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Healing, Letting go, Mindfulness, my.Diary Entries

Empathy requires self-awareness


My kids have been very explosive for the last month.  I was at first taken back, as they usually do not have tantrums.  However as I started to thinking through these explosions, I came to realize how they result from communication issues and that for them, the tantrum is the last resort in making me pay attention.

There have been many changes in the last month. We opened the restaurant and I have been way more involved with it they we thought I would be. This has had a traumatic impact on the boys. 1) I have been stressed out, 2) their has been an incredible increase in social activities for the boys, 3) they lost their central role in my time, 4) their diet has tremendously changed, as they have demanded to eat the restaurant food. 5) their media use has gone up.  6) they lost their primary play space… the restaurant. 7) And we have had visitors, which introduced another layer of social focus and empathic mirroring.  And when I get overwhelmed, which I did, I forget that the kids also get overwhelmed.

I came across a post by Dr Jenner, which clarified some of what I need to do with the boys in this regard. In the post “We cannot communicate without understanding.”, he explains the importance of empathic listening that he discovered in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People.

According to Jenner:

“ Of all the habits that he (Covey) advocates, my favorite is the one regarding communication, something we can never learn enough about. Covey’s fifth habit, seek first to understand, then to be understood, promotes the benefits of excellent communication skills and especially, listening. He states clearly that in most relationships, troubles occur due to the lack of listening skills on one or both sides. He likens this to medical treatment where we are so quick to rush in and opinionate and prescribe before we have all the information at hand. This is the foundation that Covey builds his fifth habit on “diagnose before you prescribe”, a simple and effective method of increasing empathy in relationships, whether business or personal.

Covey goes as far as to say that good communication skills are an indicator of character and so gives the trust needed to be able to counsel or advise others. He states that there are vital factors entailed in Habit 5 and he starts off with the importance of emphatic listening. He uses various examples to show the reader the advantages of this including a business deal, interaction between father and son and one from his own experience where a doctor prescribes medication to Covey’s young child before he had gained vital information. The basic principle is to listen with the intent to understand not just to listen. Covey states clearly that as we look at the world through our own “autobiographies”, we are too quick to give advice, pass on our experience and form an opinion before we really understand what is being asked of us. We are, by listening emphatically, in essence trying to look at the world through the other person’s eyes and their “frame of reference”. He likens this to various professions, most of which need to engage in much preparation work before the project or product gets off the ground. Lawyers and doctors gather facts before giving an opinion, engineers try to understand before they design and opticians need to test before they can recommend the right eyewear.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, empathic listening is a double edge sword for HSPs. In the book, The highly Empathic Child, Catherine Crawford explains how:

“Empathic kids are born with a heightened ability to naturally attune to other people’s needs, and their challenges lean toward paying attention to their interpersonal boundaries.  For example, they need to learn to pay attention to what they themselves want and need instead of always tuning in to and acting on other people’s need. Children who experience heightened ability in both of these areas need help in regulating the potential stressors of both so they can enjoy the full benefits that intuition and empathy provide.” (2009, p11)

The ability to listen empathically is difficult for HSP children as Crawford explains:

” Intuitive children can be a sponge to life, experiencing feelings in their environments (and even somewhere else on the planet) so deeply that it can influence moods and even body chemistry.

… if the child’s stress levels max out, causing the child to act out the pain and frustration that she is picking on.”(p16)

This rings quite true. One thing which really astonished me to this day is how much I and my kids can mirror and mimic how others perceive us. When someone believes I am stupid, I become that stupid individual, When I am surrounded by angry people I enact “angry-ness”, even if I am not angry. When my kids are around someone who thinks they are weird, they immediately become agitated, use incoherent speech. If me or my husband are stressed, the kids immediately show it….. empathy is a double edge sword…

And a lack of awareness of this abiulity can create very disfunctional situations for HSPs. For years, I, not knowingly, tuned in constantly to others and never paid attention to my needs. Never knowing what I wanted but depending on the biggest influence in my life at the time, fulfilling their desires instead of mine. This went on until I met my husband.  That relationship sent me in turmoil as he comes from major internalized disfunctions  and the mirroring became debilitating).

To help a HSP child learn to be an empathic listener is a complex task and is very challenging as often they do not perceive the world in the same way.

” Highly sensitive children experience life quite differently from their sensate-focused peers. Sensate-focused children are very comfortable with the physical dimension and can dive into life and zoom from activity without much need for reflective processing. The sensate-focused child excels in moving through life as experienced through the fives senses. By contrasts, intuitive are more focused on their inner-world, taking in a huge volume of information through the unseen sixth sense, as well as the data from the other five senses like their peers.” (Crawford, 2009, pp.14-15)

This makes a parent’s task difficult for many reasons. As Jenner explains:

To sum up, Covey’s recipe for effective communication is “seek first to understand then to be understood” which Covey exemplifies in the phrase “seeking to understand takes consideration, seeking to be understood takes courage”. Working on the principle that to be understood needs clear, specific, visual ideas placed in context, Covey says that to be understood, can only achieved when you have a deep understanding of the recipients paradigms, concerns and principle centre. Once this is done, the credibility of your argument increases to the point that effective communication takes place.”

The courage Corey discusses can be understood in many different ways, but for me, it does imply the courage to face ourselves. And for HSPs this can be very difficult when they, like I have, developed very negative coping mechanisms as I explained in a previous post. These mechanisms are similar to those developed by children who have been abused.

In another post by doctor Jeneer “The ‘Parent Within’ and its role in Recovery from Abuse.” he discusses the notion of “parenting within”, a phenomenon children who have suffered traumas tend to develop as a coping mechanism:

 “  the “child within” can be replaced by the “parent within”. This term describes a situation where the child, despite chronic physical, sexual and emotional abuse takes on a parenting role for the parent, nursing and looking after them in the way it should be done in reverse. These parents generally show a hatred for the inner child of their offspring and consolidated by their behavior, try to subdue it for their own purposes. This is the point where the “child within” with all the characteristics of normal development is replaced by the responsible “parent within”.  The author describes this change as “putting on a winter coat” to protect themselves from abuse, this coat no longer fitting in adulthood. This is often the case with parents who were alcoholics or addicted to drugs and other substances. 

According to Sanford’s research, this process appeared to be consciously initiated by the children with the thought in mind that if I look after my abusive parent, they will come to need me and love me and the abuse will stop. Unfortunately, this was not the case and in most of the stories cited, the abuse continued or got worse.  Sandford says that such children often gain respect as adults for worthy and successful careers without themselves really knowing why or accepting that it could be anything to do with their own abilities. The child within can, however never be really totally subdued and can resurface at any time, often in adulthood in specific behavior and by complicating relationships. When a child becomes the “parent”, he or she sacrifices part of themselves to please the abusive parent. It is often the positive characteristics of the child that the abusive parents resent the most, such as intelligence and special skills. Seeing the child, reminds them of their own inadequacies. These positive characteristics are often used to get on in life, find a good job and be successful but the emotional side of the ‘child within” remains underdeveloped.

It seems to me that HSPs have a similar issue. Often, The majority of parent lead from a place of sensate awareness and cannot accept and/or understand what their children are experiencing.  The child within remains underdeveloped and as a consequence,  empathic listening is very difficult, but not impossible.  It seems to me that the key is to look inside first, and the last sentence of the post is really powerful:

 As Sanford says at the end of her book, we often look for hope and intimacy outside ourselves without ever “taking ourselves in our own arms”.

Yes, the difficulty in listening empathically is that it requires the child within to be present and active. In a way, empathic listening is the child within listening.

This is an awesome starting point for learning to listen differently as a parent. I can not help my kids prepare for the future if I, myself, do not help them by learning to listen to myself and be an advocate for my own needs and emotions.  But how do I help my children on their journey to a healthy  empathic life while continuing my own learning?  This is extremely important when one considers the influence parents have on their children’s growth. Again, Dr Jenner in the post: “Don’t let your past define who you are.”, posits the importance of parenting on children’s cognitive and affective development:

It is hard to believe that we arrive in this world with no cognitive influence from our parents.  This theory would be, for me, implausible given that the very conception process that creates a newborn is associated with the passing on of genes from both parents. Of course, one could also argue that environmental influence could haven taken place in the womb, as I am sure it does.

Much research done concerning identical and non-identical twins reared together and apart appear to suggest that genetic factors have more of an influence on psychological development than environmental factors. Additionally, adopted children are more likely to show hereditary characteristics than ones learned from their new environment. (Rowe 1993). Adding credibility to the argument that we have a genetic ‘toolbox’ available at birth, Greenough, Black and Wallace (1987) determined two different neural pathways in newborns. The first, the experience-expectant system contains all the functions that a newborn needs to be able to survive its early life, including sucking, breathing and temperature regulation. These are present due to genetic programming. The second, the experience-dependant system is dormant at birth but develops and strengthens as learning and experience takes hold. The evidence makes a convincing argument for the influence of genetic and environmental influence on the development of a child. Just what the percentage is for either side is remains a mystery.

However, to add a twist into the debate, new research by psychologist George Holden at Southern Methodist University in Dallas states that a third factor must be added..parental guidance. Child development researchers largely have ignored the importance of parental “guidance,” Holden says. In his model, effective parents observe, recognize and assess their child’s individual genetic characteristics, then cultivate their child’s strengths.

“It’s been said that parents are the ‘architect’ or the ‘conductor’ of a child’s development. There are lots of different synonyms, but the terms don’t capture the essence that parents are trying to ‘guide,’” Holden says. “Some parents have more refined goals — like wanting their child to be an athlete or to have a particular career. Some have more general goals — such as not wanting their child to become a criminal. But all are positive goals.”

Other research is starting to point that the life of grandparents and other prior generations influences the life of children.Crawford goes as far as to state that:

” If, as a child, the person grew up feeling loved, seen, hear, and accepted, it contributes to the individual’s resilience in handling tricky situations out in the world and his ability to design a life that is inner-directed. If the child’s gift were marginalized and criticized, then the adult may face the task of recovering his intuition, rebuilding self-trust, and nurturing deep self-esteem that allows them to be truly comfortable in life with this set of gifts.”

In our case, the goal is to help the children be healthy HSPs.  A difficult task but I do think we are making headways. A good indicator of progress is that the kids feel safe to have and express strong emotions. This is progress as they used to internalizing them. My eldest, who is highly introverted when it comes to his feelings, needs to explode. First to let me know I am not listening and that he needs me to because something is not right, 2) to let the emotion and negative thoughts out and let them go. My youngest used to get depressed and really down on himself. Now he is able to express how he feels and he has the environment he needs to be at peace sensory wise.

I hope that over time we can move from exploding to awareness, control and positive communication. Already, slowly, their demeanour is changing. They are growing faster and are much happier. The level of natural stimulation is helping as well as the lessen social intensity of their day.  I am becoming very aware of the fact that my kids learn via my experiences first, observing me, not my words, and then apply what they see me do to their own lives.  Since the next stage, is learning how to express these feelings in a positive way, it is important for me to learn how to do so myself. My husband and I are working our way through more positive communication but we do not yet have the strategies down. So, I have decided to approach this another way via learning to listen and communicate with animals first…

I have noticed that I have no problem being empathic with animals. But I find it much more difficult to be empathic with people outside of preset contexts. Even with my own children… One obvious reason is that animals tend to have much less hidden motives. Their motivations are clear, need for food, shelter, care and/or love, etc. I know how to read them and their responses are clear cut. I will see if this works.

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