A Very Important Ingredient for Emotional Health (from Babyhood to Adulthood)

So there’s something that is said to be one of the most important ingredients to helping babies –and children–develop into emotionally healthy adults.

It is something that truly helps every teen and adult become everything they are meant to be as well.

What is it?

In the book Brain Rules for Babies, Dr. John Medina (a developmental molecular biologist) writes that one of the most important aspects of helping babies and children develop into emotionally-healthy adults is to show empathy towards them often.

Who would have thought?

But What is Empathy?

Brené Brown, a research professor and public speaker who highly values empathy,  defined it as “the ability to take the perspective of another person …[while] staying out of judgement… and then communicating that.

Empathy is feeling with people…” 

Brené went on to say that, “Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

She also said that, “empathy drives connection”, while “sympathy drives disconnection”.

(You can watch a short animated video while Brené Brown speaks about empathy here.)

So empathy is essentially the choice to feel with someone.

Maybe the importance of empathy for raising healthy children shouldn’t surprise us.  Could empathy be part of the meaning of the golden rule: to love your neighbour as yourself?

I’m sure empathy is also what is meant when it says in Romans,  When others are happy, you should be happy with them. And when others are sad, you should be sad too”(Rom. 12:15 ERV).

What Empathy Might Look Like

So empathy refrains from judgement but also doesn’t sympathize.

In the case of a child, that could mean not labeling her (out loud or in your head) as “bad” just because she’s being disobedient at the moment.

It would probably instead involve trying to understand the reason why the disobedience is happening, trying to see it from the perspective of the child and feel the emotion with her– and then to show that emotion– but not necessarily give in to what the child wants.

For example, you could say with genuine compassion, “I know this is hard that you can’t have that chocolate bar. You like chocolate bars! But it’s almost supper time and you’ve already had a cookie today.  Let’s go read a book instead.”

Sympathy, on the other hand, might feel super-sorry for the child, communicating that you don’t feel like she can handle life without the chocolate bar (and that you can’t handle her screaming–I get it!) and perhaps give in to what she wants.

Judgement would decide that her feelings are irrational and not worth your time, and you would send her own her a way with a harsh word.

How It Feels To Not Receive  Empathy

You may be able to remember many incidents when you tried to explain your feelings to someone, but in an effort to help, they brushed them off and tried to be objective with you instead.

You might have known in your head that they were right (or maybe that they weren’t), but because they didn’t come to your level and feel your emotions with you, you internally rejected their advice and felt like they just didn’t understand.

That’s why we need to empathize.

When people know we are feeling their emotions with them, they are much more likely to share more with us.

We are safe people to share thoughts and emotions with.

God Shows Empathy?

I believe one of the reasons that that God came to earth as a human (as I believe He did in Jesus) is because we would probably never have believed that He really loved us if he didn’t come and experience similar pain and sadness and even death.

I believe God had (and has) great empathy with us, and He wanted to prove it by coming to our level and letting us see Him experiencing similar emotions and loving us in ours.

Empathy Leads To Growth

The neat thing about empathy is that when we show it to people, (rather than being quick to give advice) it often eventually gives people the strength to become optimistic about their own lives and begin to take steps out of their misery.

But if we don’t show empathy and just give advice– or essentially tell them to dust themselves off– we pretty much leave them in their pain.

So quick, practical advice often actually has the opposite effect than we were intending.

I, too, have to continue to work on holding back on advice more often and just feeling with someone (and perhaps asking what they think they can do rather than giving answers).

Empathy Leads to Action

Another wonderful thing about empathy (putting ourselves in another person’s shoes) is that it often motivates us to do something to help.

For example, when we watch the news and think about how it would feel to be a refugee fleeing from her homeland, it can motivate us to find ways to help that we otherwise would not have thought of.

For example, we might remember to actually spend time praying for her and that might lead to other hands-on efforts, such as helping sponsor a refugee to live in our country.

So empathy–feeling with others–also  leads to action, which together truly is loving our neighbours as ourselves.

How can you begin to show more empathy to those around you?

I can relate to the fact that it can be easier to empathize with certain people than with others.

We also can’t empathize with absolutely everyone and everything–that’s God’s role– but we can make great progress in this.

Let’s decide to show more empathy with our family members, acquaintances and friends, and even strangers near and far.

Others will likely feel a big difference and make progress in their lives because of it, too.

What are your thoughts on empathy?  I’d love to see them in the comments below.

(PS. Want to join us this February in setting goals for connecting better with family and friends? Read about and sign up for the free “Loving My Actual Life” Monthly Challenges here! )

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