The Healing Power of Compassionate Listening
Words by Lael Stone
Imagine that you're four years old and you're on the ground and you're building a tower and you're really proud of this tower that you're building. And in the next minute, a kid comes running along, kicks over your tower and you are outraged. You feel these feelings bubble inside you of hurt and panic and frustration and helplessness.
And just in that moment, an adult comes in close, gets down low and says, “honey, what happened?” And you see in their eyes, there's compassion. You feel that their body is calm and regulated. And then all those feelings come bubbling out - frustration, the anger, the helplessness. And this adult goes, “oh, yeah, tell me all about it.” They don't try and fix it. They don't say to you, “don't worry, you can build another one.” They just let you feel all that you're feeling. And then they open their arms and you snuggle in, take another deep breath and then you feel better and then you get back to building a tower.
Now, I'd like to see if you can remember what it was like when you were four years old and perhaps at a time when you felt angry or sad or scared or you didn't understand what was going on. And how did the adults in your life respond to you? For the majority of people, we would have been told, “stop being so stupid, you don't need to cry.” You might have been sent to your room, to the corner. You might have even been hit for making a mistake.
There's usually three ways that we learn as kids to deal with feelings and emotions.
The first one is repression, which means that as a child, if you learned that it wasn't safe to express your feelings, perhaps you got shut down. You were told to stop crying. Perhaps you were given a look that made you draw everything inside. Then you were going to have to find a way to cope with all those feelings and emotions. And from most people, they learn to repress them. They push them down deep. Most of the times they disassociated. Now, the impact of that on a child is that those feelings stay there. And then as adults, those feelings can turn up again. When life throws us a curveball that's got similar themes to stuff that happened when we were a kid, those same feelings come up. But this time our repression mechanisms look like another glass of wine that we drink, they look like hours mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or they look like making yourself so, so busy at work that you don't actually have time to feel.
The other thing that we might learn to do is move into aggression, which means that as a child, if we felt really powerless, if we felt scared, if we grew up in an authoritarian environment where we didn't have a voice where we couldn't say how we felt, then those feelings again would bubble inside us. And at the point where they would tip over, when we often felt frightened or threatened, they would come out in aggression, in rage, in loud words. And sometimes you might have been labeled as naughty, too much, or “trouble” when really all you were doing was responding to your environment. And then as adults, those aggression tendencies turn up in bullying behavior. They turn up in harsh, critical thoughts about ourselves and others. They turn up as violence.
Then the third thing that we learn to do is expression, which means that if we grew up with an imprint that said, “feelings are welcome, it's OK for you to express how you are. I will accept all of you, the happy bits, the sad beats, the joyous bits, the bits that are angry, all of you as welcome. I'm not going to try and fix. I'm just going to hold.” Well, then what happens as adults when things feel hard, we reach for our journal, write down our thoughts. We call a friend and say, “hey, can you listen to me?” We go for a run. We do some yoga, we speak to a therapist and we find a way to lean into the feelings, we feel them, and then we let them go.
I wonder what it would be like if we actually helped parents unpack their own childhood so that they don't have to carry that baggage and put it on their children's shoulders. I wonder what it'd be like if we supported and encourage boys to cry and be vulnerable and we encourage girls to rage and find their voice and speak up for what they need. And I wonder if instead of harsh disciplines and punishments, we replaced it with compassionate listening, loving limits, boundaries, and we learn to look behind the behavior. There is always a reason behind the behavior.
When children feel safe to learn, which means they feel free of judgment and criticism, when they're treated with kindness and respect, where they have autonomy over their bodies and their learning, and they are given much love and celebration about the unique differences in who they are, then what happens is their neurological systems become fully operational and their capacity for growth and learning increases. Not only do they learn about the world, but they develop critical life skills such as emotional intelligence, growth mindset, critical thinking, a love of failure.
And more than anything, they learn to become compassionate citizens of the Earth.
What would happen if we placed compassionate listening