feel felt" by resonating with their feelings and understanding the story from the child's point of view".
Step-family couples need empathy for each other too. Mike and I had many disagreements over the years, fueled by challenging stepfamily dynamics. When I think back to the times we were able to empathize with each other, our issues were much easier to resolve. Giving empathy also helped us to avoid turning our misunderstandings into stressful conflicts.
But, empathy didn't always come easy for us and I'm pretty sure we're not alone. There can be some hidden challenges that steer us away from responding to each other with true empathy.
What Makes True Empathy So Challenging?
As Brené Brown's video illustrates, empathy is a vulnerable choice. To truly give an empathetic response, we must tap into something inside us that connects with their struggle…and their pain. No one likes pain! In fact, most of us dodge pain at all costs…that's why it can be natural for us to respond with avoidance, rather than empathy when someone we care about is hurting.
Every step-family is formed out of loss. Either through death or some kind of separation. Parents may feel responsible or guilty when they hear their kids expressing sadness or loss. It's hard to see someone you love, especially your child, in pain. Listening to your children's struggles around the nuisances of step-family life (or any struggle) can be difficult. Since these triggered emotions create an uncomfortable experience, parents may tend to shy away from the deeper connection and the vulnerability it takes to extend true empathy.
There may be other barriers to extending true empathy - it isn't always easy to go there! Living in the tension of step-family challenges can be…well, challenging! I love what Brené Brown stated: "The truth is, rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection". Empathy is about making real connections…isn't this something we all want more of in our stepfamily journey!
QUESTION: What opportunities do you have to extend empathy to every member of your stepfamily? Leave a comment below…