Empathy and Compassion

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Empathy and Compassion: Our children will learn it from us. They will learn it from how we feel it, show it, and do it. 
And doing compassion is sitting with the inability to really DO anything at all. We don’t just do something – we sit there.
We listen, we remain present, we empathize.

We teach it from the beginning of life to the bittersweet end of it. Without autonomy and boundaries the learning for both parent and child will be limited.

With the learned skills of empathy and an intellectual understanding of sympathy, we can pass along the ability to realize the depths of compassion.  

In all three, empathy, sympathy and compassion, one person becomes a witness to another’s personal experience of their own feelings and emotions. Yet compassion has an added element of complexity. First we empathetically sense what another person is feeling. We then might sympathize with their pain or suffering and compassion carries a desire to relieve those uncomfortable feelings for the other person.

Often, perhaps mostly, the desire is left unrealized and unfulfilled. We can’t relieve it at all. We can only sit near and say, “Yes. I know. I too have felt suffering and pain. I have been afraid. I have been angry. I have felt like you do now.” To usher our children through the complex and sometimes painful emotional landscape of life, we will be their best guide if we can lead and sometimes follow with empathy and compassion. This will serve them throughout life in dealing with the inevitable and bigger losses.

A mother’s final lesson in compassion: loss and grief

My mother died right before Christmas – 12/17/17.  We had 55 years of learned empathy skills and compassionate discovery together. We started with no boundaries and learned them along the way. It was messy and imperfect. We achieved good enough.

Nothing can relieve this loss now. Only the impossible could relieve my pain – bring her back. However, the incredible compassion I receive from some of my co-hearts, as fellow humans who have also experienced loss and grief, that helps. The mirror of their knowing does soothe me immensely. Another gift we give our children is showing them how to receive compassion. Being able to receive compassion will serve them greatly. 

In the weeks leading up to mom’s death I sat with her. Fortunately she was not suffering or in pain. But unfortunately there are natural feelings of fear and anxiety as one consciously, albeit willingly, faces and waits for their own death. Since I know what anxiety feels like I could have compassion for her. Since she did not want anti anxiety meds I could not relieve it for her. And since I have no idea what it feels like to die, I was limited in my ability to empathize and have compassion for her experience. I could only do the best I could and accept my own limitations. At times I had to accept my own anxiety. 

At first she could talk to me and tell me what was going on. At that point she had a bit of humor left in her. Then that ability left her. In the final days, before she entered into the comatose sleep of renal failure, she could only look into my eyes. And I could only look back with my hand on her arm and hold that gaze. And since she had been clear she was ready and wanted to go, I struggled with the support of letting go as well, of giving her a loving, non-reactive space in which she could leave us. I struggled with my autonomy and what would ultimately end in our most separate moment. I struggled with my boundaries and letting her death be about her. And in doing so, just doing good enough, these last hours of life with her held our most intimate moments.

Compassion Must-haves: Autonomy+Boundaries = Intimacy

As the beautiful Ms. Brown says below “...empathy is infinite if we have boundaries.” Boundaries can only come forth from a person who is autonomous. As mothers we give the gift of autonomy to our children. We let go incrementally and support the child in their natural, developmental move, toward a state of wholeness and freedom. From this place of growing autonomy children learn that they can possess inner security and wholeness. They can be separate from us AND feel safe. They slowly, over time, learn the experience of freedom from outer control and influence. And over a lifetime this is essential for building the authentic self.

Without autonomy we are unable to set boundaries. Without boundaries we are compromised in our ability to be vulnerable. Without vulnerability we won’t experience the fullness of healthy intimacy. If we want our children to like us all the time we will have greater difficulty in setting boundaries. If we don’t want our children to experience the loss they will feel when we set a limit, then boundaries will be difficult for us to uphold.

In the following video I like the way Brene Brown distinguishes empathy from compassion. Empathy is a teachable skill set and our children will learn it from us. “Empathy is not feeling for someone. Empathy is feeling with them.” Can we feel with our children without taking on their feelings? The answer is yes – if we can be autonomous and have our own boundaries. Our children will leave our homes at whatever level of autonomy and individuation WE reached. Fortunately growth and development are ongoing and continuous.

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