A short essay on the phenomenon of empathy and how it can
serve as a gateway into the Transpersonal through
the relationship we have with our children.
By Gary Caganoff
The empathic parenting style is based on very different ethics of child raring to the dominant punitive authoritarian parenting of the pre WWII generations, and different again from the permissive parenting style that grew out of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s work post WWII (Grille, 2005, p79, p85). Both these latter styles of parenting are still the dominant child-raring practices in our society.
The authoritarian style of parenting aims to, ‘train the child to conform to cultural norms… Where the parent, while (perhaps) not lacking affection, tends to view the child through a moral lens that dichotomises behaviour into ‘good’ and ‘bad’’ (Grille, 2005, p69). This style of child raring enforces discipline and control in order to bend the child to fit parental and social expectations, which limit self-expression and tries to create the ‘good child’ (Grille, 2005, p69-80) who gives ‘unquestioned obedience’ (Grille, 2005, p79 & Frazier, 2000, web page). Authoritarian parenting uses punishment, manipulation, and shaming (Grille, 2005, p83-90) in all their shades of grey to control the child and doesn’t recognise the child’s own process of individuation and growing need for autonomy (Frazier, 2000, web page). This excessive control and lack of closeness in relationship promotes perfectionism in the ‘good’ child and rebelliousness in the ‘bad child’ at the expense of her emotional growth (Frazier, 2000, web page) and also her connection to ‘self’. ‘Self’ being, all the contents of the psyche fully integrated with soul and spirit, which is ‘the source of authentic independence and total responsibility’ (James, 1994, p110).
For the post WWII generation brought up by more liberal parents, influenced by Dr. Spock and others like him, the break with authority made way for the social-liberating changes of the 1960s (Grille, 2005, p85). However, ‘while Spock challenged the harshness of authoritarian parenting he offered little modelling for asserting interpersonal boundaries with children’ (Grille, 2005, p85).
The opposite of authoritarian ‘control’ parenting is permissive ‘out-of-control’ parenting, where you, as the parent, allow your child to control you, the parent, through your own compliance, indulgence, or indifference (Paul, 2007, web page). This boundary-less ‘permissive’ parenting, like its over-baring opposite, also diminishes the child’s awareness of self through ungroundedness and confusion of ‘who am I?’ and ‘where I do I fit in?’ to society and the rest of the world.
Psychohistorian Lloyd DeMause (1998) claims that historically, ‘all social violence…is ultimately a consequence of child abuse’. Child-raring practices throughout the ages have focused primarily on the fears of the adult rather than the needs of the child. Today, as our society showers itself with instant gratification, there is little realisation that there is a much deeper fear in the shadows of the human psyche. It is the fear to love fully and to be loved totally. And because it is hiding unowned in the shadows it is projected out into the world as fear. DeMause states that all child abuse, whether subtle or severe, comes from adults projecting the disowned aspects of their psyches onto children, ‘so they can control these feelings in another body without danger to themselves’ (DeMause, 1998).
When my now seven year old daughter was only seven months old I watched my own mother lift her smiling, gurgling granddaughter up to her face and tell her, as if it were the one thing she must remember for the rest of her life; that she has ‘got to be a good girl’. I wondered what my mother’s fear was that didn’t trust her granddaughter to be ‘a good girl’? I am a product of my parents. Several times in that first year of her life I caught myself walking through the front door, picking her up and asking her if she has been a ‘good girl’ today? The idea that children have to be ‘good’ is simply to conform to suit our own fear-based needs. My fear is, that if she is a ‘bad girl’ I will be seen as a ‘bad’ father. Looking beneath the fear into the feeling, without judgment, explodes the illusions of the concepts of good and bad which frees both of us up to be ourselves so we can be real with each other. I am not expecting her to be ‘good’ and she doesn’t let her sense of self get lost in wanting to please daddy by being ‘good’ to receive the love she needs, even when she feels hurt.
The result of both authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting are relationships not entirely based on love but operate more out of fear. With so little love in a relationship there is little empathy. On the other hand empathic parenting seems to be the lysis of the two dominant child raring styles.
Empathic parenting places a great deal of attention on children’s emotional needs. It is based on the parent, ‘trusting the child’s emotional needs, as natural and appropriate… and responding to those needs’ (Grille, 2005, p271). Empathic parenting aims to, ‘promote and foster the natural development of empathy’ (Grille, 2005, p219) in children rather than the values-driven morality of authoritarianism. Psychologist Robin Grille (2005) explains that,
Rules of morality are an abstraction, which can be adhered to by rote without any emotional conviction… (On the other hand) Empathy is an internal and natural morality, it emerges spontaneously because it is fuelled by the heart. (Grille, 2005, p219)
Helping children develop empathy uses methods that focus on the development of the child’s emotional intelligence which promotes healthy interpersonal boundaries, bringing an end to parenting as ‘a battle between good and evil (Grille, 2005, p83-90). This teaches children to be aware of other people’s boundaries and to understand how their behaviour impacts on others (Grille, 2005, p83-90). However, for the child to develop empathy the parents or primary carers must also know empathy.
Empathy is, ‘the recognition and understanding of another’s suffering’ (West, web page). For a parent to understand a child’s suffering they must first be in touch with their own suffering. Empathy is openness in receiving and holding another person’s experience without judgment (ibid). For a parent to be less judgmental of their child and therefore project less of themselves onto them, they must be able to observe and work through their own emotional reactions that are triggered by the child’s actions. Working through them frees up the adult to be present with the child. Empathy involves entering into and staying present in the experience without moving away from that experience by trying to change it (ibid). And ‘empathy establishes a deep connection of mutual vulnerability and intimacy’ (ibid) allowing your ‘authentic’ self to come to the fore, where all your feelings, including love, joy, sadness, tiredness and anger are allowed to be ‘reflected congruently in your words, your gestures, (and) your voice’ (Grille, web, 2007).
The foundation of a baby’s emotional security comes through having its needs met, and as she grows and discovers and explores her own ‘otherness’ this foundation of trust is used as a platform to develop interpersonal boundaries. Whereas the baby sees the parent to be an extension of itself, the toddler begins to see the parent as a separate self which will enable her own independent self to emerge (Grille, web, 2007). A gradual change of tack is needed from the parent as the child grows, which will allow the parent, not to keep giving the child its every want, but to express a broader range of their own feelings, ‘to begin asserting more of their own needs and personal boundaries’ (ibid). Free of punishing or humiliating reactions the adult can expect considerate behaviours appropriate to the age of the child, and the toddler’s tolerance for disagreement grows stronger and her resilience matures (ibid).
As the child discovers that there are limits and that others have their own needs, not getting what they want can lead to frustration and then turn into tantrums and rage. And how does the empathic parent deal with this? Grille states that, without shaming, blaming or punishing, the ‘free expression of anger is a major conduit of love and intimacy. Anger is simply about revealing ourselves to each other, it is a meeting in passion’ (Grille, web, 2007). The object of this is about making ‘contact’ with the child, listening and validating their anger, not overpowering, nor giving in to them (ibid). It is empowering for the child to be able to safely express his rage. His right of protest is what heals him, it creates confidence that when the world is frustrating it won’t damage his core (ibid). However, the space must be contained with empathy by the adult who is not easily triggered into their own childhood hurts. Grilles gives an example of empathic parenting in action. Once he and his six year old daughter were mad at each other, arguing with lots of dead-end griping such as: ‘but you said…!’ He decided to short circuit the situation and suggested to her, ‘why don’t we just show each other how angry we both feel?’. She agreed and as they stood facing each other at equal eye level she gripped her fists and screamed at him. He saw her face redden and her ‘fury quake through her whole body aimed at me through her eyes’. And he then roared back, a half roar at first, so as not to scare her.
How wonderful to be free to roar together, in perfect safety. We had found a raw and true relationship, with no winners – just two titans, equals, and in love. (Grille, web, 2007)
I used this method successfully in a similar situation when my daughter was five. After roaring at each other we both burst into laughter and fell into each others arms. The issue was completely forgotten. This is an example of how anger can enhance relationships and not destroy them. It teaches the child (and the adult) that mature love encompasses all feelings and it embraces opposing point of view.
Empathy in Psychology
The concept of empathy only entered the English language in 1909 when it was translated from the German ‘Einfühlung’ (Titchener, in Håkansson, 2003, p2). In 1957 psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut believed that empathic failures in childhood led to difficulties in self-actualisation. In his ‘self-psychology’ method, where empathy is used, the therapist had to take themselves, ‘through a process of “vicarious introspection”, into the mental life of the client’ (Håkansson, 2003, p6).
Only in the last few decades has mainstream psychology begun to recognise the importance of empathy (viewing people as a subject rather than an object) and its potential in their work. Today it is agreed amongst psychologists that very little is known about the phenomenon of empathy and how it relates to other phenomena (Håkansson, 2003, p1). What is agreed is that empathy is impossible without some sense of caring (ibid).
In Transpersonal Psychology we use empathy to become ‘one’ with the client through ‘alert stillness’ (Crucible Centre, 2007). However, to do this we must have done our own inner work, for we can only know our clients as well as we know ourselves, therefore we can only take them as far as we ourselves have gone. This is why our own inner work is so important as therapists, we can only accept others when we have accepted ourselves. It is not what we do as therapists, it is what we are, and when we are able to unconditionally accept others only then can transformation occur in the client (Crucible Centre 2007).
As Adults empathy isn’t something that is learned, it is a phenomenon that arises as we remove the layers of grief that covers our hearts. Grille says, empathy is ‘fuelled by the heart’ (Grille, 2005, p219), and it is only when our hearts are loosened can empathy arise. Parents who have worked through their own childhood issues are able to be more present and authentic with their children and are triggered less by the child’s needs. The less emotional wounding the child receives in the womb, at birth, and during early years, the more chance they have of becoming well balanced adults with a great capacity to love and care, which the world is crying out for.
Dealing with our shadows, projections, and childhood wounds are the first positive moves towards attaining world peace. However this is not the end of it. The next step, if you choose to accept the mission, is to continue to enquire into the truth about yourself. It takes courage and commitment to explore who we really are, and only after self-inquiry takes you through the existential realms can the depth of inner peace be experienced. The original fear, the source of all our fears, is the fear of death. And this fear stops us from truly living life in freedom. This original fear goes back to the decisions we made in the womb, the trauma of birth, the influential experiences soon after, and the karma we bring with us.
In the womb we are ‘one’ with the Divine, we are fully conscious of the higher elements of Self, Spirit and Soul, as well the lower elements of intuition, essence, and life-force. When we are born we begin to lose this ‘oneness’ as we learn the false nature of duality. As our original form becomes more distorted we begin to feel unsafe resting in the spaciousness of the void. Our separation from it then brings not the experience of infinite space, but the feeling of infinite emptiness. When we experience this loss we withdraw from the core of our being. This is where we meet inconsolable grief. However, because it is too painful for the child to deal with, and also from the pressures put on us to fit into society, we begin to suppress the grief of our loss. We cover up the experience of the original inner self and begin to make decisions and form beliefs about the world outside of ourselves. We begin to sense that the threats come from the outside. This is how we develop the roles of victim/perpetrator and develop a deep fear, which at its very depth is not just a fear of death but the fear of complete annihilation. This is the illusion created by the isolated ego that cannot bear to confront the pain. This is the base fear that forces us to project our pain outwards onto others. The projection of our suffering onto children has been the dominant mode of child-raring for millennia, which keeps us on the treadmill of violence, continuing generation after generation. Now, as we begin the journey towards a more empathic society we can catch glimpses of what lies beyond.
Beyond empathy there lies another phenomenon that is only just beginning to be explored and understood. This phenomenon doesn’t ‘connect’ two subjects, as empathy does, it ‘enfolds’ them. They become one. Jung called this the metwelt – ‘that which holds neither, but holds both’. In Transpersonal Psychology this is where the therapist energetically enfolds the client. There is no separation. It is an ‘attunement’ of souls where the therapist can guide the client down to the deepest levels. Ken Wilber calls this, ‘harmonic empathy’, which he explains is, ‘the interior equivalent between two sentient beings: a type of felt resonance or mutual prehension’ (Wilber, 2007), similar to a piano who’s vibrating string sets off a resonation in the same string of a neighbouring piano. When two people who resonate on the same level are present they are in a ‘duel field’, which, ‘in its purest sense… is a resonance that occurs without exchanges, just direct co-presence’ (Wilber, 2007).
As a therapist I have to be present in my own soul to be present in the ‘duel field’ with the client. As a parent I also have to be present with my own soul to consciously connect with the baby’s soul. Several times in the first three months after my daughter’s birth I found her staring at me in a most unusual way. Her face was expressionless, but not blank. Her eyes were soft and still, simply looking at me without want or need. With my experience in soul work I recognised that her soul was looking at my soul. I simply stopped everything I was doing and matched her gaze, dropping away the egoic thoughts in my head and finding the stillness and space where soul sits in me – where I simply ‘am’. Slipping into this space, an energy inside of me arose. The moment this happened my daughter laughed, as if she had felt it too, and/or seen it in my eyes. I got excited with this acknowledgment of our deeper connection, which got me back into my head, but I quickly dropped the thoughts again and slipped back into the soul space. Again, as the energy arose in me, she laughed. Around us I felt a greater force of energy holding us both. Wrapped in this blanket of deep love we stared at each other for a few minutes which seemed like eternity.
This experience was the metwelt, where neither of us held each other, yet we were both held. I found connecting to my three month old child easier than connecting to my clients simply because on her behalf there was no ego driven fears that were resisting connection, and when I cleared my own fears for the moment there is nothing between us except a love that is closer to fullness and totally.
When she was eight months old we had infectious laughing sessions, where she laughed for no reason, simply for the sake of it, and we all joined in.
There is another phenomenon that lies even deeper than harmonic empathy. Wilber calls it the ‘transcendent self’ (Wilber, 2007), where, in the spiritual sense, there is only one Self that is present in everything. Presence, ‘the immediate now-ness of all awareness’, permeates everything (Wilber, 2007). I believe this is the type of awareness the Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharshi holds. His primary teachings are without words. His teachings are simply through Presence, assisting people to become aware of the reality of themselves, through direct experience. This is the potential for human consciousness, and it seems to be achievable as a species not only through meditation but also by how we relate to our children.
Gary Caganoff is a Transpersonal Psychotherapist practicing in Leura in the Blue Mountains of NSW Australia, working with individuals, couples, teens and children.
DeMause, L. (1998) The History of Child Abuse, The Journal of Psychohistory 25 (3) Winter, The International Psychohistorical Association, New York.
Frazier, B (2000) Parenting Styles, The Successful Parent Website, 352 Media Group
Grille, R. (2005) Parenting for a Peaceful World, Longueville Media, Alexandria, Aust.
Grille, R. (2007) After Attachment… What then? Kindred Media, Byron Bay.
Håkansson, J. (2003), Exploring the Phenomenon of Empathy, Dissertation, Department of Psychology, University of Stockholm.
James, J. (1994) Notes to Transformation, West Grinstead Publishing, Leura.
Johnson, R.A. (1991) Owning Your Own Shadow Harper Collins, San Francisco.
Liedloff, J. (2004) The Continuum Concept, Penguin Books Ltd, London.
Naish, F. & Roberts, J. (2002) The Natural Way to Better Breastfeeding, Doubleday, Sydney.
Paul, Dr M (2007) The Permissive Parent, Inner Bonding Educational Technologies Inc
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principals, The (1955), Oxford University Press, London.
West, T.B (2003) Empathy and Compassion, Macmillan Encyclopedia on Death and Dying;
Wilber, K. (2007) Excerpt C: The Ways We Are In This Together, Shambala Publications,