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Is Empathy Worth Our Time?

· Empathy,communication,Pillars of Empathy

CATHY

Like clockwork my son texts me after school. Usually, it is on days when he has band practice and has to stay an extra 3 hours.

It's grueling, hard work and is truly misunderstood. Even I have been known to speak the derogatory terms of “the band nerd” every once in awhile. But years into this now, I have fondness and admiration for what the band does. On rainy days when the school makes an announcement that football practice is canceled due to field conditions and inclement weather, they immediately make another announcement that band practice is “now being moved to the football field”! They are athletes, academics, and theatrical producers all in one.

With all that being said, band is hard and band practice days are incredibly long. Especially for my son who has Aspergers. He needs sensory breaks through the day, every day. Stresses and the daily grind tax his abilities and his emotional state. He needs opportunities to recharge his battery.

This past month has been difficult for him as he wavered on asking a girl to the homecoming dance. This is a huge social milestone for him and we all wanted him to be successful, at times just wanting to ask the girl ourselves due to his hesitancy. It was a fine line of encouragement, support, advice and minding my own business.

On days when he felt courageous, he would declare “Today I’m gonna do it” , and then something would happen in a classroom that would bring the whole thing crashing down around him.

Which brings me to the texts. When he would text, it wasn't one or two, but rather 15 or 16 texts. Questions of advice, statements of discouragement, exclamations of fear and apprehension.

The texts were not easy to respond to and often left me feeling helpless on the other end. I wanted desperately to jump through the phone, console him, pump him up and watch confidence grow as he faced his fears. With my personal I.T. department still working on teleportation, I have been unable to achieve this feat.

Additionally, emotion and connotation are not easily expressed through text, hence the creation of the emoji. Sometimes he would misunderstand what I would say, or take it out of context and send follow up texts for clarification. On the nights when my husband would ask how Jack’s day was, I would just pull out my phone, read him the litany of texts and gain sympathies as he sighed and said: “Oh, it was one of those days, huh?”

Flashback to a week ago as I was out of town on business and Jack had a bad day at school. He was at band practice for 3 more hours, had been turned down by the girl he asked to homecoming and was experiencing a mini breakdown. Our texting conversation went as follows:

Jack- “I don’t feel happy”
Mom- “Thanks for telling me. I am sending you love”
Jack- “I wish that I didn’t have autism and social anxiety”
Mom - (mini freak out as to how to respond to that; took a few minutes to gather my thoughts before I responded) then finally: “The mix of the two has to be very difficult. I can’t even imagine how hard some days are for you. When my anxiety ramps up, I just want to hide away. Always know that I am here and I love you for all the things that you are”
Jack- “Thanks”

THAT WAS IT. NO MORE TEXTING. NO MORE FOLLOW UP COMMENTS IN NEED OF AFFIRMATION.

We had gone from an average of 15 texts and 15 responses (30 in total) down to 5!. I didn’t tell him I was sorry for what he was feeling, causing him to do all the heavy lifting to make me feel better about his bad day.

Instead, I thanked him for looking to me as a safe person to share his feelings. Then I acknowledged the difficulty he was experiencing and my own personal experience with anxiety and feeling bad about oneself.

That was a magical moment when the texts stopped coming through and I knew he was able to move through his feelings and be involved fully in band practice. By using empathy, it actually decreased the time we spent texting back and forth and helped him move through his emotions quicker.

So in response to the question “Is empathy worth my time?” I wholeheartedly reply “YES”. I was in the moment with him, acknowledged, mirrored and thanked him for relying on me. Empathy was not only worth my time but worth his as well.

There may still be days when numerous texts come through during a melt-down, but I hope to decrease them by being more mindful of my responses and staying out of judgment. When I can set my agenda to the side, my agenda that I want the numerous texting to stop, and be with him emotionally, I find that being empathic was worth every moment, every word, every text.

TAMI

Last year my then 19-year-old daughter decided that she was going to become a CNA. I thought this was very out of character for her, as she was always the one that even though she is sweet and kind, she doesn’t do puke. She took the class and was at the top of her class. She got all A’s and really seemed to enjoy what she was learning.

Then she got to clinical's. This is where you learn how to care for someone. The teacher shows you new skills and you practice them. During one of the teaching sessions, the teacher was working with my daughter in front of a group of other students. Demonstrating a new skill. My daughter was positioned toward the middle of the bed for this learning demonstration, and the instructor at the end of the bed. My daughter misunderstood what the teacher was telling her, and instead of directing her what to do the teacher pushed my daughter to the head of the bed.

To know my daughter is to love her. She is not one for people laying their hands on her. Let alone being pushed. She veered back while the teacher yelled at her that she was doing this new skill wrong. She was embarrassed and angry, she was shamed for not knowing what to do when this was all new to her.

The leaders in this industry should be as outraged as I am, in the behavior of this teacher. I wish that this was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, we have all seen something similar to this, a seasoned nurse on the floor that decides that the best way to orient a new employee is through fear and intimidation.

This has got to stop.

When Hailey was a little girl, I think she was about 3 years old. She was sitting on the floor trying to put a puzzle together. She was trying to get one of the pieces of the puzzle in place. When she was not able to do so, she said loud and clear, “Damn it”. Yes, it took all of me not to laugh, but at the same time, I realized that she was mimicking what she saw me do many times before. I could not blame her, she was following the example that was set before her.

So can we blame the CNA or Nurse that has been through “hazing” and training practices that work on fear? No, we can not. When our caregivers are trained in this way, they learn by example that this type of behavior is okay. That it is okay to lay hands on a patient or elder in this manner and to speak down to them creating feelings of shame.

So, is empathy worth your time and my time. YES! Let’s think about this for a moment. If the teacher would have taken her time with the students and helped them to process through their fear and anxiety by empathizing with them, they would learn a life long skill that would help them as they work with seniors and persons with dementia.

Imagine a culture of caregivers that learn by the example of empathy, what we could create. The trickle down effect would be amazing. Creating staff that would not only use empathy with the patients they serve but their co-workers as well. Using empathy with their co-workers to ultimately make the person with dementia look good.

YES, Empathy is worth every minute we put into it. Often, people feel that empathy is something that makes our jobs take more time, I believe that it may take more time as we learn a new skill, but in the long run, it makes our lives and our jobs easier and more satisfying for all involved.

Empathy is worth OUR time. Take the time to integrate into your life. Take the time so that others can follow your example.

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