Taking a look at toxic positivity and empathy
Overhearing a parent at the park, it hit me just how important it is to lead with empathy. Empathy for ourselves, for our kids and really, for every friend, co-worker and even stranger that we meet.
At the park this weekend, a little girl went flying down a twisty slide and hit her head on the side rail. The mom was right there and instantly said to her, “You’re OK! You’re OK! Go run and play!” The girl was visibly upset, crying, and holding her head.
Without any information and as a total bystander, I stood there thinking about this approach. I, too, used to say something similar. And it was always well intended: Encourage them, distract them, and give a little tough love. Most of the time, this strategy was effective and would help my kids when they weren’t actually hurt to begin with. However, what happens when the child really is hurt? Who are we to say You’re OK, when they might be the farthest thing from OK? And what really is OK?
I have been hearing a lot about toxic positivity. An article from the Harvard Business Review reminds us that, “Toxic positivity tasks the person in need with faking an emotional response that is totally disproportionate to what they are actually experiencing.” By saying You’re OK, are we in essence doing just this. We are attempting to tell our kids how they feel which may or not be in line with how they are feeling.
In her book, The Gift, Dr. Edith Eger says, “I didn’t know it then, but we disable our children when we take away their suffering. We teach them that feelings are wrong or scary. But a feeling is only a feeling. There’s no right or wrong. There’s just my feeling and yours. We are wiser not to try to reason others out of their feelings, or try to cheer them up.” When she says it like that, it’s clear the last thing I want to do is reason my kids out of their feelings. Just like I don’t want someone trying to tell me how I feel.
What is empathy?
Brené Brown in Daring Greatly says, “Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.”
Connecting with the emotion. That right there is everything.
That sounds challenging. That’s really hard. You sound disappointed. That’s frustrating. That sounds scary. Ouch, that hurt.
Here’s the secret: We all want to be heard. And we all want to be seen.
When I am vocalizing a grievance, I am not looking for my husband, mom, sister, or friend to necessarily solve my problem. Sure, sometimes I am in problem solving mode and want those around me to help brainstorm. However, most of the time, I simply want to be heard. To be felt. To be seen. And our kids are no different.
There is no hierarchy in trauma
As Dr. Edith Eger reminds us, “There is no hierarchy in trauma.” I think about this quote often. It can be so tempting to dismiss the emotion, when we deem the event that caused it as absurd or silly. However, we are not the judge. Not getting the blue bowl may feel just as distressing to a three year old as not getting into UVA feels to a senior is high school. This is why leading with logic fails. If you have ever been on the receiving end of the message, Why are you so upset? It’s not that big of a deal! you know how absolutely terrible this message feels.
Since paying more attention to empathy, I’m working on empathizing first when my kids have big emotions. Breaking the habit of saying, You’re OK was an important first step. That can fly out of our mouths so quickly. I think it’s because our intended message is, You are going to be OK. But it also robs kids of their feelings. We are telling them how to feel or implying feeling pain, hurt, or discomfort is somehow wrong or bad.
Say what you mean
Instead of saying You’re OK, try saying exactly what you mean. If you want to send the message, You’re safe, I’m right here, then say that. One way that helps me is to only focus on the emotion. If Grace comes to me complaining that Keener won’t share a toy, I focus on her emotion first, not the event that is causing it. That may sound something like, That sounds so frustrating. Honestly, a big part of breaking the habit was starting my response with that or I, not you or your. I am not all knowing. Who am I to label how my kids are feeling?
When my kids get physically hurt, I broke the habit by defaulting to, Ouch, that looks like it really hurts. I let them know that I see their pain and I am connecting with them, even though 1. I did not experience the pain myself or 2. I have no way of knowing how their pain receptors really feel. They are the only ones that truly know. Oftentimes, they may swing by for a quick kiss or back rub, however they are quickly on their way. I’ve seen how shifting my language has helped them process their feelings more quickly.
Dr. Susan David on Brené Brown’s podcast said, “Empathy says, I can imagine, either cognitively or emotionally, what this pain feels like.” She goes on to discuss how empathy is about perspective taking. It’s the ability to take someone else’s perspective and reminds us that compassion is standing with our kids. However, there is the caution — it is not an enmeshment. Meaning, we are not our kids. We are standing by them, connecting, offering empathy and love, but we are not them. And our job is not to rush in and make the pain go away or solve the problem that is causing the big feelings. Our most important job is to let our kids know they are not alone.
You are not alone
These are four little words that pack quite a punch. Brené talks about the classic scene at the grocery store when you see a mom whose kid is having an epic meltdown. Instead of looking at that mom with judgement or shame, instead, send her the message, You are not alone. I’ve been there. I’m with you.
Our kids need this same message. And we need it as well. This is the power of empathy. We all want to know we are not alone. In an interview, Tina Payne Bryson said, “…there is a fairly simple finding from decades of many studies that relational experiences have a significant impact on how we develop and who we are. The science indicates that one of the best predictors for how well our children turn out is that they have secure attachment to at least one person.” We can be that one person. That one imperfect person who will not always get it right but will repair along the way. That person who shows up and connects when big feelings emerge.
Finally, I will leave you with a favorite Brené Brown quote from Daring Greatly. “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”
There certainly is no script. However, I have found the following to be helpful in trying to lead with an empathetic response:
- That looks like it hurts
- That sounds really hard
- I see you are upset
- You’re safe
- That seems frustrating
- You are not alone
- I’m with you
- You sound disappointed
- That’s really hard
- Ouch, bumping your head hurts
- Take your time
- I’m here
- I’m listening