When I was born I spent the first 5 weeks of my life in an incubator. I must have cried as many times as babies do during those weeks, except the nurses would only come every 4 hours. When they did come I imagine it was either to ensure I received formula via a tube or to perform sometimes painful procedures. My mother came to visit each day. Apparently I used to become lively as soon as I heard her voice coming into the neonatal unit. She sang to me and held me. This experience of being sometimes so loved and sometimes so neglected left me with what they call an ambivalent attachment status. It has permeated my adult relationships, leaving me anxious and distressed when an attachment figure goes off radar.
Attachment researchers Mary Main et al discovered something incredibly enlightening in a study they dubbed the Adult Attachment interview. What they found was that they could predict with 85% accuracy, a child’s attachment status based on the coherency of their parent’s biographical narrative. What this means is that the hurts that life deals us can impact on how coherently we can tell our life story. All the hurts we have endured; physical and emotional, accumulate in the body. When we are holding a certain level of upset from past hurts, we tend to skip around when we tell our story. Feelings come up, we go off on different tangents and remember details in the wrong order. Conversely, when we have processed these hurts, we begin to tell our story in a more objective, linear fashion
What this study suggests is that when we carry unresolved issues from our own childhood, we might not be so available as a parent, in a way that a child can really feel secure that we will meet their needs consistently. It is nigh impossible to give what we did not receive. Or we become so determined to prevent our children feeling the pain we felt that we develop rigidity in our parenting. The good news in all of this, is that this coherency can change and both ours and our child’s attachment status can change when we increase the coherence of our story.
So how can we start to change our life narrative?
For me, ‘Listening Partnerships’ has become an invaluable parenting tool and one of several unique approaches offered by Hand in Hand Parenting. This is where we develop safe and intimate connections with other adults, with whom we exchange contained ‘listening time’ with the intention of releasing hurt via emotional release. This is unique from both sharing our emotions with loved ones or the support we find through counselling/therapy.
In fact, we were never meant to carry all this hard stuff that happened to us through to adulthood. Our parents didn’t know that we needed to use their warm attention to offload through crying, raging and laughter. We were taught to stop tantrums and that our tears could be quickly fixed (or sometimes scolded). This kind of emotional release is actually the body’s innate recovery system; it’s is how we process hurt.
‘Listening Partnerships’ have been radically life altering for me and many parents I work with. After many months of using a kind listener’s presence, I was able to remember how to cry. All this hurt had somewhere to go. It could finally leave my body – and my story.
I have spent many hours sobbing out the hurt of being isolated as a baby. I go through periods when I’m ‘back in my box’ and my listeners just have to say “Hi Roma, I’m right here with you” so I can cry and cry. Sometimes my close relationships will bring up the confusion of sometimes feeling so cherished and sometimes so uncared for and my listeners will remind me that these are old feelings, not about now.
As I have worked piece by piece on my biography, I have developed more patience and presence with my kids. I am now 80-90% less reactive than I was. I can think more clearly and make better decisions, unclouded by old hurts, on the leadership of my family. Even beliefs I held to strongly or rigidities that I assumed were aspects of my personality have melted away. This has allowed me to become more responsive to the children in front of me rather than being on some crusade, driven by unprocessed hurt.
How can I set this up in my own life?
A Listening Partner can be your friend or someone you’ve never met. It’s good to keep a couple of boundaries around the agreement. One is that you hold confidentiality to the degree that anything you say during listening time cannot be referred to by anyone but you. So if you are pairing with a friend you need to take care in your usual conversations to remember which things they told you in confidence. The other aspect that helps maintain the safety of the exchange is to honour the time commitment, split the time equally, use a timer and don’t chat either side of the exchange, as this can erode the sense of safety.
You might swap anything between 10-45 minutes each and you can arrange as many exchanges as you need per week. You might be monogamous to just one Listening Partner – or like me, highly polyamourous!
Over time you will develop an unparalleled sense of safety and connection with your listener/s. When you feel truly safe with them your body will start to release this stored up hurt through emotional expressions or crying/laughter/rage/yawning/sweating/trembling. This is when you will notice things in your life beginning to shift. We tend to find that our ability to be calm and patient and listen to our children is directly proportional to how much listening we receive ourselves.
How listening partnerships build community
Remember how I described pouring out the hurt of being alone and separate? I found that when I had done enough of this I could start to notice and receive the community around me in a new way. If you believe you are alone and no-one cares, it somehow gets reflected back to you. I was now finding previously unimagined levels of connection and support.
What I’ve also noticed happening around me is that those in my community have noticed how effective this tool has been for me. They have literally witnessed my posture and confidence improve and me striding forth in my life in a way I never could have before. And they wanted a piece of that. So most people in my life have now dived in and learned how to use ‘Listening Partnerships’ too! And because many of us exchange listening with each other it has built a network of people who have a shared ability to deeply ‘get’ each other. It has created a community that holds much more transparency and intimacy.
If you want to build this structure for emotional support and resilience into your life, you can download this booklet and join the ‘Hand in Hand Listening Support UK’ Facebook group to connect with a partner.