Day 326 Radical Empathy

I’m sorry.

Such a powerful phrase…except lately, in relation to my children, hearing it has been making me feel…

Panic.

Let me backtrack.

I believe in the power of a heartfelt apology. It can be healing both for the person receiving it and for the person offering it.

It can also be hollow…we all know that.

At the preschool where I work, we never force the children to apologize. We model a compassionate response. We model sincerity and empathy, but we don’t force the children to say something they aren’t feeling. We are of the opinion that this does not bring forth authentic caring. Sometimes it can even teach children that they can do whatever they want, as long as they offer that magic phrase….even if the words are called out over their shoulder as they run off to greener pastures.

If a child hurts another child, the teacher will say (in the presence of the “doer”) –

“I am so sorry you got hurt. How can we help?”

Sometimes just acknowledging the hurt makes a child brighten. Other times the teacher may have the child who did the hurting go retrieve an ice pack or a band-aid for their friend. The child may even spontaneously offer a hug.

We find this approach to be much more effective in teaching true compassion. Eventually, children learn to say they are sorry on their own…and they mean it.

I employ this technique in my own home, too.

I have found that when given the time to cool down, my girls come around to apologizing on their own. I am also cognizant of offering my own apologies when warranted. Sometimes I eff up, you guys. (I know, it’s shocking). I want my girls to see that I know I am not infallible. I apologize for using an unnecessarily harsh tone, or for saying something insensitive, or for forgetting something important…and I mean it.

I want them to know that there is no shame in an authentic apology. In fact, it can be an act of bravery, humility, and integrity.

img_6190Back to where I’ve been triggered as of late.

One of my children has been a bit more…moody lately. {Sweetheart, if you’re ever reading this, please know that I totally get it. No judgement.}

She has been a bit surly, and not always for a particular reason, except…adolescence. She has been holding onto hurts longer, and taking out anger she is feeling toward one person or event, on the world as a whole…or at least “the world” that is our home. Sometimes she has no idea why she’s mad/sad (she has literally said – I don’t know why I feel this way right now).

Sometimes, she is radiant…but other times…when she gets stuck in this place…well, it’s like a dark cloud settles over the house.

For an empathetic person, this cloud is hard to be under. It can be intense. Her sister becomes heavily weighed upon by these sister-storms. What happens then is, she says,

“I’m sorry.”

What’s wrong with that, you may ask.

It is this…

She takes responsibility for her sister’s feelings. She blames herself, even though she doesn’t know why. Even though she didn’t do anything wrong, she feels responsible.

Therein lies the trigger. 

Hearing her apologize for someone else’s feelings, mood, behavior, demeanor…

Making it her fault. 

Hearing my daughter do this is KILLING. ME.

It’s a special kind of hell seeing your children adopt behaviors of yours which make you feel ashamed.

I know for me this blame-taking via I’m sorry is something I have struggled with my whole life, especially during the unhappy years of my marriage. I recognize it now as part extreme sensitivity to negative emotions, and part (Ahem…a BIG part) insecurity… 

 

I am NOT ENOUGH to keep this from happening.

Wait – is that insecurity, or is it…ARROGANCE?

As the kids say, “Oh, SNAP.”

(They probably don’t say that anymore, but whatever.)

Why is it so hard for us to allow others to sit in their own…stuff? Why do we internalize other people’s feelings? Why do we make it a reflection on us…on our possible shortcomings as sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, friends, lovers…humans?

So the next time it happened – this blame-taking via I’m sorry on the part of my daughter – I asked her,

Why are you sorry?”

 

“I don’t know,” she said, “I just feel bad that she seems really mad and I don’t know why. I feel like I must have done something wrong.”

Mmmhmmm.

What is equally fascinating to me is that this unfounded apologizing makes her sister – the one “in the mood” – so irritated. She yells,“You don’t even know what you are apologizing for!”

Isn’t that interesting? She isn’t even looking for someone to blame.

Let me be clear. I want my children to be compassionate. I like that my daughter notices when her sister is having a bad day/hour/moment. The question is, how can I teach her to be empathetic without taking responsibility for her sister’s feelings?

I think it would be perfectly sincere for her to say she’s sorry that her sister is hurting. Like the preschool teacher who is sorry a child got hurt (even though it wasn’t the teacher’s fault). After all, not being to blame doesn’t make her less capable of compassion about the pain. She could also ask, just in case…whether she has done something to upset her sister…but also be prepared to accept NO for an answer.

Whoa – to have empathy without making it about us. 

Radical, I tell you.

Radical empathy.

 

 

 

 

Day 270/365 I’m Sorry, and also…I Love You

She was distraught….and also incredulous.

“I apologized with all of my heart, and she just said, ‘kay.

Tell her she has to say she’s sorry, too.

That’s how it works.”

Is it?

We have all felt the disrespect of a hollow apology.

Starting when we were very little and hurt by another child, we may have heard our first toneless and disconnected, “Sorry!”

Some are taught early that this word fixes all, and they never care to learn the truth.

Sorry!

Even when they haven’t sought to understand how their words or actions have effected another.

Sorry!

Even when they don’t even know what they’ve done.

Sorry!

Even when they don’t care.

Sorry!

Therein lay the problem with apologizing by rote.

It is meaningless.

“Do you want her to apologize because she has to?” I asked. “If you insist on an apology now, she won’t mean it. Wouldn’t you rather wait until it comes from her heart, too?”

I refuse to force my children to say words that mean nothing without heart…especially –

I’m sorry,

and also…

I love you.

These are important words.

I want them to say these words because they feel them in their bones…

Not because they are what someone else needs to hear.

Not because they have to say them.

Not to get themselves off the hook, temporarily.

I’m sorry,

and also…

I love you.

I want them to say these words because they want someone to know

how they really feel.