The Daily Groove


BE the Change

The following question is paraphrased from an email I received...

My 5-year-old daughter invited a friend to her birthday party, but the friend was still upset about an earlier conflict between them and said, "I don't want to go to your birthday party!" My daughter was clearly hurt by this rejection. How can I honor my daughter's feelings without invalidating the other girl's feelings?

Firstly, if you believe your daughter was hurt by the rejection, you're giving power to the other child's behavior, and you can't help either one of them feel authentically empowered from that perspective. So I would begin by reaching for empowering thoughts like "That behavior has no power of its own... We are all empowered from Within... External conditions have no power over us; it's our thoughts about conditions/behaviors that determine how we feel... No one can stop me from thinking a more empowering thought..." etc.

Once you feel centered in your own Power, you can begin to see things more clearly. For example, you might realize that your daughter's friend is simply trying to reconnect with her personal power using the only tools she can think of (i.e., the "dominator" tactics modeled by our culture). In other words, she doesn't want to hurt your daughter, she wants to feel powerful and doesn't know how else to connect with that feeling. Likewise, your daughter wants to make the same connection and, for the moment, believes that the rejection is causing the disconnection.

So they both want the same thing, and now the question is how can you best help them get it? As I said above, it doesn't help to join them in their disempowering thoughts (often called "empathy" or "validation"), but neither does it help to resist their disempowering beliefs and tell them nothing is wrong (i.e., invalidating).

A third way is available, and it's much more subtle. The part of you that wants to "DO something about it" will not be satisfied by this approach! Most of the "action" will take place on the inside, so it may seem like you're hardly doing anything at all.

The essence of this inner action is... making peace with What Is.. being able to look beneath the surface of their behavior/perceptions and know that All Is Well, in spite of appearances.

Another way to describe it is "seeing the Light at the end of the tunnel." Instead of seeing a problem, you see the solution unfolding — you expect them each to find their way and connect with their Center. They can feel that expectation, and that feeling is all they need to begin reconnecting.

This whole approach is encapsulated in Gandhi's famous advice to "BE the change" you want to see. If you want your child and her friend to KNOW their inherent powerfulness, regardless of anyone else's opinions or choices, you've got to KNOW YOUR OWN and then interact with them from that place of knowing.

Getting to that place of knowing is the inner work of parenting — and if you ask me, it's the most important work you'll ever do as a parent. :)

Can you elaborate on empathy?

From your description, it really makes sense how offering empathy and "validating" feelings can really leave both you and the other person feeling disempowered, and I can remember times where that has gotten us into a rut of complaining or stewing. That's not something I want. However, there are definitely times when I have felt that connecting with the other person through emotions has really helped establish a bond of trust and support. Can you talk a little bit more about this, or to be specific, different ways of empathizing and/or acknowledging feelings that feel more empowering? Also, is it ever disempowering to empathize with positive emotions?

Rethinking Empathy

A couple of years ago I did an hour-long teleclass on this topic, so it's a bit much to condense into one post, but I'll try... I called it "transcendental empathy" because it's about connecting with the part of the child (and oneself) that transcends the illusion of disconnection or powerlessness, which is at the root of every negative emotion. The essence of this type of empathizing is illustrated in my post above.

The important points to remember...

1. Empathize (i.e., connect) with your Inner Power first; use whatever mindfulness technique works for you to get to a place of knowing that All Is Well with YOU.

2. Accept (i.e., make peace with) your child's current state: "I accept that my child feels ______ [negative emotion], and that's okay... There's nothing wrong with that... I don't need to make him/her change... I trust that s/he is finding her/his way, and I can help by shining a light on where s/he's going..." etc.

3. Empathize (focus on) the Transcendent aspect of your child that is already where s/he wants to be. In other words, repeat step 1 relative to your child instead of yourself, and get to a place of knowing that All Is Well with him/her, too.

When you do those steps, and you've been practicing this type of empathy, you'll be overflowing with an "energy of Well-Being" that is irresistibly attractive to your child — s/he will want to be where you are and will more easily release the painful thoughts keeping him/her apart from the natural state of Well-Being.

You'll discover that much less action (DOing, explaining, fixing, etc.) is required to relieve upsets; just being Present is enough. In other words, your child will be more likely to connect with Well-Being without requiring conditions to change. That's how you teach the Art of Unconditionality — by demonstrating it, i.e., BEing the change.

Note: Don't try to teach unconditionality by withholding obvious relief-giving actions such as hugs, nursing, or physical protection — especially with babies and toddlers. The older the child, the more easily s/he can find relief through shifting focus unconditionally. There is nothing wrong with getting relief conditionally; it's just not as empowering as creating it unconditionally. But your child wants to be powerful and will eventually choose unconditional empowerment so long as YOU continue to model it.

See also: What Is 'Unconditionality'?