I stood on the wet sand with salt water splashing my sunglasses. It was a curious experience to feel a tug and and not to act. I couldn’t always see my daughter as she fought her way through the breakers out into the sea. The waves were high and unpredictable…
Years ago, on her second birthday in fact, I took her swimming – it was one of her favourite things to do. That morning she had unwrapped a soft toy, Piglet, and had attached to him so quickly that when it came to going in the pool, putting him in the locker gave rise to huge distress. I had to use all my skills of reassurance negotiation to manage that situation.
Later on I sat beside swimming pools on many occasions as a ‘spotter’. My daughter had been diagnosed with epilepsy and I had to remain alert, watching and ready to act, at swimming parties, and at school so that swimming lessons could take place.
The year before she went to secondary school we went swimming every Wednesday, she was homeschooled that year and physical health and physical education were our focus and priority. I remember standing in the shallow end practising the breathing with the arm movements for crawl, teaching her to swim. I remember that she couldn’t confidently swim more than a width when we started that home education year and by the end of it we were swimming lengths together which she alternated between crawl, breaststroke, and backstroke.
Over the last three years she and I have had holidays to Greece. We’ve shared deep heart-to-heart mother and daughter conversations in turquoise waters away from others’ ears. And we have counted our lengths together in the pool each day to take responsibility for our own regular exercise.
Now she was out in a rough sea, there were other swimmers and we had initially made our way in after an assessment of conditions. Yet after a few minutes I had said, ‘I need to get out! I’m running out of strength.’ I was concerned to save enough energy for getting back through the breakers to the beach. And we had battled our way back out of the sea. My knees were shaking and my legs wobbly – I had got too tired and I knew that if she had got in to trouble I wouldn’t have been able to help her. I’ve spent all those years protecting her and in readiness to save her and I knew I would be useless.
I could see she wanted to go back in, we both love the sea. ‘I’m a mermaid’ she said, ‘No! I’m a mermaid, I was a mermaid first,.’ I pouted. ‘Mum, you’re a crap mermaid!’. ’Yes, you’re right’. She was a stronger swimmer.
I watched her go back in. Alone. And it wasn’t easy, sometimes a wave broke over her head, sometimes she got a face full or a mouthful of water, but then she was out swimming in the waves.
I stood, dumbfounded by my internal process. The familiar, habitual concern, that no longer has logical basis; the urge to join and ‘help’; the awareness of her being more capable than I am in this moment; the pride and relief at her strength and competence and the sadness of letting her go.
It’s also my ‘Further Lessons in Love’, advanced stage. Love is not simply an attachment but a commitment to listen and adjust. It’s about loving someone in the way that is best for them, not in the way we have got used to. When you’ve spent years being protective of someone it’s important to notice requests for space and allowing space. Don’t imagine I have learned this easily or with grace, however, I am committed to my advanced life lessons in love and listening.
We can become very stubborn in our beliefs about the right way to love and the right way to relate, but when we do we become arrogant. This was a theme in the therapy room this week and an advanced lesson for those willing to challenge their process of giving their type of loving to people who don’t want it or don’t understand it. Yes, that way lies heartache, but it is also born out of our insistence that we are right.
Letting go of this insistence is the first step. Listening to what is wanted is the second. Then listening to ourselves to see the best way to honour ourselves and the other person.
Adjusting our love by listening means we might need to take a step back. Sometimes it means taking several steps back and sometimes it means we can walk away, (as the saying goes, ‘don’t cling to the mistake just because you spent a long time making it.’).
Generally people know what they need and often they tell us quite clearly they don’t value or don’t need what we give. We can either change what we give or stop giving. Ending relationships and changing relationships are there to help us practice letting go. Often it appears easier to avoid change and thereby avoid grief. To stick by our habits. To keep loving on regardless. Later on, when we have stubbornly ‘loved on’ in our own way, regardless of feedback, when we are depleted and hurt and wonder why the love isn’t reciprocated, we can question whether it is indeed easier.
Unconditional positive regard, central to person centred counselling, requires listening to the other person’s world, understanding and responding to it. Listening and respect are key not just in a counselling relationship, but in all relationships. The therapy room is a good place for us to practice giving and receiving quality listening, empathy, respect and positive regard.
Love on, but love on with regard.