Kids play “Emotional Bingo” in elementary school to develop skills of empathy. Game players share feelings (anger, sorrow, embarrassment, etc.) and when a child hears another describing an emotional situational they recognize from their own experience they mark it off on their score card.
Empathy refers to the ego’s capacity to identify with someone else, to grasp their subjective experience and feel their way into their lives. The curative potential of empathetic listening is that it sooths and stabilizes another, giving them a sense of inner cohesion. The failure of a caregiver to empathize with a child and the response of the child to this mishandling are at the root of most psychopathology.
Empathy originates with an attuned parent who acknowledges and reflects back their child’s experience. In this way, the caregiver helps a child identify, contain and regulate their feelings.“What’s going on? I can see you’re in pain. Let’s take a moment and see what’s happening then we’ll find out what to do.”
Holding a child’s mind in yours helps them hold their own unwanted feelings. This tricky task demands a parent:
1). remain open to a wide range of emotional responses from their child without judging them
2). suspend their own emotional reactions and not let themself be triggered by their own past
3). tolerate moments of feeling their own anxiety and relative helplessness.
Another aspect of empathetic listening complicates our understanding of it.
Ideally one empathizes with the knowledge that another’s experience does not exactly match ones own encounter of a similar situation. While mirroring a child’s feelings, we need be aware that their experience is their own and different from ours. This authorizes a separation and implicit boundary between caregiver and child. It helps a child take ownership of their own emotions and develop an independent mind.
Acting as if one has a total certainty and absolute understanding of a child’s experience can interfere with their development by providing a false sense of support based more on the parent’s need to manage their own distress than the child’s immediate state of being.
Put differently, the good listener’s internal world is an open system. He or she remains curious and open to emotional growth rather than bound by a closed and static system of internal reality. “There is something in my child at this moment that is unknown to me. Their upset or rejection of me is caused by something other than my own inadequacy.” Rather than restricting ones understanding of a child’s experience to the world of ones own internal objects (based on the listener’s history and childhood), the inner world of the empathetic listener is porous and accessible to redefinition by the present outer reality as expressed by another.
To suspend your own emotional reaction and risk hearing without excessive certainty, without chastising or withdrawing, or trying to remedy or "fix" -- is indeed a tall order, but necessary one.
Listening to another can be a baffling, fearful enterprise. But it lays the pathway to mental health and is the crucial link that validates the unique experience of another. To paraphrase the British analyst Adam Phillips, one is only as mad as the other is deaf.
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