Last year, my daughter Ellie, had her wisdom teeth out. It was horrible. It is a painful and unpleasant procedure and, to make matters worse, Ellie has a needle phobia. Ellie felt terrified but she hid it well and looked completely calm. This meant that I looked like a crazy, over-anxious mother insisting that my daughter wasn’t coping whilst Ellie appeared to be fine.
My worry for Ellie, combined with the difficulty in getting her the help she needed, was just horrible.
After the operation Ellie had a lot of pain and vomiting. I felt so bad for her. It was so distressing to see her in such discomfort.
Even now, when we talk about the operation, I have a tendency to get upset and hijack the conversation – suddenly I am going on about how I found the whole thing awful.
When my loved ones are in pain, I feel it so acutely that I struggle to be present and helpful. This is because I lack some key empathy skills.
Louise McHugh recently taught me that there are three aspects to empathy:
1. Perspective taking – Imagining how I would feel if I were you. Or, even better, if I was you, with your history and temperament and circumstances, how would I feel?
2. Being open to feel the painful emotions provoked by taking the other person’s perspective.
3. Handling those painful emotions effectively so as not to get so swamped and distressed that you can’t focus on supporting the other person. Strategies for handling painful emotions include mindfulness (getting present with your five senses; holding your pain with compassionate awareness) and connection to that still part of yourself that observes what is happening without being caught up in it.
If I am to become more empathic I need to work on the third aspect of empathy. When the feelings swamp me, I need to remember to breathe and get present. I need to connect to the part of me that can observe and transcend pain and difficulty. When a precious human being needs my help and support; I want to become better at giving them what they need.
How empathic are you? What gets in the way of empathy for you?