Cultivating Empathy: Reaping What We Sow

Cultivating Empathy: Reaping What We Sow

Are empaths born or made? The simple answer is they are both. 

Dr. Judith Orloff, professor of clinical psychology at UCLA and New York Times bestselling author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, states there are four main factors that determine empathy: temperament, genetics, trauma, and supportive parenting. Of those four, the first two stem from birth. Some babies are born with heightened awareness, and this is part of their personality. Others are genetically predisposed to be highly sensitive because of the traits of their parents or close relatives. The second set of factors are learned behaviors. Childhood trauma – like abuse, both emotional and physical – can affect a child’s level of sensitivity as an adult. On the other hand, positive parenting can help foster empathy by modeling mercy and compassion. 

In this article, we will focus on the fourth factor mentioned above, and the one that we, as parents, can control the most: supportive parenting. To answer questions about how we can guide our children to be empathetic, we interviewed Dr. Hernán Guadalupe, professor of Emotional Intelligence at ICNA National Dawah Academy. Dr. Guadalupe is also a father of six, an engineer, and a martial arts instructor for both children and adults for over 15 years. 

Question: You are currently teaching a college-level course on emotional intelligence. Tell us about the class and how it relates to parenting? 

The course introduces the fundamental principles that comprise emotional intelligence (EQ). The course focuses on defining critical terms associated with EQ, present practical methods of improving our EQ, and taking examples from the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Parenthood is a multitude of personal and intimate interactions with our young ones that create unique experiences and establish a foundation for both of us, parents and children. The way we feel and respond as parents have a lasting effect on our children that may positively or negatively impact their development. Our purpose as parents is to nurture, protect, educate, and empower our children. We achieve this goal as parents through our daily interactions with our children. Many times, those interactions and reactions are spontaneous and unexpected. As parents, we must ensure we are in-tune with our emotions and capable of managing or controlling them. This ability is essential to understand our children’s rollercoaster ride of emotions, make positive connections, and develop a healthy and long-lasting relationship with them.  

Question: What is the difference between emotional intelligence and empathy? 

Empathy is the foundation of understanding, identifying, and connecting with other peoples’ emotions, feelings, situations, and motives. Empathy is a competency of social awareness and a principle of EQ along with self-awareness, self-management, and relationship management. We cannot comprehend, appreciate, or achieve EQ without being empathetic towards others. It’s not possible. Even if someone can always recognize their own emotional state, thus having self-awareness, this person will have to interact with others at some point in their life. The reality of the world around us is that we do not live in a bubble. We share the world with others. We interact with people at various social levels and settings every day. So, our EQ depends on our ability to be empathetic towards others. 

Question: How can we teach our children empathy? 

The interesting thing about empathy is that we are all born with it. Researchers suggest that there are two forms of empathy: affective and cognitive empathy. The first form is involuntary bodily sensations or internal physical reactions that we experience towards other peoples’ emotional experiences, which are present within days of birth. Consider a baby crying when their sibling falls and starts to cry. The baby is not consciously empathetic towards the sibling; it is simply their innate emotion. 

On the other hand, cognitive empathy is an intellectual understanding of what other people are experiencing or feeling. This form of empathy comes with learning and observation. The great thing is that empathy is a skill that we can learn, enhance, and teach.

With that said, the best way to teach anything to our children is through example. As parents, we need to model empathy. We need to be empathetic towards our children and display empathy for others. We should encourage our children to express their feelings, actively listen, validate their feelings, and show affection. Our children use us as their primary reference point to model themselves, so we must display the values, morals, and behavior we wish them to inherit. 

In addition to being a good role model, it is essential to actively talk to your children about what having empathy means and the importance of considering other peoples’ feelings. Learning about empathy will help them understand that the world does not revolve around them. At times, we need to put others before ourselves, which can make us happy.

Question: How can we, as parents, use emotional intelligence when guiding our children? 

Being a parent is probably the most challenging task any human being can ever take up. You are responsible for the well-being of another life. Although many factors contribute to the outcome of an individual, I truly believe that the parents have the most influence on a child’s life. Researchers suggested that children raised by loving and supportive parents actively involved in their lives experience more significant social, psychological, and health benefits. Other researchers correlate success in life with parental presence and influence. Therefore, if our parenting directly impacts a child’s success, we must understand our emotional state to make better decisions that may influence their lives. 

The first thing we, as parents, should do to use EQ to guide our children is to learn about EQ ourselves. Researchers suggest that only 10-15% of people are self-aware. That means that 90-95% of people think they are self-aware but are not. This phenomenon is frightening, considering we are in a constant state of interaction. Emotions and feelings are transient and are constantly coming in and out. An inability to recognize these fleeting emotions may cause us to become engulfed by our emotions, leading to a feeling of being trapped or overwhelmed. This overwhelming feeling may spark an adverse reaction such as anger or hatred. 

Once we understand the principles of EQ from a theoretical perspective, we can work towards applying EQ in our lives. It all starts with self-awareness. We need to perceive and interpret our own emotions accurately. One helpful way to help improve our self-awareness is attending to our emotions. Give yourself a chance to step back from the lived experience rather than being so immersed or lost in the emotional twist. Be aware of your breathing and changes to your facial muscles and posture. An indication that your emotional state is changing is a rise in temperature, sweating, or stomach knots. Becoming aware of these sudden changes will help put you in front of any emotional distress and maintain your EQ. 

This strategy may be helpful, especially when dealing with children who may not have the ability to acknowledge and control their emotional state. As parents, we need to be the “better person.” Remember keeping cool, calm, and collected goes a long way to maintaining your EQ when raising your children. I know it is harder said than done, but we should strive to do better by them. As the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The strong is not the best wrestler. Verily, the strong are only those who control themselves when they are angry.” (Agreed upon).

Question: Do you have any examples from the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) in which he taught his companions about empathy? How can we use this example with our families? 

Masha’Allah, his prophethood is a lesson in empathy. Allah, the All-Mighty and Majestic, says in the Quran, 

“There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; (he is) concerned over you and to the believers is kind and merciful.” (Surah at-Tawbah, 9:128). 

Allah tells us in this ayat that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) was deeply connected to his ummah. The Prophet shared their happiness and sorrow. He was a mercy sent to humanity to teach us empathy such as compassion, kindness, and understanding for others. For example, the Prophet Muhammad forbade two people to talk secretly while ignoring the presence of a third person. (Agreed upon) This command was so that the third person does not perceive that the other two may be speaking about him and thus hurt his feelings. 

Another example is the famous story of the Bedouin who urinated in the masjid. The companions wanted to beat him and show him a lesson for tainting the sanctity of the masjid; however, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) stopped them from doing so, allowed him to finish, and chose to explain and correct his mistake in a calm and beautiful manner. (Sahih Muslim) Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad shortened his congregational prayer when he heard a child crying and yearning for his mother, knowing that a lengthy prayer would cause distress to the mother. (Sahih al-Bukhari)

The Prophet Muhammad would even be considerate of animals’ feelings, commanding his ummah to never over-burden or ill-feed any animal and reminding them to fear Allah for mistreatment. (Abu Dawood) 

This was our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). These are just a few examples from his life and his Sunnah. The best way to use these examples is to learn, implement them in our lives, and share them with our children. Make the Prophet’s example part of your style as a parent. Actively talk to your children and remind them of his blessed life. As Allah says in the Quran, “Verily in the Messenger of Allah you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much.” (Surah al-Ahzaab, 33:21) Know that our way of life as Muslims calls for knowledge and action. Imam al-Bukhari once said that the door of knowledge comes before speech and actions. Therefore, we must learn about prophetic empathy to strengthen our own EQ.

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