A Lesson in Empathy

Author: Karen Copeland

I came across an amazing post by Heidi Hass Gable the other day titled The Big Shift. Here is a quick snippet, I encourage you to visit the link and read the whole post:

“There are some things that, once you truly see and understand them, they change everything. Not that you change everything you say and think and do overnight. But frankly, once you see, you can’t “un-see” – and you start to notice this “thing” everywhere.”

Heidi’s post resonated with me in so many ways. One of the realizations I came to very early on with my own child was that if I could take something I was seeing from him and anchor it to my own adult experience, I had a much better understanding of what was going on for him.

One summer I decided to take up rowing. This was a somewhat odd choice for me as I *hate* getting wet, so I was stepping outside my comfort zone a bit. I soon learned to love it. There is something about being out on the water with your mind still. You can’t be thinking of anything other than keeping your balance and making sure your timing is good with your oars. Rowing became a place that was comforting to me. It provided me with the freedom to let go of the here and now and simply just be. It was beautiful. I felt confident and successful.

But one day, it changed. I was going through a particularly challenging time with my child and had been craving the escape I could feel with being on the water. I longed to simply focus on the tension in my muscles as I pushed backwards strongly with my legs and pulled the oars through the water. It was not meant to be. On this day, I was placed in a boat with a new and well intentioned instructor. The instructor wanted to teach me how to do a new “practice” skill in the boat. For the life of me, I could not get my brain and my body to coordinate! I tried harder, however each time I tried and was unsuccessful, my frustration grew. How I longed to just be on my own in the boat, doing the familiar. The instructor persisted. We spent an hour on the water on this one skill that I felt like I had no hope of mastering. I felt defeated. I felt stuck. I was ever so thankful when the lesson was over. As I stepped out of the boat onto the dock, tears stung my eyes. In the safety of my vehicle, I let them flow, allowing myself to give in to the frustration, the grief – because this was about so much more than simply not being able to do the skill. This was about the realization that this is how my son likely felt each and every day. In that moment I was hit with a new level of empathy for my child, and made a commitment to myself to do better.

I never went back to rowing. I should have, my friends tried very hard to convince me to. But I just couldn’t do it. Even now, years later, my heart hurts when I think about this. Perhaps in time this will change. I hope so. I long to get back out onto the water. To show my son that it can be done. That even though we feel defeated, we can still overcome in our own time. But in the meantime, we can think about how we can do things differently, how we can respond in a way that will encourage confidence.

That I can do.





  1. “This is how my son felt each day” – that empathy realization is so important…for both sides of the relationship. my son was more willing to ‘work with me’ after he felt I ‘understood him’ after seeing a scene in a movie that reflected ‘how he felt’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this really speaks to the importance of the relationship when we are supporting all kids. I know in my own life, I do better when I feel like someone understands me and believes in me. It is easy to get caught up in all the therapies, techniques, etc. At times I have felt bombarded with “try this, try that”. The change came when I realized relationship was paramount, started focusing on what my child was feeling / experiencing and went from there. It helps that I have all these great connections (like you!) who share their vision and encourage reflection 🙂 It reinforces to me that I am on the right path. Thank you for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Karen,

    Such an important lesson for us all. We can learn so much from just making connections from our own experiences to the experiences of others by truly trying to live in their shoes. Unfortunately, we often do not make those deep connections to help build that empathy for others. It sounds like you have and I bet your son has appreciated this understanding and compassion. Now, it is time to demonstrate (and teach) your son the resilience he needs to learn by you getting back in the boat. You can do it, Karen!

    What a thoughtful post, Karen. Thank you for sharing.


    Liked by 1 person

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