The marker for maternal narcissism is lack of empathy and the inability to tune into the emotional welfare of others, especially children. So if we want to go in the opposite direction for our own growth and understanding, we need to be aware of this thing called empathy. True empathy requires the ability to tune into other people emotionally and be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. I wonder why this is so difficult for so many and why we all struggle in some ways with this important component of relating to others.
To be a true child advocate, empathy is a key for parenting and for establishing other satisfying relationships in life. I will always believe that the greatest gift we can give another person is the ability to tune into their feelings and give them validation and acknowledgement whether we agree with them or not. How many times as a parent or a love partner, do we face this difficult dilemma? How good are we really at this crucial skill and why are we not standing on our heads trying to learn this simple key to healthy parenting and interactions with others? Are we just too immersed in this current narcissistic culture or too busy that we don’t think about it? Maybe we got no role modeling from our parents or grandparents. Maybe nobody cares. Do we live in such a self-absorbed culture that this has become unimportant to most or do we just not know how to do it?
Over the years in my various roles as parent, nana, and long time psychotherapist, I have found that tuning into others using empathy and acknowledgment of feeling is the greatest tool we could ever learn.
Relating with empathy means first understanding what someone is saying to us. The simple reflection of “this is what I heard you say,” is important because we tend to make assumptions or do projections and therefore don’t always understand, or take the time to understand, what someone is saying. The key is to listen to the feelings expressed. If we don’t, we are likely to plant our own interpretation and it is usually or 90% of the time wrong. So, we have to reflect back what we are hearing before we can really respond in an understanding way. As a parent, love partner, or friend, we want to understand what the other is saying to us. We want them to feel heard. We have to get this correct first, before we can move on in the discussion.
Try it. When your child, partner or friend says something to you that involves feelings, ignore the context of what they are saying and listen to the feeling. Then reflect back that feeling. Example: “ I hear that you are really angry and sad.” Believe it or not, the other person does not really care at that moment if you agree or not. They want to be heard. Being heard, means you heard the feeling expressed. Then, if you get it right, try validating and acknowledging that feeling. “ You sound hurt and that must feel awful to you.” “Feeling wounded is difficult no matter what the issue.” “I love you and I don’t want you to have to feel that way.” “I care how you feel.”
These very simple words in this sequence can make all the difference in the world to that person whom you adore. The big red balloon of bottled up feelings in that other person is suddenly popped and they can settle down and talk to you because you cared enough to pick up on their important feelings.
If you think about it, when you talk to those you love, you don’t really care if they agree with you. You care if they notice how you feel. This sounds elementary, but in all my years of practice as a therapist, this is the one thing I teach the most. Why? Why do we not learn this wonderful relating skill somewhere? Shouldn’t we be teaching this in our own parenting and in our schools somewhere? What a difference it could make in relationships of all kind.
Think about the last time you were upset and who listened. Who cared about the feelings without trying to solve your problem… tell you what they would do… or relate a similar experience that they once had. At that moment, you do not want someone to solve your problem. You don’t even care if they experienced something similar. You want to be heard. We all do.
Adult children of narcissistic parents have an incredible void in this area. They grew up without validation or acknowledgment of feelings and that is why they become adults who grow up with self-doubt. If someone validates and acknowledges your feelings it makes you feel real. Remember that wonderful children’s book: The Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams? I love that book because the rabbit and the skin horse talk about love and becoming real. The skin horse gives this advice to the rabbit.
“ It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” To me, the beauty in this book and passage is that when someone tunes into your feelings…it is then that you feel Real and Loved.
I send you to find The Velveteen Rabbit and read it to yourself and your kids. Then practice some empathy with others this week. Get back to me on this. I am curious if you find the same wonderful connection that I am referring to. This is truly the antithesis of narcissism. We all want to be heard and loved. To bring this to our lives, we have to give it. What could be better than reciprocity in empathy with those we love and adore?
We continue to share resources for adult children of narcissistic parents on “Good Enough Rocks Radio!” Tune in from the website at www.nevergoodenough.com . We would love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions.