As I sat in the departure area waiting to board a recent flight, a middle-aged woman sitting across from me took a call on her cell phone. It was hard not to overhear the almost immediate anguish in her voice. I garnered pretty quickly that she was getting news of a death.
Her face turned gray and her voice shook as she tried to console the bereaved person on the other end of the phone. "Oh honey, you can't blame yourself," and, "I'm so sorry. This is such sad, sad news."
And then, "Well, you never know, he might reschedule. Maybe he just got busy."
Wait. Say, what?
This call wasn't about a death or illness. It was about a date or a meeting that had been canceled unexpectedly. From the nature of her comments, I gleaned this woman was talking with one of her children. And, despite her obvious care and kindness, I started wondering: At what point does empathy become toxic or enabling?
Here's the part where I extrapolate on this event. Because, if I'm right and she was talking to a young adult child of hers, we should all take long looks in the mirror. Why? Because in this age of ladies room selfies and Facebook photos of our dinner plates, our younger folks are running the risk of confusing the mundane with the cataclysmic.
And, if we of supposed greater maturity indulge them in this trajectory, we're contributing to a whole generation of young people who will be seriously lacking in appropriate, self-modulated coping skills.
As parents, we have the responsibility to model resilience for our kids. To teach them to manage disappointment. To show them that not every slight is life-altering—and that a medical diagnosis and not making the varsity team don't deserve the same emotional response.
Here's what I want my kids—and yours—to know:
1. Sad happens. If you live and breathe, unhappy things will happen to you and those you love. No amount of education or money or therapy will shield you from disappointment and grief. Prepare for these moments by knowing they will come, but embrace life to the fullest in the in-between spaces.
2. Mitigate regret. When you're young, regret is a vague concept. But as you get older, it hits you square in the nose. Do your best to honor yourself and others every day so you don't look back with a whole lot of woulda, shoulda, couldas under your belt. Ask yourself, "How will I look back on this decision? With pride? With embarrassment?" Then, go from there.
3. Guilt is just a feeling. Does guilt have its place? Sure. But when you feel guilty about something, acknowledge it for what it is—an emotion—and do your best to move on. Don't allow your lives to be stalled or crippled by this Sneaky Pete. And sever ties with anyone who preys on that guilt to control or manipulate you.
4. It's not always about you. Someone says something unkind? Criticizes you unfairly? More often than not, they're talking about themselves. Haters feel hated, so they lash out at others. If you take a moment to understand this, you'll be able to shake it—and them—off more quickly.
5. Not every feeling is worthy of a Petri dish. There will be plenty of opportunities to reflect on your own behaviors or those of others. Do yourself a favor, and don't get sucked into putting every conversation or interaction under a microscope. You'll be exhausted by the time you're 30.
6. Don't expect perfection. Even the people you love and trust will say and do things that really sting. Learn now that relationships are complex in all of their beauty and pain. If you expect your inner circle will always get it right, you're setting yourself up for crushing disappointment.
7. Run from drama. We all get caught up in it. It can be mesmerizing but, more often than not, it's an energy-drain. You have better things to do with your time than getting caught in a web of high emotion with a very low return.
8. Take the blame. If you consistently point the finger at others to account for your unhappiness and mistakes, you're doomed for doom. Even when fault seems to fall squarely on another's shoulders, ask yourself, "What part did I play in this? How could I have handled it differently?" Without this ability, you're signing up for a life of bitterness with a capital B.
9. Choose wisely. Most things in life have a choice component. Staying in a bad relationship? Your choice. Continuing to work for an abusive boss? Same. Exercise your autonomy by recognizing situations in which you're able to make healthy changes to your benefit.
10. Find your tribe. Surround yourself with like-minded people who respect and like you (and vice-versa). By linking your life to those who challenge and inspire you, you'll find you have less time for the drama queens and kings, and more time for peace, equilibrium, and goal-setting. Any relationship that brings you down instead of lifting you up messes with your soul. Move on from toxic people as quickly as your legs will carry you.