Everybody touts the benefits of mastering the art of empathy. Feel your feels! It’s true, this is crucial. Empathy creates compassion, which fuels activism. It creates a fighter for the bullied, the oppressed, and the underrepresented. It builds a barrier against callousness. It’s the perfect vaccine against jadedness and cynicism.
Hence, every parent wants to be an Atticus educating a Scout. We want them to walk in another person’s shoes for a little bit to gain some perspective.
But my daughter cried for three days when the circus clowns pushed Dumbo off the high dive. Three days. “Why did they push him, Mama? Why was everybody laughing? Didn’t they notice he was crying? Didn’t they care that he was scared?” Then she asked to watch it again, a sucker for punishment. She wanted to see all the bullying clichés on repeat. She cried every time, as did I. The apple does not fall far from its weepy mother.
She’s also developed the habit of grabbing my face, staring into my eyes in a sweet-verging-on-creepy way, and asking, “Are you happy now? Sad now? Mad now?” Whatever the answer, I see it reflected back from her, like she got struck by the lighting of my emotions. She sucks it in and suddenly she’s overwhelmed too by the fact that the Keurig died a sudden death or that there’s dog hair all over the couch again. She feels it all, man.
As great as empathy can be, sometimes you need to turn down the volume on the emotive remote, but how do I teach my kid to be a little less empathetic without toughening her too much? Like Goldilocks, what state is “just right” in the softening of a heart without it bleeding out or turning to stone? New York Magazine would argue that there is a way to achieve balance between empathy and sympathy and it’s not as tricky as you might think.
You can, in fact, counteract that emotional heartburn and help them so they don’t “spend their days feeling overwhelmed, hurt, and heavyhearted” by other people’s problems. You just have to teach them to convert some of that empathy to sympathy. Practice, as the researchers put it, “IOPT” (imagine-other-perspective-taking) instead of “ISPT” (imagine-self-perspective-taking). In other words, show them how to envision themselves in that other person’s shoes, but stop just short of strapping those shoes on. They can feel for them, but they need not become them.
Spend time instead “focusing on what the other person is going through without inserting [y]our hypothetical sel[f] into the same situation.” This can create just enough separation to keep the self from crumbling. I believe that this is good practice for adults as well as kids. If you too can’t leave the house without Kleenex or refuse to add anything from the “drama” category to your Netflix queue because you’re not sure your heart can take it, this might be the healthy step back you need.
So the next time we watch “Dumbo” in our house (because there’s always a next time) we will practice feeling sad for that baby elephant without actually becoming the baby elephant. Maybe we don’t need to be standing on that high dive with him just now. Instead we can talk about what someone else could have done to help the poor guy out, perhaps given him a ladder, or his mother, or a free ticket out of the circus circuit. In that way, my daughter can become a fighter and not just a crier. She can cry too, of course, but I want her to be able to advocate with her feels rather than be buried under them. That’s the goal anyway. From one empath to another.