Are you really listening?

"I wish she would put her Blackberry away and listen!"

Here’s another chapter in the book of my personal struggles.  It is not directly related to eating, but read through to the end, and you may find a connection to your relationship with food.

I have become weary of my 86-year-old mother’s constant focus on her discomfort.  If this sounds insensitive, it may be.  I only know that it has become exhausting listening to misery non-stop for the last few months.

She obsesses about what might be causing her to feel weak, foggy-headed, and tired. New theories – in her mind, they are truths – arise daily:  this drug or that one, the food she was served during her latest hospital stay, etc. etc.

My responses bubble up from my irritation with the 6 phone calls a day and as many voicemail messages when I cannot get to the phone.  “Mom, that is not the reason you are feeling so bad!  You forget that you have been feeling this way for months, not days.  You will probably feel better if you focus on something else, because you are not helping yourself by obsessing about the cause.”  I admit, I am not at my best at these times.

In my head, I am thinking, “You are 86 years old, for crying out loud!  Try to get some pleasure out of your day.  You can’t expect to feel perfect anymore.”

The last two weeks have been much worse.  I have noticed a sudden decline in her memory and mood and an increase in her fears and neediness.  It was dramatic, and scary!  The phone calls became desperate.  She was sure she was checking out soon, any minute in fact.  In the middle of my workday, I noticed how angry I became with the 5th, 6th, 7th “emergency” call of the day.

In an effort to do better – at least I could see that I needed to try! – I have been adding more yoga classes and have been looking for a church that meshes with my beliefs.  It was in this past Sunday’s church service that I found a useful reminder.

The sermon was about “making head space for someone else’s viewpoint”.  Sounds easy, but it can be so hard sometimes.  Making that little bit of space can be very uncomfortable.  But the point, I was reminded, is that the discomfort is normal and even healthy.  It means we are really listening, and really honoring another viewpoint.  When that happens, there is always a little self-doubt, which can be uncomfortable.  It is so much easier to assume we are right, not really listen, and dig in to defend our position with “logic”.

It reminded me of another time when a similar reminder rang true and made a difference in my life.  “There is always a kernel of truth in another’s viewpoint.  Look for that kernel and honor it, and the relationship will improve.”

The next time I visited my mother, she continued where she left off the last time we were together.  Again, she had “figured out” what was causing her pain.  Normally I would have dismissed her explanation, thinking it was just another arbitrary stab in the dark, but this time I made a little space in my head.  Whether or not her explanation was accurate or not didn’t matter.  What my genuine listening did for the relationship mattered a lot.  We had a meaningful hour together with increased connection and warmth.

But was this easy?  No, it definitely was not.  I felt the usual irritation rising.  I think it is human to feel threatened by viewpoints that shake certainty in our beliefs.

So, what’s the connection to eating?  Do you ever feel that way when you are all alone in the middle of an irresistible food moment?  It may even feel like a disagreement between two parts of you, and then the porcupine in the gut feeling arises.  Call it the angel and devil on each shoulder, or call it that out-of-control feeling.

I think it is an opportunity to allow some head space for each part of the internal dialogue.  There is certainly a kernel of truth to each.  Yes, there probably are good reasons for not indulging – or overindulging – in whatever has captured your attention.  You may tell yourself that you will feel so much better if you can resist the urge and just stop already!

But there is another voice waiting to be heard.  That is the advocate within you for whatever is demanding attention.  Do you need a little pleasure, a little relief, or a little affirmation of your right to choose?  Whatever it is, it deserves to be heard, and in fact, you will make better choices when that little voice is not completely ignored as if it did not exist.

That never works very well in my dealings with other people.  Usually an unheard voice just gets louder and more persistent.  I have discovered that listening – really listening, with an open mind – to my mother’s problems does not mean I have to drop everything and solve her problems.  The simple act of genuine listening is often healing in itself.  Similarly, acknowledging a personal need does not mean you must always choose food to meet it, but hearing the need is important to keep it from getting more demanding.

It may be uncomfortable really listening to real needs, just as another person’s opinion is often uncomfortable to hear.  It is so much easier to squash the needs and just make a judgment, like the habitual one so many people use:  “I shouldn’t be doing this.”  That completely ignores whatever need is present, but that does not mean the need just goes away.  Eating uncontrollably is a very visual way of insisting, “I have a need here!  Excuse me . . . please listen!!”

"Thanks for paying attention to me."

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