Empathy: I did not actually learn what this word meant until I was fifteen years old. I was about to spend the summer doing a leadership program at my camp, and was required to first complete a small handbook with some introductory exercises. My dad was sitting with me at the kitchen table when the question arose in the handbook asking me what traits I had that would help me as a leader. He answered, “Empathy.” I told him I had already listed “Sympathy.” He told me that I was not only sympathetic, but empathetic, and continued to explain the difference to me. Suddenly, I understood part of myself I had been blind to. My favorite book growing up was Secret Life of Bees, and I had always related myself to May Boatwright, one of the characters who takes it on herself to feel the pain of others. Simply, she was totally engrossed in her empathy for others that it almost controlled her life. While I knew the differences between us, I felt connected to her. But, as I grew older, I realized that this was not a trait that all people had, especially my group of friends in high school.
Boundaries: Me and my dad had a much different relationship then me and my mother. She has, throughout my life, always acted and treated me more as a friend then as a daughter. She basically is my best friend. And while this has its perks, it has also had its downsides. Senior year, I was turning eighteen, and my mom was having an internal crisis as she prepared for her youngest daughter to become and adult and be sent out into the world. In the weeks leading up to my birthday, my mom started to take more and more out on me, and get mad at me for silly things that I couldn’t even wrap my head around. She took all her worry out on me. It even sent me into a bit of depression as well, because I was equally as stressed and nervous as her, and didn’t even have her to talk to about it with. A few days before my 18th birthday, she exploded, yelling and screaming, and told me she wasn’t going to acknowledge my birthday. At the time, this tore me apart. I immediately grabbed my keys and headed for the door. But, when I sat in my car, I realized I didn’t even know where to go. Enlisting support from any of my friends would only result in sympathy. To me, sympathy is almost like pity. It upsets me more when people have sympathy for me, I’d almost rather them not try to help at all. I needed empathy.
Dad to the Rescue: If there was one empathetic person I knew, it was my father. He always taught me to give people the benefit of the doubt. So, I put my car in drive and drove straight to my dad’s house. I was still crying when I got there and he opened his front door. Without even asking what was wrong, he hugged me. He didn’t say a word. How could it be that “I’m so sorry” or “At least…” or “Don’t worry it will turn out fine” would have sounded worse then silence? As much as I loved my friends and knew they would have listened to me vent, I couldn’t stand to see how unaffected they were from my pain. This was not the case with my dad. Maybe its because I am his child and he is programmed to react this way, I knew he would have been empathetic regardless. Seeing me upset immediately changed his body language in a way that it was obvious he was hurting too. He listened to me and actually thought through everything I was saying, and rather then act how my mother had been, he set boundaries with me. If I had done something wrong, he would tell me, but then help me to resolve it. I left my dad’s house feeling like a weight had been lifted off me and far more connected with my dad then I ever had.