Petra's favorite animal is the dolphin. That's not surprising because she shares a common trait with the darling mammal of the sea - they are one of the most compassionate animals on earth and display great empathy for human beings. So much so that scientists who study dolphins say that they should be treated as non-human persons. It turns out that this common trait would save the day for Petra many times during her sometimes torturous and tumultuous childhood.
The first day of Kindergarten is certainly filled with separation anxiety for many a children. We all know the feeling when smiling parents with ready-to-shoot cameras leave us crying in the hands of strangers. Petra's recollection of her first day in Kindergarten was different, however. It wasn't separation anxiety that bothered her, it was the fear of disapproval by her new companions and teachers. She was afraid that others may not like her. She was so anxious about this potential invalidation that her parents, her sister and her grandmother went with her to make her feel comfortable on her first day at school. Her sister stayed back to make sure that Petra was not petrified by her new social circle. "For as long as I can remember, I've always had a pessimistic view of myself and that others will not like me. It's always been a problem in my social world," says Petra with some seriousness even though she is always smiling and appears to be positive person when you first meet her. Her fears were proven right. Perhaps, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. She was excluded by a group of girls and her ideas and thoughts were never acknowledged. "It was as if I did not exist," exclaims Petra and laughs lightly. Clearly, the pain of her first social childhood experience continues to live on deep in her subconscious.
Petra's life before she joined Kindergarten was simple, fun and full of frolic. She remembers visiting the beautiful Island Brac in her homeland of Croatia. She loved visiting the water park with her parents because they worked all the time and this two week vacation was the only time Petra saw them 24-7. Even as she entered Kindergarten and experienced the rejections at the hands of other five year olds, Petra managed to make a few good friends. But those friendships were abruptly interrupted when she had to move to Solin, a town about an hour away from Split where Petra grew up as a child. She was nine years old then. This move was especially hard because she had lost her great grandfather the previous year. She was not allowed to attend his funeral due to local customs and she regrets to this day that she was unable to say good bye to him. "Even though my father was my best friend and always understood me, my great grandfather meant everything to me. He was my home," Petra says sullenly. To a young child, death of a loving grandparent or a parent or a sibling can be deeply traumatic. Add the separation from friends and family in a close-knit community, it can create further uncertainty and anxiety in children. These are some of the recognized adverse childhood experiences that can have lingering affects through adulthood.
The move to Soline meant that Petra had to grow up fast. She cooked, cleaned, and got herself ready for school every day to help out her parents. She felt proud that she could help them and give them some breathing room to rest. Just like her mom, sometimes she would lose her temper and then regret it because of her naturally empathetic disposition. High school brought more life tests in the form of heart break when her first love moved on to date a new girl because Petra wasn't ready for intimacy like he wanted. She would see him everyday with another girl having fun and it made her miserable. "I felt a deep sadness that I had never felt before," she said as she continued to explain how she was able to put away her pain and felt terrible for her ex-boyfriend when his new girlfriend cheated on him. "He made me feel so unworthy and it hurt so badly. But I still cried for his pain when he went through heart break of his own. I knew we could never be together again after what he had done to me. But his unhappiness bothered me nevertheless," Petra said with a genuine tone of empathy in her voice.
When asked what she would change if she could live her childhood again, she said, "I would change my habit of worrying that others will not accept me and that somehow I may disappoint them. I over-analyze all my failures and I can't stop thinking about them which makes it even worse." While she cannot point to a source of this insecurity, she feels that there's one thing in her life that helps her get over this anxiety - her genuine desire to help others without wanting anything in return.
Clearly, there's a deeper source of Petra's desire to feel accepted by others and her fear that she will be rejected. What's also clear is that her innate empathy towards others and her deeply compassionate heart are saving the day for her. Research has already shown how empathy and compassion for others can help ward off the ill effects of anxiety, depression and other emotional stressors. Petra, only 20 years young, doesn't need science for proof that it works. She is living it.
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