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empathy in action

2014 May 12
by Rachel Turiel

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We are driving home from our Mother’s Day trip to our favorite wild hot springs. We’re happy and exhausted, muscles noodly, hair reeking of earthy minerals. We’re listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits on cassette; Col is trying to decode the meaning behind the song Mrs Robinson, alarmed about this line: Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids. The clouds are low and dark, dropping a springy mountain mix of hail, snow and rain. Rose is moaning about how nothing went right for her today.

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“Nothing, huh?” Dan asks her.

“Nothing,” Rose replies, drawing out this two-syllable word into a sad melody.

We stopped at a super fun park in Dolores on the way home and Rose is mad that we had to leave before she was ready. This disappointment is getting watered by her own tears, sprouting grafted limbs of every other slight of the day.

“And we didn’t get to go to the Absolute Bakery and get a treat and then those other people showed up at the hot springs and I didn’t like that and then I had to leave the park and I never get to go to that park and it’s the funnest park and I didn’t even want to go to those hot springs, I wanted to go to the Pagosa Hot Springs.” (Pronounced: Pagosa Hot Spring-ing-ing-ings”).

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Rose has a specific whine-cry, a precise auditory note designed to pluck the strings of my nervous system like an aggressive and psychotic banjo player. It is a sound so jarring, so deeply disturbing that every cell in my body shrieks: do anything necessary to stop that!

Instead, I breathe.

I let Art Garfunkel’s honey voice fill me and then I wade into Rose’s world, armed with layers of empathy.

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“Oh honey, what a hard day. You could have played at that park for hours. That is the funnest park! And we didn’t even get treats at the bakery. We always stop there. You love their yummy treats.”

Rose’s whine-cry gets louder.

Trust the process. Breathe. Trust the process.

I don’t mention that we left the park because snow was pounding in on a fierce wind, nor that I made her and Col hot chocolate in travel mugs, knowing the bakery would be closed.

Rose dials up the backseat noise. Claws grip my shoulders.

“That was such a bummer to leave that park,” Dan says. “You’re probably bored with all the Durango parks, and that park is so new and exciting. You could have played for hours.”

He doesn’t mention that he spent 30 minutes chasing Rose up and down the castle stairs, through the equipment, her shrieking with delight. We make no promises to go back another time, nor offer solutions to fix the sadness.

Rose continues to bellow.

“You weren’t ready to leave, but the rest of us were. That feels crappy. Did you love that tire swing so much?”

Rose says, through sniffles, “If I lived in Dolores, I’d have my birthday parties there.”

“For sure,” Dan murmurs.

“Absolutely,” I chime in.

I can feel that the soft fingers of empathy are beginning to massage her wounds.

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We empathize with how surprising it was to have others show up at the hot springs, the warm, bubbly pool we’ve always had to ourselves. We acknowledge that she had wanted to go to Pagosa Hot Springs, but had allowed me to choose on Mother’s Day. Another let down.

We don’t mention that she was doing naked springy ecstatic cartwheels in the snow, or that expectations bring suffering, or that these wild hot springs are a great gift that we don’t own or control.

It takes a full half hour for Rose to decelerate out of her disappointment. And even then, it’s a shaky victory, a small jump up the ladder of emotional well-being. For the last half hour of the car ride she and Col play a game in the backseat which brings her alternately to laughter and tears. It is no exaggeration to say I drive that last stretch praying for strength, focusing on my breath, singing along with S & G a little over-enthusiastically, and mustering trust to follow my intuition not to interfere with their game, partially because I am so wrung out, I’m worried that if I open my mouth something ugly will fly out.

After we get home, unpack, shower, and start dinner, Rose flings her small toweled body at Dan and me, and cries, “I love you both so much!”

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That night, I lay in bed with Dan and realize three things I am grateful for:

  1. As much as it took my nervous system a full two hours to shake off the half hour of keening and whining, looking back, I feel great about our day. I have no hangover of regret. There’ve been enough times where I escalate Rose’s sadness by trying to distract her out of it, talk her out of it, or enact some unrelated consequence to get the noise to stop, all of which makes her cry louder, harder and longer. Despite the discomfort of that stretch in the car, I am pleased that I didn’t make it worse. To go to bed free and clear of regret feels wonderful.
  2. As Natalie noted at the recent workshop, Building an Emotionally Safe Space, when one child receives empathy, it calms everyone in the room (or the car). Not only did all the empathy traveling from front seat to back seat help Col relax, it worked like a boomerang. Dan’s empathy for Rose came right back at me like a hug, like encouragement, mobilizing my next launch of compassionate words for Rose.
  3. I no longer believe that kids can be “taught” gratitude, i.e. letting them express their disappointment doesn’t create entitled children who can’t be happy for what they have. We all feel disappointment every day. Denying those feelings buries them deeper; acknowledging them allows them to dissipate. I believe the best way to help kids feel gratitude is to model your own gratitude for this wild, messy, imperfect and beloved world.

xo,

Rachel

ps: hope your Mother’s Day was full of love and all the deep breaths needed.

Related posts:

the chasm
showing up
parenting as a practice


28 Responses leave one →
  1. mollie permalink
    May 12, 2014

    thanks for walking us through how this works in your house

  2. Caraway permalink
    May 12, 2014

    Hi Rache, happy Mothers Day! Glad you all got to go to the hot springs!!
    I also love the illustration of this communication technique. I need to remember to use it more– in all my relationships, not just with my children. So, thank you!!
    Lots of love, caraway

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 12, 2014

      Yes, not just with the children! It feels like a roadmap for all relationships.

  3. Zoe permalink
    May 12, 2014

    Lovely! I don’t read you as much as I used to – I’m sorry! I’ve turned Connor back over to his mom and stepdad, and they now have a brand new baby girl too! So, I’m kinda out of the daily parenting morass… HOWEVER! This is wonderful and beautiful, and I’m immediately linking it over to the daughter person. Compassion and empathy – such powerful tools!
    So glad you had a good day Rachel.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 12, 2014

      Congratulations on the new baby! And on loosening the grandma obligations some.

  4. Molly permalink
    May 12, 2014

    Wow. Feel free to keep writing about this. The reminder is so welcome.

  5. Annie permalink
    May 12, 2014

    This is so right on with what I experience with one of my sons. I know that crazy making tone so well! You did a good job describing what words can’t possibly describe. I was at the workshop, and have really been trying to embrace empathy. I still struggle with the patience to follow through with it, but when I do, it is clearly rewarding, and encourages me to continue trying. Thanks for sharing, it feels really good to know I’m not alone!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 12, 2014

      Annie, it’s a practice, right? A muscle which strengthens with use. Having Dan’s support is more helpful than I could have known. We’re like athletes on the same team, relieving each other when shit heats up. After yesterday’s experience, Dan and I talked about how, strangely, delivering empathy to our kids isn’t second nature (maybe because we weren’t raised that way? Maybe because we’re such a solutions-oriented, feeling-eschewing culture?). I’m hardwired to threaten. I have to stop and make the conscious choice to do something different. Blessings to you.

  6. May 12, 2014

    Rachel — I love the moment by moment way you track these challenging and tender interactions.

    And I’m so pleased (*with* you not *at* you) not only for what you and Dan were able to offer Rose and Col and each other (via the gestalt brain-cooling effect), but also, and in this case perhaps more importantly, what you were able to give to yourself through it. You got to feel your way powerfully through the experience, save yourself from regret, and in (at the very least) a metaphorical way, you got to be there for young-Rachel, who also obviously had experiences like Rose’s but *didn’t* get empathy for it (that, if I’m right, being a major part of why it is such a trigger for you when you see/feel/experience Rose’s upset).

    The other thing is — and this is still maybe too close to condescendingly congratulatory but I feel sincerely happy for you — you succeeded in overriding your self-preserving instincts which drive you toward those sensations of just needing to “stop the sound”, even though your brain was short-circuiting, you (and Dan in tandem helping you [both]) found your way back up into your higher brain, and you gave yourself the power to choose something that in the end you felt way better about than the primitive satisfaction that would have been accessible if you’d succumbed to your instinctual reaction(s). You empowered your higher brain! And overcame your previous programming! AND established new/stronger neural pathways to make it easier for you to do in the future! Woohoooooooo!

    Then — icing on the proverbial cake — you were awarded the gold star of LOVE from your girl. She *got* the message of your connection. She got to have her experience and see that you still accepted her and her big ole ugly feelings. She got to feel how she matters to you. And the well-timed (after she could think about it again) response — she felt your love and she gave you love. That’s you winning the whole parenting game.

    Win-Win–WIN.

    Feeling tender toward you sweet family.

    Be well.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 12, 2014

      Rose and I share so many characteristics; giving her space and empathy to be all of herself always makes room for me. Thanks for your enthusiasm.

  7. May 12, 2014

    well served, Most Noble Yogini Who Inspires Many…
    personally?
    ilg TAF’s (Thinks And Feels) that the precise decibel of a young daughters’ shriek is a covert orchestration of the Divine Strings which, if we Just Listen and Breathe to it enough?
    yup, ilg is reckon’ing that it’s a Sacred Sound (Nada) to stir Kundalini upward…
    dat’s what this feeble yogi is bettin’ on, anyway!

    sidenote: we use John Denver on road trips…Dewa’s been known to go from High Agitation to Deep Sleep within minutes…long live Nada!

    keep it c(om)ing…you are helping many!

    head bowed,
    spirit vowed,

    Dewa’s Daddy

  8. May 12, 2014

    Half an hour, eh? In the grand scheme of things, of course, not so long, but in the midst of things, so very, very long. Thank you for the reminder of the patience that is needed.

    xox

  9. nan permalink
    May 12, 2014

    I think I remember you saying, “parenting is hard”, you and Dan are doing a great job.

  10. May 12, 2014

    Rachel, this story and the way you manage to makes us feel it so well are amazing.

    As gripping as it was, I had to stop several times to let a particular sentence reach its full magnificence and truth – a truth that both universal and singular, very much you – and linked to this particular moment.

    As in “This disappointment is getting watered by her own tears, sprouting grafted limbs of every other slight of the day”. (Did you say very recently that gardening is a metaphor for life itself?)

    Or : “I can feel that the soft fingers of empathy are beginning to massage her wounds.”

    But it’s also the pacing of your story, and all the things that you didn’t mention that day in the car – because you wanted (you were trying hard) to focus on letting Rose expressing her disappointment. Which is such a hard job – particularly if you are ‘on call’ All The Time.

    How natural (and legitimate) it would have been for you to say “Rose… it’s Mother’s day, remember?” yet it would very probably have made her both angrier and guilty (a feeling that is difficult to manage even for us adults, particularly in front of others).

    I have often wondered at why it is so hard to keep offering empathy, or patience, or understanding, to someone who just keeps ignoring our good will and efforts. Like children often do, but some adults too… I’ve realized that (at least for me) it means that we are being denied – as a person who has feelings, too, however hard we are trying to push them aside right now.

    This is what was so magical as well in Dan’s offering empathy to Rose along with yours: every word he said to her was also a loving way of telling you: “I see the beauty of your efforts, I know how difficult it is, and you are doing well.”

    You are, indeed :o)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 13, 2014

      Emmanuelle,

      I think yes, it’s hard for our empathy to go unreceived because it feels like our feelings are being disregarded (It’s Mother’s Day! That screaming hurts my every cell! What about meeeeee!?!). And also because we want results, and we want them fast. The cool thing that I see with Col and Rose is that if I can stay in the empathy, once they rebound, they can access their full emotional intelligence which includes vast appreciation for others.

      Hugs from south to north.

  11. Andrea permalink
    May 13, 2014

    1. going to bed with no regrets; sounds like the best day ever.

    2. we are all in it together. we are all connected.

    3. happy mothers day to YOU, dear friend.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 13, 2014

      Who knew “no regrets” was such a high? (Perhaps related to the fact that all my other quickie feel-goods are off the list?)
      Happy Mother’s Day to you in your green, green land.

  12. May 13, 2014

    Ahhh! The power of empathy! It’s just amazing… My little Mathilde is so similar to Rose and when I remember to breathe and give her (and me) empathy, our world is so much better. And when I do, JF usually does too and yes, it truly becomes a boomerang effect!

  13. May 14, 2014

    Empathy is great and all, but let’s get to the heart of the matter!

    Dan is buff!!!

    :)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 15, 2014

      Seriously. That physique is working well for both of us.

  14. May 15, 2014

    “We all feel disappointment every day. Denying those feelings buries them deeper; acknowledging them allows them to dissipate. I believe the best way to help kids feel gratitude is to model your own gratitude for this wild, messy, imperfect and beloved world.”

    I <3 you and this little corner of the interwebs so very much.

  15. May 16, 2014

    Wow, fantastic blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?
    you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is fantastic, as
    well as the content!

  16. May 17, 2014

    I love, love, love your real-world examples of empathy in action. I always make my husband read these posts and he’s totally not a blog reader, but I think the empathy-in-action helps us both so much. For me, it’s like trying to learn a new language. But I’m slowly getting it. I’m still at the stage where after empathizing, I’d throw in the bit about leaving the park “because snow was pounding in on a fierce wind.” Thanks for reminding me to leave part out, to stop rationalizing and just deliver pure empathy. Sweet stuff here.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 17, 2014

      Sometimes giving information after empathizing, after the emotional state has risen to “calm and receptive” is very much warranted. When my kids have a big blow out, after emotions are tended to we often have a debriefing sesh which includes seeking solutions and rational information. I felt that “The snow pounding in on a fierce wind” was obvious to Rose and beside the point in this situation, which was that Rose was having a her own storm of emotions that needed to squall around for a bit before clearing out back to sunny.
      So glad this was helpful. And know what you mean about husbands and blogs, great to get everyone on the same page.

  17. May 25, 2014

    oh my god. This post is ANOTHER reason I am so glad to have come by here! I have a girl too, and her emotional keening at times seems absolutely LUDICROUS, and the noise!!!! Is. Just. Unbearable. When it starts, at least one person in our family is going to eye-roll. However, I have also found empathy works wonders, and try to remember to keep with it….but it is so so hard. It sounds great that your partner worked with you on it. I commend you guys, and you’ve given me motivation to keep trying with it.

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