This year, we saw a strange phenomenon unfold where some of us saw more of our families than ever before as we were locked up together, and others were severely separated from them for long periods of time. In many cases, segregation is still far from over.
Everyone has experienced this year differently and it is in our shared understanding of this that we gain our strength and patience to find new relationships and boundaries with those we hold most dear. The ability to tune in to the realities of our families will continue to be the key to harmony as we continue to roam uncharted territory and move into the winter season ahead.
Empathy is a natural ability
Often mistaken for a skill we were more or less born with, empathy is a natural ability we all possess that connects us with those around us, allowing us to see the world from their perspective. At its core, empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to the reality, emotions or pain of others. It’s the ability to put yourself in their shoes, understand their context and see things as they do. Physically feeling grief when watching a terribly sad story on the news or laughing with others are examples of our most natural, biologically imperative empathic response. For some it comes more naturally or faster, but we are all born with the ability to empathize.
Natural reactions of young children and toddlers
Have you ever cried in front of a small child or toddler? It is quite natural for them to react immediately by feeling sad themselves.
Their faces soften, their mouths droop, and their eyes fill with worry as they immediately ask, “Are you feeling sad?” In the case of my daughter, who is three, she will immediately jump into action to try to make me laugh and smile, and then hurry up to ask, “Are you happy again now, Mom?”
Partly, of course, this is due to the care she has for me as a mom, but beyond that you can also see her whole body light up when I say ‘yes’. The heaviness of her empathy for me when I looked sad made her sad too. Even though she really wanted me to feel happy in myself, she also wanted her own sadness to go away so she could start playing with her toys again and laughing like a wild thing.
Putting myself in my shoes is natural for her because empathy is natural for all of us. The reality, however, is that not all of us choose to activate it so often and the choice to ignore our empathetic engagement is the root of so much disagreement, conflict and separation within our family units.
Navigate in the coming months
As we continue to navigate in the months to come, it will be our ability to make deep connections with those closest to us that will allow us to gain strength and unity. Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human and it is a skill that we have evolved to use with the units in which we live; both for individual success and growth but also for our success as a group, as a family. As humans, our greatest need is to be seen and heard by those around us. It makes us happy, we perform better and our immune system works even better.
So how can we improve our empathy at home with those we love?
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3 Habits To Cultivate Higher Levels Of Empathy At Home:
To be present:
Try to make sure that people always feel like they are the only person in the room. When talking to them, be sure to use active listening to elicit a deeper understanding. Phrases like “what I hear you say is…” encourage and engage them, and ensure that you really hear what is being communicated to you.
We are naturally inclined to empathize, but so often we spend our time with our family in a shared physical environment, yet barely connect beyond the topic at hand. Especially if we are busy with chores or long lists and family routines.
This week, actively focus on connecting with the feelings and emotions of those around you at home with a more engaged approach to imagining how they are feeling. Focus on asking questions rather than giving advice, and you will discover a deeper capacity to better understand their reality – especially with teens and toddlers who are the two groups that often lack this understanding.
Remember that the majority of our communication is non-verbal. Be aware of using your body language to foster mutual connection. Lean inward and make sure your body language is open – with your arms not crossed – and your eye contact remains focused. There’s a reason parenting books around the world advise parents to kneel at eye level when explaining “bad” behavior to babies and toddlers. The need to connect through your eyes, facial expression, and body language in a way that makes us feel “seen” and understood and that’s infinitely more effective than pulling yourself away from a standing height.
Empathy is perhaps one of the greatest gifts you can give and receive in your home.
Making empathy a part of your daily family practice and routine might be the secret to reducing stress, better understanding, and a lot less arguments. And let’s be honest, this year more than any other, we would welcome them all with open arms.
Article by Mimi Nicklin.
Mimi Nicklin is an internationally recognized millennial thought leader. She is the host of the Empathy for Breakfast show, the Secrets of The Gap podcast and author of the new book Softening the Edge released on September 15 for £ 10.95.
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