One thing that I am learning from Focusing, is this thing that I have started to call “having it together with”. In some counselling and psychology traditions, as well as in educational contexts, one talks about empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and “seeing” the other person. To me “having together with”, is a step deeper than those, and I’d like to try to illustrate what I mean by it.
An accidental “slap”
The other day, a friend of mine called me and said “I have to tell you about this episode with my daughter today, oh, poor child”. I heard some seriousness in her voice and said in jest “did you hit her or what?”, and she said “yes”. I was a bit surprised, as I but sat down to listen to her. She was all in tears and told me about this situation where the 5-year-old, who was happily energetic, was jumping up and down in the car, and wouldn’t sit down. This was on the highway, so naturally my friend was distracted and worried, and reached out to get Anne to calm down, sit in her seat and get her seat belt on. One hand on the wheel and feeling stressed in the situation, somehow, she had “hit” her daughter in the chest.
It was a bit of a shock to them both, of course, and she had immediately said that she was sorry and that hitting isn’t allowed etc. The daughter took it quite well and said to her mum that she would need to pay a fine, and the fine was to hug her really a lot when they got home (they were on their way home from kindergarten).
My friend then described how Anne was all fine about it, and that she had even told, in passing, to a friend who came over later that: “mum hit me in the car today”, and then the two of them kept playing. That kind of statement of course means that the episode was just another one of those normally “bad” things that happen in everyday life; like having dropped and broken something, or forgotten to do something important etc. This demonstrates how it wasn’t a taboo topic to Anne, and so it was clear that the episode was not really very problematic to the girl at all. She had also fallen asleep that evening feeling safe as always.
My friend on the other hand was distraught: she was crying and feeling horrible about herself.
Listening while “having it with”
Knowing my friend, and knowing that she’s one of the people that I feel to be a very good, stabile, safe and empathic mother, it wasn’t at all hard for me to listen to this story and also know with clear certainty that this had been nothing but an unlucky accident. I knew it so well that I didn’t even have to say that to her, I just stood firmly planted in that knowledge.
You know, the most regular thing is to say things like “Oh, but it’s probably not that bad”, or “yeh, but you didn’t mean it”, or “oh come one, it was just a one off, you’re always such a good person and mother”, etc.
Instead, I just listened, and I could do what I call “feeling it with her”, or “having it together with her”. I think I did two things: 1. I could somehow “stand in” the knowing that it wasn’t bad, and 2. at the same time “have” how it felt to her, together with her. What do I mean by that?
Well, what I mean is that I could really take in the pain and fear that she felt. I don’t mean to feel how it would have felt to me if I had gone through it, but to tune in to her and hear her and feel with. And I could just say back to her, with a lot of understanding and empathy in my voice (I think) that: “Yeh, it’s that clear to you that Anne feels ok, and yet there’s that place inside of you that feels bad for her or thinks that she must be terribly hurt”.
The next thing she said that it felt like something was crushed, like the trust or something was completely broken. And there I knew to say that: “ah, and the interesting thing is that it is in you that something feels crushed”. She cried more then (which I take to mean it’s safe to really feel what she feels), and also said that she felt so bad, like everything she had ever done in her motherhood till that day felt like it didn’t matter, and that she was such a bad person for doing this. And I could feel that too, with her, and say something like: “yes, it really feels SO BAD, that it even says that you are a bad person, as if this little episode says who you ‘really’ are!” She cried some more, then, and shared a few more things, that I also, basically “said back” and “had” with her.
Having with instead of trying to make it better
So you see, I didn’t contradict any of her experiences, didn’t try to “turn her around”, or “make her see sense”, or try to make her feel better about herself by saying nice things about her (which can also help some of the time, of course).
I just let all of that come exactly as it felt to her, and mainly felt it together with her, by actively holding a space for it to be exactly as it was. I could easily do that, partly because that’s what I am learning from Focusing, and partly because there wasn’t even a speck of doubt anywhere in me that this very clearly WAS an accident, and nothing really bad.
I think that if I had done those regular things of trying to get her to see things differently, I would’ve been able to make her stop crying (is that even a goal?), and she might’ve even felt some kind of supported.
I’m pretty sure, though, that she would’ve still felt quite some doubt after we hung up, and still felt a nagging feeling in the back of her mind, as if she’d still be depending on my (or others’) “approval” or something, to feel ok. As it were, she then told me a few other things about what felt problematic in her life at the moment, that might’ve been part of why she had got so stressed. Meanwhile the crying subsided, and she seemed to breathe a little easier. In the end, she said: “I don’t feel that crushed feeling anymore”, and that she felt relieved and that it wasn’t “on her” as much anymore.
I think that this way, she didn’t have to fight against herself inside, she didn’t have to convince herself that she’s ok, against some inner doubt: The doubt could be heard, and then the change could just come from inside, from the natural, inner knowing.
More than repetition
Yes, I “said back” what she felt, but I didn’t say them in a mechanical way, as a technique, as one learns in some listening traditions in counselling, for instance. I said it from a place where I was truly “with” her, almost as if I was also feeling the sad, scared, the broken, the “I am bad”, in my own body. The two of us created a space in which whatever was there, could come as it was, be held, and move by itself, of its own accord. We were together about it. She wasn’t “alone over there”, while I was distantly “listening”. We were right at those places, together. Human beings connected. And I think that, more than “being seen”, “being heard”, “accepting” etc. was the key to it all being able to move through and then become what it needed to become.