Category Archives: love

Helping a friend in a dark place: Empathy and Sympathy

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One day, not too long ago I had a challenging but helpful conversation with a good friend of mine about empathy. It started from my phone call. I had been feeling a bit sad that evening, listening to the rain and to an old wound that came throbbing again, and so I rang her. We had a little chat, made sure that both of us were cozy with a nice cup of tea and had space to catch up properly. She told me about some highlights of her week and asked how I was. Encouraged by her invitation I reached out from my sad place and attempted to tell her about what was on my mind. Before I’d even finished my first sentence she interrupted me with a big sigh:

– Ok, we’ve been there before… I thought you’ve moved on.
– I thought you wanted to know how I felt…
– Sure, I am here, do talk…
– I am trying to talk but then it sounds like you are judging me and you don’t really want to listen.
– I am not judging you. I love you and I want you to be happy.

Have you ever had a similar dialogue with a friend? I am sure we all have at some point, and have experienced both sides of it. We are probably also in agreement that one of the most valuable things one can offer a friend is what we call ‘moral support’ in a time of emotional turbulence. Yet being there for a friend in need, in the way that is actually helpful, often proves rather tricky. When a friend starts talking to us about something painful for him or her, our immediate responses are usually of two kinds:

  • They contain evaluation/judgment (i.e. a statement that suggests that we know exactly where our friend is and – moreover – where they should be);
  • They contain advice (i.e. a ‘roadmap’ or rather a ‘shortcut’ for getting out of the place where he or she is and to the place where we think they should be).

These responses are not in the least helpful – we all know it from our own experience. Yet we keep offering them and, if challenged, say that they come from a place of love.

Now… are we being hypocritical? Do we only pretend that we care for our friends? And if not, then where indeed are our responses coming from?

More often than not they originate from our own discomfort. We don’t want to be dragged into and re-experience a dark place of helplessness, confusion, pain or uncertainty. So our system sends us a warning: ‘Don’t go there!’ And, responding to this warning, we try to pull or push our friends out of that place so that we wouldn’t need to stay there. The result is that our friends feel judged, misunderstood and left alone in their struggle.

What then can we do to help a friend in a dark place? Below I share a few pointers, which I hope you may find useful.

Trust

Our mind/psyche as well as our body has natural ability to heal. However, in order to heal they require environment conducive to healing. Thus if you are down with a flu you need to stay in bed for some time. If a bone is broken it is put in a cast that holds it, while still allowing the broken parts to re-grow. The same is with emotional malaise: a safe holding space creates an environment where the fragmented pieces of meaning can gradually begin to come together and rearrange themselves in a way that makes sense.

Understanding these processes helps to relieve our urgent panicky impulse to find a ‘solution’ here and now. It is a matter of trust. We need to trust a person’s ability to heal, which is their natural capacity. We also need to understand that healing process may take a while and that what makes sense to another person may be different from our own meanings.

Broken record

We often get frustrated hearing a friend going over the same thing again and again, which seems like a broken record. But more often than not it only seems so. What is really happening is that through repetition our mind is trying to come to grips with something that is difficult to grasp. It tries and slips and tries again. Eventually it will succeed, but this may take multiple attempts over a long period of time. When we understand that we can be more patient with our friends. We can relax and, by relaxing and letting go of our own anxiety, provide a firm hold for them in the midst of their raging storm.

A dark place is not a bad place

To a great extent, our difficulty with helping ourselves or helping a friend in a dark place stems from us associating difficult emotions with ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ emotions. And so we try to get away from them as quickly as possible by pushing them down, rationalizing them or finding a distraction. This is the most common and most gross misconception. A dark place is not necessarily a bad place. In fact, it may be well a ‘good’ place, if we think in terms of our personal growth. Yes, it may be difficult and uncomfortable, painful and scary. But there are hidden treasures to be found there, however improbable it may sometimes sound. And if a person seems to linger in that dark place it means they have a sense that there is something to find there. And we need to trust them. What they need from us is our reliable presence and our reassurance that they are not alone. Then they can feel safer and bolder in their exploration and find what they need more quickly.

Building up your resilience

You may agree intellectually with all that I have said above, but this knowledge is not enough if it is not substantiated by our own experience of navigating through the dark caverns and tunnels of our psyche. Indeed, how can we help a drowning person if we don’t know how to swim? And so, learning to be comfortable with our own discomfort, learning to stay with our difficult feelings and having an experience of receiving a right kind of support makes us more prepared for helping a friend.

If you feel that you cannot be there for your friend in the right way you may gently suggest that they seek help from a professional therapist. Not because something is wrong with them and they need to be fixed, but because a therapist may be better equipped to provide them with the safe holding space that they need.

Sympathy and Empathy

These two notions may seem very close and indeed they overlap to the extent that both presuppose an ability to feel for another person. Yet sympathy often entails over-identification, when we get swamped by the other person’s emotion and begin to feel as helpless and as desperate to get out as they are. Even as a therapist, it sometimes happens to me. I then find myself slipping into a ‘fix-it’ mode, trying to ‘rescue’ a person from what I perceive as a place of danger. Such a response from my side is usually felt as unhelpful.

Empathy has two main ingredients to it: an ability to imagine what it may be like for another person and an ability to keep a certain distance from what is going on for them. This detachment doesn’t mean coldness or indifference. What it means is that we can hold a wider perspective and can trust in our friend’s ability to find their own way. Empathy allows us to step into our friend’s dark place without being overwhelmed by it.

I started this blog post by telling you about an interaction I had with a friend of mine. Following our conversation she sent me a link to this video. It is a very good illustration to the things I spoke about. Hope you enjoy it and find it helpful!

Homelessness and homecoming

Have you ever felt homeless? I don’t mean trying to imagine yourself living on the street, without a roof over your head, but the inarticulate feeling inside you that would resonate with the word “homeless”?

For many years – night in and night out – this has been a recurrent motif of my dreams. However their main plot had varied, that motif remained constant: in every dream I wouldn’t have a home of my own. I would stay at an hotel, perch in a corner of somebody’s sitting room among their busy life, sleep in half-deserted dormitories… It was the resonance with this feeling that drew me to take part in Crisis at Christmas when a friend told me about this large-scale volunteering initiative in the UK.

Crisis at Christmas

During the Christmas week the organization called Crisis (www.crisis.org.uk) hires empty schools and colleges and turns them into the residential and day-centres for people who are homeless. Some of them sleep rough, others live at squats or manage by the so-called “sofa-surfing” at their friends’ or acquaintances. At Crisis’ centres the guests receive three home-cooked meals a day and have an access to a wide variety of free services: medical checks, dentist treatments, haircut, clothes alterations, legal advice, massage, reflexology, Reiki, meditation, arts and crafts, drama classes, creative writing – you name it. And just having a chat with some friendly people also means a lot! During last Christmas (2014) 10 centres in London welcomed over 3,600 guests. More than 10,000 volunteers took part in the event, and I had a privilege to be one of them. It was my second time at Crisis at Christmas and, as the year before, it was a very profound and intense experience, which shook me and stirred many feelings and thoughts. I’d like to try and share some of them here.

What is homelessness?

What does it mean to be homeless? Is it a social phenomenon, psychological conundrum or existential condition? Or perhaps – all of those. On my way back to Cambridge I had a chat over a cup of coffee with a friend who teaches philosophy. He evoked Heidegger, the German existential philosopher who spoke of our “thrownness”: we are being “thrown” into this world, without asking for it, without choosing the circumstances of our birth and upbringing, isolated in our uniqueness, struggling to make some sense of all this.

There are levels – and layers – of homelessness. Heidegger’s is the most basic – existential level – a human condition that we all share. Some of us may experience it sharper than others, but we all experience it at some point and have to come to terms with it. Interwoven with it and, partly, evolving from it is the next level: psychological homelessness. By this I mean our needs and feelings of belonging, of being appreciated and needed, of being accepted for who we are.

From the chats that I had with the guests at Crisis I formed an impression that it is when things go badly wrong at this level that leads to the actualized homelessness when a person has no safe place of their own, neither physical nor social. They are literally thrown out: of their homes and of other people’s lives. These are people whose families rejected them, who lost their jobs, their homes, their faith in themselves and in others – and found themselves in emotional and social isolation.

Where does it begin?

As I am writing this, letting my thoughts spin, I am beginning to see the basic experiences of family and social bonding as a buffer that stops the fathomless waters of existential thrownness from crushing through the walls of human psyche and swamping it. I spoke to a young man who grew up in an orphanage; a couple of years ago he managed to track down his mother. She was now living with a young daughter, married to a wealthy man and didn’t want to know of him… I encountered a man in his sixties, who attempted suicide twice, and he has grown up children who hold good jobs and earn decent money… I can’t stop wondering what will become of these people – will they make it through this winter? And the following one?..

My initiation into Crisis has endowed me with a “survivor’s guilt” that I have to learn to accept and embrace. Yet this guilt comes together with the gift. It is a gift of hope. The hope that healing is possible. Of course, it is my own healing too that I’ve been seeking when volunteering at Crisis at Christmas. And I believe I have found some answers – at least for myself…

Naked humanness

One of the most remarkable things about Crisis at Christmas is that it is a place where people (even volunteers between themselves) don’t ask each other about what they do in the “outer” life. The usual questions that dominate most social gatherings, implicitly or explicitly, are rendered irrelevant in this context. Suddenly it doesn’t matter what your job is, how much you earn, what car you drive, what are your degrees, position, status, and so on. People get to know you from an immediate experience of you – through what you give and how you give, through how you interact with others. They get to know you by your smile, by the tone of your voice, by how you listen and how you share. It is the essential qualities that matter and on this level one is able to experience the rare moments of true equality: because even the most deprived person, outside of the very margins of society, still carries the light of his or her personality within them.

We hold on so tightly to external attributes which we believe add to our value. When we lose these attributes (even just some of them) we suffer and feel worthless. But it is when we are stripped naked of all our decorations that our humanness comes forth, shining in its vulnerable beauty. I have already discovered this simple truth through my personal journey as well as my work as a therapist, but it was my experience at Crisis that really helped it sink in.

Giving and receiving

It is very important though that in such critical moments of your life someone will be with you who can appreciate this beauty and reflect it back to you, so you can begin to appreciate it for yourself. And here I come to another crucial notion: the openness of heart. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a person who had been deprived of love and caring is that they deem themselves beyond hope and turn away from help that is being offered. Kierkegaard (to mention yet another existential philosopher) called it “shutupness or “in-closure” (Indeslutte) and deemed it the worst kind of despair.

In order to heal one has to be able to receive. And in order to receive one has to have courage to give their trust to somebody who offers them compassion and a helping hand. So the giving and the receiving are really the one thing – like yin and yang – flowing one into the other and engendering one another. I have fully experienced it at Crisis.

This year as well as the last year I have being working alongside massage and yoga practitioners, giving Reiki. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Reiki comes from an ancient tradition of healing by laying on hands. It is a very simple pure kind of touch (although some practitioners do it without physical contact) that promotes a deep sense of relaxation and helps rebalance emotions and restore physical health. It was truly amazing and infinitely moving to witness how people who sleep on the street could so totally entrust themselves to your hands, how they allowed themselves to be held and attended to. What beautiful, slightly shy smiles I’ve been greeted with when they opened their eyes re-emerging from a few moments of peace and calmness! The gift of warm-hearted child-like gratefulness generously offered. It was a healing gift for me too for at these moments I transcended my own existential homelessness and experienced a profound sense of connectedness – from heart to heart. I wasn’t alone any more, the world had meaning and my life had meaning.

Homecoming

After so many dark nights of the soul, after all my wanderings through the endless tunnels I feel that I came to be more rooted in my heart, feeling safe and comfortable there and happy to open it to others and to life. It is a wonderful and joyful experience of Homecoming.

And, in conclusion, I want to share with you a song performed by The Choir with No Name – a choir of homeless people. One of the guests at Crisis told me about them and said that singing at the choir is what kept him going. Please listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJjTe5DmGso

Whom can I trust?

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Once a month I run a personal growth group that meets at my home. Every meeting centres on a theme that we choose in advance and participants share their life experiences that relate to the theme. One of our meetings had been on the theme of trust and reflecting on it afterwards, I had been struck how everybody spoke about a situation that involved broken trust. Although we all, hopefully, have had experiences in life when our trust was reaffirmed, instances of broken trust are so painful and leave such a deep wound they come to the fore when the topic of trust is raised.

Like everybody else, in my own life I have had situations when I felt badly let down by people I put my trust in. In my therapy work too, broken trust is a recurrent theme and sometimes I hear a cry of a near despair: “Whom can I trust then?” When we have been hurt very deeply it may sometimes seem that to keep safe it might be better not to trust anybody ever again. Yet by adopting this strategy we would stop ourselves from experiencing the joy of intimate connectedness and may suffer from loneliness and isolation. So is there a way out from this conundrum? How can we trust people and keep ourselves safe?

Expectations, awareness and reality check

Broken trust always involves the fissure between our expectations of another person and their ability (or rather inability) to meet these expectations. Thus the first thing to become aware of is that we do have certain expectations. Next, we need to enquire how realistic our expectations are: whether or not the person in question can possibly meet them.

Our expectations always spring from sets of values and beliefs which may or may not correspond to that of the other person. This takes time to find out, but it is also important to keep in mind that our values and beliefs are not fixed once and for all. They change as we change while journeying through life and what we believed to be unshakable truth when we were 16 may not be the same for us when we are 30.

These changes often happen gradually and imperceptibly and may not synchronize with the changes in our friends, partners, parents or siblings. When we are unaware of this ongoing process of change (within ourselves as well as within others) we are more likely to miss the signals that inform us that we are no longer in alignment with another person. Then the risk of suffering a disappointment is higher. It also often happens that when we come under pressure or when our priorities change as a result of changing circumstances we may not be able to be there for our friends in the same way we used to.

One of the most painful losses of friendship in my life happened through my inability to appreciate the change that was taking place in my friend’s life. For several years we have been very close, shared with each other intimate concerns and helped each other through the times of emotional turmoil. Then my friend got married and the joys and challenges of her new married life have naturally become a priority to her. I, however, haven’t been able to recognize that and continued demanding that she remains engaged with me with the same intensity as before. This placed too much burden on our relationship and eventually the connection has snapped. Had I been able to understand and accept my friends’ changing needs and emotional resources we could have kept the friendship going. Yet I couldn’t… At that time I had been struggling, feeling lonely and wanting emotional support, which I used to receive from my friend, and when she distanced herself I felt abandoned.

Taking care of ourselves

It is most important to realize that no single person in this world can possibly take care of all our emotional (and/or practical) needs. Not even the best ever parents are able to meet all the needs of their children because we are such complex beings and our needs are so many and varied. Thus it is essential to become aware of the needs we have and to find ways of meeting them through different sources. Consider questions like these : What is it that makes me happy and what I can do to give it to myself? What is it I am struggling with and where I can find help?

For example, if we want companionship we can think of activities we can do with other people who share similar interests. We can’t demand or expect the satisfaction of this need solely from our partner. Similarly, when we are going through difficult times. One person – be it the most loving partner or friend – can only support us thus far, as we all have limited resources and a lot of personal challenges to deal with. So we need to seek help from a different source, such as therapy, for instance, otherwise the relationship may suffer under too much burden.

It is also important to develop an ability to be on our own. I want to avoid being misunderstood on this point. I am not trying to advocate the idea of total self-reliance. I believe this is neither realistic nor healthy. After all we are communal beings. Rather what I am trying to say is that when we are able to stay quietly with ourselves in a moment of distress we begin to hear better our inner voice that would offer us insights and guidance that we need. We become stronger and more independent, in a sense that we learn to be a source of support to ourselves.

Renewing trust

However much awareness we have it is nigh impossible to altogether avoid the situations when we feel badly disappointed and let down by others. From my own experience and through talking and working with people I came to think that, in addition to hurt, we also suffer in such instances from a sense of confusion. We momentarily lose faith in our ability to make a sound judgement about other people and situations. We feel disoriented and helpless. And then we ask the question: Whom can I trust?

Basically, what we are asking is this: Can I trust myself? Can I trust my own intuition, knowledge, perception?

In recovering trust and faith in ourselves it helps to look at the factors that contributed to us misjudging the situation or overlooking the signs of a possible fracture. These can be our beliefs, fears, past hurts or desire to see what we want to see… Alas! We are only human! When we claim responsibility for our part in the situation we reclaim our power back. We don’t any longer feel like a victim of a blind force, but feel more in control and better equipped for handling similar situations in the future.

Forgiveness

In conclusion to this rather long and very incomprehensive blog I want to say a few words about forgiveness. If you have felt unexpectedly let down by somebody whom you have known to be very trustworthy, please consider giving this person another chance. This is different from giving our trust blindly to somebody whom we don’t know that well or who consistently proved to be unreliable. Rather it is about acknowledging that we are subject to many different forces – often subconscious and very strong – that can overpower us at times and make us act out of character.

It might be sad to think that complete, 100% trust, just as an eternal love, is not really possible. Yet in this sadness we may also find greater kindness towards ourselves and towards others. And by renewing our trust we help our life and the lives of others unfold.

“I want to be heard!” The art and power of empathic listening

In an old Russian film about schoolchildren, 14-year-olds are being asked to write an essay about happiness. One boy scandalizes all the teachers by writing only one sentence: “Happiness is when you are being understood.” This phrase stayed with me since I have first watched the film as a teenager, and later on. It resonated with me. I too dreamed of being understood. My inner life was so intense that I felt an overwhelming need to share it, to show somebody my world…

But what does it mean to be understood? Can we ever fully understand another person? Can we really step into their shoes and experience their world – colours, sounds, pain and joy – as they experience it? This would mean becoming the other person, and although such a fusion of minds could perhaps be experienced in occasional exalted moments, this is an exception rather than the everyday reality. In reality, I believe, the closest to understanding the other would be hearing the other. Hearing with full presence and desire to understand as closely as you can what is it the person is trying to communicate to you. The message may be – and often is – hidden in-between the words, in a tone of a voice, in a twinkle of the eyes, in the posture of a person, so you need to listen very intently and closely.

Such type of listening is extremely rare. Think about conversations with your friends. Most often we talk over each other. The moment a friend mentions something that happened to him or her our associative memory links it to a similar event that happened to us and we get impatient to talk about it, so we don’t register much of what our friend is saying any more. Or we intercept and start speaking of ourselves. So many of our conversations resemble this:

“You know, I had an accident last week – I slipped when running after a bus and broke my wrist.”
“Oh, no, how awful!”
“Yes, I didn’t think it was something serious at first and didn’t go straight to the hospital, and by night my arm was swollen and terribly painful.”
“Yes, this happened to me when I was 12: I broke my leg falling from a bike and we only went to the hospital the following day. I spent the whole night nursing my leg and trying not to cry. But I did cry when they put cast on my leg! It was during summer holidays, by the seaside, and I was totally devastated that I had to lounge on the beach, bored, while all other kids were swimming and having fun.”

This is the story I used to tell when people spoke to me about their broken limbs. But haven’t we all been on both sides of such a conversation? It is almost as if we are being perpetually trapped in the vicious circle of impatience to talk and the frustration of not being listened to and heard. Then how do we break this cycle? I believe it can only happen intentionally and when we become aware of what is going on for us in a conversation. To listen empathically we need to be able to suspend our desire to express ourselves and give our full attention to another person. As a counsellor I can testify that it is not as difficult as it seems. Counsellors are not different from other people, but when you enter a therapy room you bracket out – intentionally and as far as you can – your own stuff and dedicate your attention to the person you are working with. Once the decision is made that you are not going to use this space for talking about yourself, it becomes reasonably easy to focus on your conversation partner.

Another common challenge on the way of empathic listening is the urge to give advice trying to “fix” either our friends or their situation. Although, very occasionally, our constructive suggestions may be taken onboard, most usually unsolicited advice elicits resistance or even offence. Even though I have already been working as a therapist and have been aware of the importance of non-judgemental listening I have still done the same “fixing” mistake when talking with my friends. I would try to show them their patterns of behaviour that were not helpful or try to explain the psychology of interpersonal situations. And one day a friend, having lost her patience in a telephone conversation, has screamed at me: “Can’t you just listen? I just want to talk and get it out of my chest! I want to be heard – I don’t want to be fixed!”

Although it seems to us that our intention in giving advice is to help our loved ones, more often than not the true reason for this urge to come up with a solution is our own discomfort at staying with difficult emotions. We may feel helpless, concerned, anxious. And we are trying to alleviate this discomfort of ours by “fixing” them. As one of my clients said, when we explored the sources of miscommunication with his wife: “I got it, it is really true: when my wife is trying to talk to me about her concerns and I am telling her ‘don’t worry!’ I am actually saying ‘don’t worry me with it’!”

Advice always presupposes evaluation or judgment (even if positive), and haven’t we all had enough of that? Can I be let simply be, imperfect as I am, in joy and foolishness and sadness? In myself, in my clients and in people with whom I hold emotional conversations I recognize this longing… The longing to be accepted just as we are. Yet it is difficult to withhold our judgements and opinions when listening to a person in distress. We want to do something, we want to be able to help, not to remain passive. Well – to this I may say that we tend to greatly underestimate the power of empathic listening. This kind of listening is not a passive act, for you need to listen with your whole being, to immerse yourself in the process.

Carl Rogers, one of the pioneers of Humanistic psychology and a founder of person-centred therapy wrote that when a person “finds someone else listening acceptantly to his feelings, he little by little becomes able to listen to himself” (On Becoming a Person). When we are being listened to in this particular way, when we feel accepted as we are, we begin to get in touch with our inner being, our own inner guide that will unlock hidden resources for healing and growth.

 

Self-love and selfishness

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When I speak of self-love many people say “But isn’t it selfish to love one’s self?”

When I first came across the concept of self-love my reaction was exactly the same.  It took me years to really grasp the difference between selfishness and loving one’s self. I believe the confusion stems from the complexity of the idea of love, in general, as well as from a common distortion in our upbringing.  We are taught to respect other people’s needs and feelings but are not taught to respect or even understand our own. This is because much of our upbringing aims at creating a person who would conveniently fit into society, rather than at helping one to become a fulfilled, self-sufficient, independent individual.

Thus, for instance, when a boy of four runs around in a supermarket the mother scolds him for disturbing other people. While it is true that the comfort of other shoppers ought to be respected, the disciplinary “lesson” often takes place without consideration of the physical and emotional needs of the four-year old. Perhaps it would be better not to take him shopping at all because at this age he is unable to stand still in a queue or walk quietly alongside his mother. In reality, however, this is not always possible. And thus the suppression of the natural needs of a child begins, and his subconscious begins to pick up a message that there is something wrong with him, and that the needs of others should be respected while his own natural needs do not deserve the same consideration. This message, reinforced many times in diverse situations, becomes ingrained in a child’s psyche. This child then grows into an adult who believes that his or her inner needs are of no importance, in comparison with the needs of other people.

This is just a small example, but it allows us to trace how imperceptibly, without any major trauma, our ability to recognize and respect our inner needs can be undermined. Sometimes this happens through the lack of differentiated psychological insight in parents. For instance, in my childhood I was repeatedly told by my father that I was selfish when I refused to share sweets with my little sister, a year and a half younger than me, or would not play with her instead of my friends. When as a young adult struggling with self-esteem I confronted my father about this, he replied: “Yes, I told you that because I did not want you to grow up selfish.” This was, apparently, his preventative care. And such well-meant measures may affect us for years to come.

So what is the difference between selfishness and self-love?

Through my many attempts at explanation, I have found it helpful to draw an analogy between caring for one’s self from the point of view of a child and caring for one’s self from the point of view of a loving and supportive parent. In the examples above I have highlighted some mistakes commonly made by parents. Presently, I would like you to think of an ideal parent model; of a parent who is a psychologically aware, mature and caring individual able to offer a child unconditional love combined with healthy boundaries.

Selfishness in this analogy is similar to a child’s idea of fulfilling his/her needs (for the sake of brevity I will continue to write using the masculine gender). As a child’s awareness of his needs, in a holistic and long-term context, is not sufficiently developed, he will frequently confuse gratification of his desire with what is good for him. For example, he may want to eat half a kilo of ice cream. That would be taking care of his craving, but not of the actual needs, of his health and wellbeing. Or imagine a child of five or six who takes a toy from a friend and does not want to give it back because he has taken a fancy to it. In the short term, this child may fulfill his desire, but in the long term – especially if he continues to behave in this way – he risks losing his friends.

I hope I am making my point clear. I am trying to say that being selfish, in my perception, amounts to the inclination to obtain immediate gratification of our desires, regardless of the long-term consequences for our emotional and physical wellbeing. And while striving for this gratification we can also hurt other people. While I don’t yet have children of my own I have been spending a fair amount of time with children of my friends.  This has given me plenty of chances to observe their thunderous struggles with their “I want it NOW!”

I often empathize with them as I recognize it within myself, even though at a different level. More often than I would like I recognize the little child within me who screams “I want it NOW!” And it takes the mature, parent-like part of myself to help that child realize what attitude or action would really be in her best interests.

Now, the caring parent who is aware of his/her child’s needs may sometimes say no to the child for the sake of the child’s health or emotional wellbeing. This restriction, however, would be based on the understanding of the child’s developmental needs, challenges and desires. It would also come with an expression of acknowledgment and an appropriate explanation in a form the child will understand. If such a parent has to reprimand the child for some misbehaviour, she/he would make it clear that it is the behaviour that is being “bad,” not the child himself. And, of course, discipline would be followed by forgiveness, so that the child would stay confident that his parent’s love is always there and that it is ok to make mistakes, because this is how we learn. And making mistakes does not make anyone a bad person; it only shows us the direction in which we need to develop.

When parents take care of their children in this way they validate the children’s feeling of self-worth and create a nurturing environment in which children are free to grow as persons, gradually developing the awareness of their own needs, of the needs of others, and how these two sets of needs interrelate.

Parenting our selves in such a way is what I would call self-love. This love is a form of caring that is based on the recognition of our value as a human being and as a person; it presupposes the acknowledgment of our needs, desires, wants, challenges and struggles; it knows how to forgive and how to encourage; it appreciates our individuality and tries to create conditions that would be best for our personal growth and wellbeing.