How Empathy Creates Intimacy

by jane arie baldwin

Ruby & MeLearning from each other. Learning as we go.

Ruby & Me
Learning from each other. Learning as we go.

Growing up, anger controlled my family’s mood and behavior.  Anger kept our true feelings hostage. As kids, my brothers and I were not encouraged to express how we really felt unless we were in a good mood.  If our emotions and reactions were negative we would get a negative response, if they were positive we would get a positive response.  As a result our emotions became like prisoners, held hostage in the name of love.  We learned to shove our negative feelings down deep and only express the positive ones which often resulted in faking the positive ones because with positiveness we were rewarded with hugs and kisses and messages of, “I love you.” We had no dialog about emotions.  We could not navigate through complex feelings.  My family did not have the tools to view conflict in a positive light.  Intimacy and connectedness suffered because of it and now that we children are adults with our own kids and our parents are older we all strive to approach each other with wisdom and respect, learning from our mistakes of the past, and sometimes we still miss our mark.

I have no horror stories about a drunk or drugged up parent. My parents did not even drink alcohol.  From the outside we looked like a normal family but at home behind closed doors its as if my parents beat themselves and sometimes each other with a bag of oranges.  The wounds and scars could not be seen because many were psychological and handed down from past generations that did not know how to express a level of intimacy and connectedness with each other. We are all doing our best to heal the past and learn to trust the members of our tribe.

What I saw in my childhood told me this:  If I am angry it is my right to be mean, it’s the permission of anger – to explode it outward and let those around me know that what they had done had affected me and they would be paying for it.  If those around me don’t want to experience my outbursts then they need to learn how to act around me.

So now my biggest fear has come to pass – I have a daughter.  For years, I avoided the prospect of having children because I did not want to face this uncomfortable aspect from my past – dealing with my anger, regurgitating mother’s mistakes, her mother’s mistakes.  I am learning, exploring, reading and practicing – finding my own way to soften the edges of my experience and send it with love into the next generation.

A friend recently said to me, “What I’m going to tell you took me many years of therapy.”

I perked my ears, listening close for some bits of wisdom about creating a healthy relationship with my daughter.

She said, “I would tell my daughter in moments of blaming me and hating me for the divorce with her father, “You have a right to be angry.  And, you can be mad at me.  But you can’t be mean to me.”

To be honest, I had never before made the distinction before between ANGER and MEANNESS.  To see anger as separate.  My friend offered me a  new language that would once and for all replace these outmoded ideas of how relationships work.

“How liberating”  I thought.

It was the beginning of a new understanding – that conflict can be robust AND loyal.  

Conflict doesn’t have to be a betrayal.  

As long as she is not being mean to me it’s all fair game. She can hoot and holler as long as she is expressing her feelings – using words, staying present, vocalizing what her body is feeling and her mind is telling her.  All of that is fair game.  What is not fair game is blame, that somehow what she is going through is my fault, that I am the cause of all that she feels.

My greatest test at this point is empathy, letting her feel her feelings and explore her emotions. To let her get to know them in a way that my generation could not without being labeled too emotional and too weak.  It’s hard sometimes to not get caught up in the old tape running through my head — My mother didn’t let me act that way and so I’m not going to let you! —  Yet I know in my heart, the more I can let her know that I understand what she is going through, the more space I create between us where trust and mother-daughter intimacy can develop.

So I hold my tongue, at least more times now than at any other point in our nine years together. I let her have her fit, her say, her moment.  Then I can be ready to meet her eyes with eyes that say — I may not agree with you but I can hear you and I’m here for you, always.