She wants advice about how to reach her troubled-but-defensive son.

‘What if I say X?” she asks.  “Would that work?  Or what if I say Y?”

And each time I ask, “What happened last time you tried that approach?”

Her replies vary, but amount to the same thing.  “He ignored me,” she says, or “He shut down,” or “He got angry.”

We go round and round on this until she sees the real problem:

Lack of empathy.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of and sensitive to another person’s feelings.  It means being able to answer the question How would I feel if I were you? 

An essential relationship skill, it has roots deep in a skill essential to self-care:

Sensitivity to our own feelings.

Think about it.   If you don’t know how (or were never permitted) to treat your own feelings with sensitivity and respect, how can you treat the feelings of others any better?

And if you try anyway (as this mom was), at best you’re faking it.  You’re guessing.

So learning empathy always starts with the homework of learning to listen to yourself.

You can’t give away what you don’t have.

4 responses to “Empathy

  • Lisa

    I think this is my new favorite of all your posts. Empathy is a buzzword that is tossed around a lot these days, but few people get it.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Yes. And it’s often confused with projection. Codependents, for example, are famous for thinking they’re being empathic (or sensitive, or caring, or compassionate) when they’re actually just projecting their brains out.

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