Empathy is perhaps one of the most valuable yet burdening traits of parenthood. According to research, highly empathetic parenting creates children who thrive, but parents who suffer. So where do you draw the line? How much empathy should you provide for your children? And what if you’ve crossed the line?
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Some of us are more prone to it, others much less, just as with any other personality characteristic or trait. For me personally, it is one of the corner stones that shapes my entire being, a dominant trait that has given me much in life, but also taken an immensely great toll.
Children of empathetic parents are happy
An article from 2016, published in Psychology Today, discusses the benefits and dangers of overly empathetic parenting. Children tend to become happier and healthier than children with less empathetic parents. At the same time, parents who are highly empathetic towards their children also experience much higher levels of stress and inflammations as a result. It may cause anxiety and feeling overwhelmed by parenthood.
When a parent gives their children their all, the children feel safe, loved and understood, while the parent becomes more and more drained. Supported by research, I also know it out of personal experience. And what happens when a parent becomes overwhelmed? Emotional exhaustion, perhaps a parental burnout. One day, you just can’t give anymore. Because you forgot about self-care. Or perhaps you didn’t forget, but you just couldn’t do it – because your children come first.
You can’t pour from an empty cup
It’s a phrase that has been repeated on end, become a cliche. Yet it’s so true. When you’ve drained yourself, exhausted your emotional resources, one would think that there’s nothing more to give. It isn’t really that simple. Empathetic parents find the resources anyway. They take it from their core, wrenching every little drop they can find to give to their kids. One day however, it will end. And that day, you do not want to face.
I’ve now and then made slight references to the rough year that the kids and I have been through. It’s not a subject that I want to exploit – simply because having to stand in front of the world on a daily basis to say it hurts is also exhausting. I have slowly come to realise though that my personal resources are coming to an end. I wish I would’ve seen it earlier, done something about it months ago. But I couldn’t, because I was giving my everything to my children. Now I can, because I understand and see things I didn’t see before.
When someone else’s pain hurts you
When I was little, I remember once when I was sick and my dad said he would do anything in the world to be able to be sick instead of me. I couldn’t understand. Who in their right mind would want to be sick instead of someone else? Empathetic parents.
When my children feel physical pain, it hurts me too. I may feel slightly helpless in consolidation and try to wish the pain away. It doesn’t feel good to see your child hurting. It could be lined with concern and worry, but it passes. A small boo-boo is just a boo-boo, which can often be healed with a kiss, simple band-aid or ice pack, perhaps a bit of medication. Serious medical conditions are another thing, but as I don’t have direct personal experience on the matter I wouldn’t be able to say.
A child’s emotional pain
When my children feel emotional pain, it becomes a different story. When my children hurt on the inside, it creates literal physical symptoms for me. Headaches, insomnia, feelings of anxiety, lack of appetite and simply pain. I don’t even dare disclose how much over-the-counter pain medication I have taken during the past year – not even to myself.
This is where my empathy has crossed the line. I’ve gone too far, not out of choice, but out of circumstance and the inability and lack of knowledge to fight back. If I were to provide my children with only a fraction of the empathy I do today, they would still grow into happy children who know they are immensely loved and feel safe in their environments. Having however devoted everything I have and do for my children, has simply eaten away at me. I don’t even really remember anymore who I used to be before kids. And that’s what needs to change. I want to be the best possible mother for my children, but I can’t be that if I’m not myself also.
Being on high-alert around the clock
I’ve been alone for the majority of my children’s life. Sleeping with one eye open since the day they were born. I can be downstairs and hear the pitter patter of small feet upstairs, and I know which one of my three kids has gotten up. I can hear a muffled cry in my sleep, and know exactly which bed to head to. When I leave the house and the roads are slippery with black ice, I think about who can pick up my kids from daycare in case something were to happen to me. When I hear an ambulance, my first thought is every time that I hope it’s not my kids. I’m on standby 24/7, constantly on high-alert, a textbook example of an overly empathetic parent. I smother them with love, praise and understanding, but also take in every single of their emotions as if they were my own.
Can you imagine how consuming that is? To never be able to fully relax and always have the thought of your children lingering somewhere in the background? I can tell you it’s exhausting. At times it’s a bit easier, but it is a problem in general. Common knowledge is that a bit of stress can be good for you, long-term high stress levels will break you.
A year ago, I had hernia surgery. It was supposed to be a quick operation with a three week recovery period. Stress however will slow down recovery. I ended up walking around with an open wound for six weeks, as my body was simply unable to repair itself. I gained weight, found myself crying on a daily basis, suffering from immense sleep deprivation. And yet, every single day, I got up, took care of whatever needed to be done and more, and was the best possible mother I could be. Quality of life? Negative.
Things eased up temporarily, but this summer, I found myself in the same situation again. Exhausted, sad, angry, sleep deprived and stressed. A lack of appetite caused me to loose 14kg. Summer turned to fall and I caught a cold. Three weeks sick, a week of feeling better, and then sick again. Why? Because stress.
I’m kicking it to the curb now, getting out of the empathy trap (a great read published by Greater Good Magazine). I’m done with being on high-alert 24/7. My life is stressful as is, single parenting three, running a business and a big household by myself. I need to put myself first to be able to be the mother my children need, the friend, the daughter, the sister. I’ve spoken to professionals, to my friends, to my family. I haven’t been diagnosed with clinical depression, I’m still rational and logical, but I am stressed and walking around with a massive burden. There’s no happy pill for me to take, but there are things I need to do.
Breaking the pattern
The first step with solving any problem is discovering it, admitting to its existence. I’ve been aware of the issue for years, but it has never consumed at me as much as during the past year. Obviously the major life crisis I’m still undergoing is a huge culprit. My constant battle with perfection is another. The need to always please the world, my goodness, no!
Though empathy is generally worth cultivating, sometimes it’s good to practice restricting it also. Or turn it towards yourself. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m quite self-critical but understanding and supporting towards others. Not one single one of us can carry the worries of the world on our shoulders. There’s plenty enough to face in our own lives. To be able to see the big picture you also need to focus on the smaller details.
A little less empathy, a bit more self-care
My kids are pretty much miniature copies of myself. They have great self-confidence, but to some extent low self-esteem. Simply because they mimic my behaviour. We mirror each other constantly, our emotions and actions. They have become great at slapping on a happy face, presenting themselves to the world as cosmopolitan diplomats. I want them to be more though. To be genuine, true to themselves, to be children. To know that you don’t need to please everyone, that you can be selfish at times. And that kids are allowed to act up and question, they don’t need to be copies of their over-achieving mother.
Last year I wrote a post on the importance of self-care. And yet again, I’m faced with the same situation. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, repeating over and over the same mistakes and trying to take the same corrective action to fix it.
So I’m trying to break the pattern. Baby steps. A little less empathy towards the world and a lot more respect and appreciation towards myself. Overly empathetic parenting cannot be my downfall, it cannot be what destroys me. I will always care for my children to the maximum, give them my everything and continue to provide them with love and understanding, but in a different way. The world is a scary place with a lot of bad, but with so much good too. So yet again, embrace the silver lining. A rough patch, a struggle, but a healthy wakeup call to make a change. I’m making a genuine effort to wind down on being on constant high-alert. My kids are going to be okay even if don’t think about them 24/7. They will actually be great. And we will all be happier.
Wishing you a wonderful October, I’m off to admire the beautiful colors of autumn, you should do that too. The world and its worries can wait, take a moment for yourself and your soul. xx