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Making amends for distance created years ago over fights you can’t remember

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

This article was first published on LinkedIn

For over two years, we have trekked along the continuum of ignoring to embracing Covid in our daily lives with varying success. We are now further knotted in a war with reach rippling across the globe. The tentacles of uncertainty are so entangled that I cannot help but feel this continuous danger and a heightened sense of anxiety living in Taiwan as an expat.

Ever since my Dad passed away suddenly seven years ago, I looked into how best to reorganize my life to spend some time with my Mom. I had not lived with my parents since I went to England for my A-levels and home then was Hong Kong. More than four decades and three countries later, relocating to Taiwan, my Dad’s birthplace and my Mom’s retirement destination, turned out to be quite an undertaking, starting with paperwork to leave Jakarta and paperwork to enter Taiwan for myself, my Scottish Terrier, and my Domestic Short Hair, something that most expats are familiar with having to have to move from countries to countries every three to five years. I had visited Taiwan many times and I am pretty fluent in Mandarin. I am nonetheless an expat in my parents’ country.

It was with excitement and adventure when I moved into this townhouse about two kilometers from my Mom’s apartment in the autumn of 2019. One week later, my 40-foot container of household goods arrived from Jakarta and my Mom moved in with me for a couple of weeks because the lift in her apartment building was undergoing extended maintenance servicing. Tension slowly built over nothing and everything, from how to cook an egg to which TV show to watch to how to decorate. My stomach knotted tight, eyes welled up every time I watched her climb the stairs up to her room after each of those silent snaps, and I promised myself I would do better, be more patient, try to put myself in her shoes. I reminded myself my coach training and that I am a certified professional coach.

My Mom took in more than I realized during the couple of weeks she stayed with me. In a number of occasions, she would tell visiting friends and family how she teared up every night as I gathered trash in the house and took it outside to the complex dumpster. People usually laughed, indulgently, mostly bemused. I was embarrassed, brushing off the tenderness of being touched by my Mom’s attention, that she empathized with my more than two decades in Indonesia, serviced by a team of domestic help, and that I did not do much housekeeping, cooking, or driving until now.

We tended to our own day-to-day. I tried to adjust to my new environment, and I could see how independent and capable my Mom was. Then we were engulfed by Covid with new realities and vulnerabilities. I started to believe that if Mom was not in Taiwan I would have been somewhere else and life would have been better and easier. And then a shift as I started to accept that I was an expat living in Taiwan, even though it is my parents’ home. I was able to ease into a flow of shopping with my Mom, going out to dinners with family when possible, receiving calls from her checking if I felt the vibrations of distant earthquakes, and gluing to our respective TV sets binging on different series, all in the midst of Covid.

In its May 1st, 2021 issue, The Economist puts Taiwan as “The most dangerous place on Earth” on its cover. The claim then seems to be closer to reality now. The uncertainty looms widening the gap between the known and the unknown. My Mom and I now discuss options as events unfolding, putting ourselves in one another’s shoes. Part of being an expat is to make an impact in a country other than your own. I came here initially to support my Mom. I am beginning to feel that I am able to hug myself for finding a relationship that I have been missing all my life with the person I did not really know. And we laugh more now.

The three forms of empathy

Shirzad Chamine’s Positive Intelligence framework identifies empathize as one of the cornerstones or sage powers to build mental fitness, not unlike exercising to strengthen one’s physical fitness. Chamine describes the empathize power as “feeling and showing appreciation, compassion, and forgiveness.” Empathizing is about love for yourself and others. Dan Pontefract, CEO and author of Open to Think, goes further and outlines the three forms of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and sympathetic, or the head (cognitive), heart (emotional), and hands (sympathetic) model of empathy. Pontefract believes that putting them all together is “how empathy ought to occur for you as a leader of self and leader of other people.”

To put in practice the head-heart-hands model of empathy, bring to mind someone who has been troubling you, getting under your skin. Then start with the cognitive empathy. Your head may try to understand where this person is from, their religious or cultural background, or how they are rationalizing a specific situation. You then move to the emotional empathy by being curious about their feelings, maybe over something that happens recently, and how your heart is feeling how their heart is feeling about this recent occurrence that leads to your experiencing this troubling behavior. Now from the head to the heart, you can understand both how they think and how they feel, moving towards the sympathetic empathy, enabling you to put into more targeted action, hence, your hands, completing the head-heart-hands model of empathy.

How being empathizing has worked for you?

In your personal or professional lives, where are you holding back in your relationships?

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