A Friend Is Someone Who Knows Your Song
A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it back to you when you have forgotten the words.
– passed on to me by Shoshana Alexander
The story below illustrates for me how engaged empathy – someone singing our song back to us in moments we need to hear our own truth the most – can help recover a sense of our own inner goodness, our inner secure base of resilience, a story I originally heard from the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield:
A seven-year-old boy and his family went to a restaurant for dinner. When the waitress asked the boy what he wanted for dinner, he replied without hesitation, “A hot dog and French fries!” His mother interrupted, telling the waitress, “He’ll have meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy.” After the waitress had taken the parents’ orders, she turned to the boy and asked, “Do you want ketchup and mustard on your hot dog, son?” As the waitress was leaving, the boy turned to his parents and said, “She thinks I’m real!”
We all want to feel real. When we can engage in interactions with others that are safe, resonant, not shaming-blaming-judgmental or critical, but supportive, validating, those interactions help us recover the roots of our resilience – the reality of a deep inner sense of belonging and worth. These interactions also prime the neuroplasticity of our brains for learning and change. We can receive someone else’s acknowledgement of who we truly are and believe again in our capacities to cope in any difficult situation.
Anyone who knows something of your history can act as an empathic friend, helping you remember your own song of courage, of competence, of confidence when you feel temporarily overwhelmed by any external stressor and can’t easily find your way back to center, to your own base of stability and coping.
1. Ask a trustworthy friend who has been around the block with you a few times, or at least knows your stories of how you found your way around the block before, to help you with this exercise.
2. Come into a sense of presence and acceptance together; let the experience of safe social engagement evoke a neuroception of safety and trust in your brain, allowing you to think and remember more clearly.
3. Ask your friend to remember, or help you remember, moments of previous competency at coping, of response flexibility, and of resilience, even if you can’t seem to remember them easily right now. Small is fine: opening a stuck jar lid for your mom, intuiting where to find the train station in a strange city, knowing just what to say when your child experienced a disappointment. It’s the sense of competence at coping that’s important.
4. Let one memory lead to another. In the safety of the social engagement, your brain can shift into the default network mode to start exploring, making its own links and associations, and it will.
5. Integrate several of these memories to recover the “song” of yourself as a competent, resilient person. Let yourself take in this sense of competence as a core part of who you are.
With the recovery of one memory, the default network of the brain can begin to meander and uncover other memories. Even if these memories are not particularly relevant to the stressor you are coping with now, your sense of being competent and resilient is relevant. That can be reintegrated into a sense of yourself as a competent, resilient person.
6. And thank your friend for helping you find the words of your song again.
[You will find this exercise and many similar exercises in The Resilience Toolkit, forthcoming in September 2018.