For a good portion of my life, empathy wasn’t something that I really understood. It wasn’t until about 5 or 6 years ago that I fully came to understand it and its impact on our lives. I was sitting in a large conference arena at SXSW (South by Southwest) in Austin about to listen to a woman named Brené Brown. By the time I left that room, a new understanding and value level came to me around empathy.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.*
In the workplace, finding the right balance of empathy to manage people while at the same time producing work is a complicated thing. Something that some people do very well, and others, not so well. In life, finding the right balance of empathy is about respecting your own mental health as well as that of others. Enter — my daughter.
When she was younger, we would always observe ‘how in the drama’ she got caught up. She always seemed to be as equally offended as others were when something happened to them. The first time she got in trouble at school was in eighth grade because a teacher was extremely disrespectful to another student, and our daughter stood up for them. At the time, we were proud of her for standing up and voicing her concern; but we didn’t recognize that the events in an uncommon way emotionally and mentally impacted her.
As she got older, she started spending more and more time with others her age who always seemed to be experiencing suffering — abusive homes, eating disorders, bullying. Again, for the longest time, I failed to realize what the connection was but would regularly see shifts in her mood. The more time she spent with those suffering, the more she suffered herself. She was sad and depressed and heartbroken more often than not.
As my understanding of empathy grew, I realized that she was not only someone who would put herself in others' shoes but also others' emotions. Their emotions became her emotions—such a beautiful yet dangerous thing.
As we’ve grown together — my daughter and me — I’ve been able to help her more than I used to be able to. Early in my parenting, I would tell her to ‘walk away from the drama,’ but what I’ve learned is that helping her realize when she’s ‘too connected’ and how it impacts her mental health is so much more effective and important.
In her younger years, my instruction to her was, unintentionally, to set her up to ignore others' problems and walk away from challenges that were not her own. My instruction to her now is never to walk away, to help where she can, but at the same time to step away often enough to reset her own self and breathe. To understand that her empathy is a gift, but also if she doesn’t monitor herself, it can become consuming.
As with so many other things, I wish my understanding of her had come earlier, but now that it is here and as she grows into a young adult, I’m grateful that I can mentor her with more clarity and support than before. There were a few things that, early on in this state of realization, we started to look for:
- What was her mood like, and who was she spending time with? Instead of just allowing ourselves to be frustrated with her mood swings, we really started to pay attention to what was going on around her so that we could counsel her in the right ways. Sometimes, it really was just a mood swing; sometimes, we had to take her out of situations she couldn’t take herself out of.
- What kind of music was she listening to? Music runs deep in our family; it speaks to us all in different ways. Based on the kind of music she was listening to, we could pinpoint how she felt. In some cases, we would find that the music she was listening to was only compounding the emotional challenges she was facing — meaning that sad music made her sadder. In these cases, we were able to point out what she was listening to and help her find other things to hear to try and lift her out of where she was.
- How introverted was she being? Our daughter can be very introverted or extroverted, depending on the day. The days she would shut herself in sometimes just meant she needed a day to reflect and reset. Other times, when there were multiple days in a row where she was hiding from everyone, it became an indication she was deep into something that she might need help getting perspective on.
Please note that many of these kinds of behaviors can also be signs of true depression, something that we also struggled with as a family. However, there is one thing that we always did — talk about it. We opened the door for her to talk to us about what was going on so that, in some cases, she could share some of the pain she was feeling for others and give herself the perspective she needed. We stopped assuming it was just teenage drama or hormones. Sometimes she told us she just wanted a quiet day; sometimes, she told us she was sad for no apparent reason. No matter how the conversation ended, though, she was able to push herself forward and take whatever step she needed to at the time. Now, as a young adult, the things we would look for as her parents have become things she now monitors proactively to keep herself on track.
Raising a highly empathetic child is a challenge. To have a daughter with a heart as huge as hers is, while at the same time having to help her lift her head sometimes to get fresh air and perspective, can make us feel like we’re always walking on a tightrope. Honestly, it is a tightrope I’m happy to walk on if it means it will make her stronger and a good human; we have to be there as her parents to help her through. As parents of other children, be mindful that what you’re child is experiencing might be high empathy and that in time it will make them great, but now they might need a little more help learning the balance.