In one of my adoption training books I read this excerpt awhile ago…it is within the context of building attachment with an adoptive child and working through emotional barriers (such as anxiety, rage, shame, & despair) regarding his past - and his emotions regarding being adopted. It has really stuck with me:
Empathy enables the child to feel his parent’s compassion for him. With empathy the parent is journeying with the child into the distress that he is experiencing and then feeling it with him. The parent is demonstrating that she knows how difficult an experience is for her child. She is communicating that her child will not have to deal with the distress alone. She will stay with him emotionally, comfort and support him, and not abandon him when he needs her the most. The parent is also communicating her strength and commitment. The pain that the child is experiencing is not too much for her. She is also communicating her confidence that with her sharing his distress, it will not be too much for him. Together they will get through it.
And this is a different excerpt in the same book:
All of us – children and adults – want to feel that someone understands our needs, confusion and hurt. Given the isolation and alienation that so many adoptees feel inside, the importance of receiving empathic responses takes on heightened importance. Empathy communicates “I can see how you feel”. It doesn’t offer answers or solutions for painful feelings or events, but it communicates to the child that we can see into their hearts and minds and recognize the impact that things have on them.
I was really challenged by these words when I realized how applicable they were. Empathizing with someone is a commitment to be there, emotionally, no matter what. I love how empathizing doesn’t have to involve a solution or advice or even knowing just what to say and how to say it. Rather it is simply reaching out to someone who is hurting, walking through the valleys alongside of them, listening to them, and communicating your love and that you can see they are hurting. It’s so easy to back out of these types of situations, because they often stir up our own personal/emotional situations or painful pasts. Empathizing causes us to break down our emotional guard, and let ourselves feel – pain, hurt, sorrow – through another’s eyes.
It’s a challenge for me to put this into practice. People are hurting. Not only half way around the world but in your backyard and mine. At our churches, in our schools. Scanning our groceries at the grocery store. My old friend from college and your new friend that just left a voicemail on your cell. Our co-workers with a desk down the hall. And people who live down the hall in our homes. Lots of opportunities to let down our guard, and walk a mile with someone who needs comfort and support.
Colossians 3:12-14 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.