“I love her so much that I’m terrified of something bad happening to her. I think the stress of that means I don’t really enjoy my time with her all that much. I’m sure she knows I love her though- because I’m the one who’s always there...”
“Well sure I know you love me but I have so much pressure and I just feel it even more when I’m with you-it’s so much that I don’t even enjoy being with you anymore.”
I’ve heard thousands of similar exchanges to this in my work with children and families over the years. This common scenario reminds me a bit of the mythological symbol of the Ouroboros- or the snake eating its own tail. Symbolically it tends to refer to infinity or a wholeness, or gestalt. I think it could also represent self-destruction in the pursuit of perceived needs. Were the snake to look up it may realize that the goal of being fed should be secondary to not destroying itself. Of course in the myth there is no destruction- just weird, mesmerizing, infinite tail eating.
In caregiving, and most relationships, I believe there are many times when we eat our own tails and often without recognizing we are doing so. Our drive for healthy and happy relationships can at times consume the relationship itself. It can be easy to lose track of the big picture when clouded by the minutia.
“There is no happiness if the things we believe in are different than the things we do.” (Albert Camus)
We cannot always control how loved we are despite our frantic grasping to do so. Erich Fromm aptly stated that “[m]ost people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving.” Being loving is something we can do. It is an action and it is work. Fred Rogers, a personal hero of mine, remarked that “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle.” It takes practice and it takes effort.
Love isn't simply being nice to someone. We love someone by practicing empathy and compassion with them. Empathy is the imagination of others experience and compassion is a desire to make their experience better. Empathy is an aligning of us with their reality- not looking down on it but rather trying to share and appreciate a gaze. We increase our ability to be empathic through doing and we increase our children’s capacity by showing empathy to them. Empathy is needed in safe emotional relationships- or at least good ones.
Listening well is something I think is at the heart of empathy and is a sadly neglected skill in the world. It sounds simple and intuitive and it both is and isn’t. Many people hear but few listen. Subtle shifts with practice can make listening in the way that really builds connection start to feel simple and intuitive if we put the work in! It is easy work though that is enjoyable and instantly rewarding.
There are many versions of a quote stating “listen to understand and not to speak.” I agree wholly with this simple truism. We listen to understand the world of another, or, as Harper Lee noted in To Kill a Mockingbird, to “climb inside of [their] skin and walk around in it.” This isn’t some creepy ‘it puts the lotion on the skin’ performance; rather it is an active stance of trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes and to feel the world through their emotions. This is listening and when we do this we are doing love and being loving.
I’m happy to be the person a lot of children feel safe to talk to. However, for every child that tells me in some form that “it’s nice to not feel invisible and to actually feel seen,” which is almost everyone I talk to, I also feel sad that my sterile office is where they have to go for that. It is something we can all do more of and better at. I know I can.
One simple strategy to approach listening in a more meaningful way is to ask fewer questions in conversations. Instead, try to identify and reflect back the emotions, values or strengths of what was said. For example, was my daughter to say, “they were being mean to me”, rather than jump into 'fixer/protector' mode, a more present response might be to say “It sounds like they weren’t including you. That really hurts.” A response like this both allows them to feel heard and to explore their own emotions more fully.
Often you will find using a complex reflection like the example above will lead to more in-depth and insightful response than any question you could have asked. Play a game with yourself in your next conversation and see if you can have a 2:1 reflection to question ratio. It’s harder than you might think and a great step towards listening so that others feel heard and connected with. When we are listening like this we are also being present with our children and letting them know they are important enough to be with- just the way they are.