The IPNB of Repairs and Responses to Requests for Apology – May 2014
On Thursday at 4:20am my own personal hero and 32-year old adopted son died. He has been the inspiration for everything that I do with Interpersonal Neurobiology, somatic empathy, and understanding and healing trauma. I started down this path in the effort to understand what was happening to him, and in the hopes of finding some effective response that could stop the PTSD avalanche. I wasn’t able to bring much of what I learned to him, but his contributions to my life include warmth, deep connection, non-verbal resonance, integrity, and courage.
When I got to the hospital at 1am there were already two people there holding his hands, so I pulled up a reclining chair at the foot of the bed, tucked my hand under an ankle, and drifted in and out of sleep, focusing on the sound of his labored breath until he stopped bringing in air. The declared cause of death was kidney and liver failure from advanced alcoholism, but what he really died from was a broken heart. Six years ago, his integrity led him to testify in a court case on behalf of a child he loved very much, against someone he also loved very much. In the aftermath, his world fragmented into shards and he never recovered.
The years of addiction tore our family apart. As alcohol cut more and more deeply into my son’s brain, his health, his thinking, his ability to move, and to speak clearly, he withdrew from us in shame. He worried about the effect of his decline on my younger son, and tried to mitigate the harm by disappearing completely. As he withdrew, I continued to see him the most, while my husband saw the least of him, maybe seeing him twice in the last 12 months. My husband grew discouraged and lost hope that our love had made a difference for our adopted son.
(small ipnb and empathy diversion)
I am writing about this because the entry that this work gives us into the world of relationships means that we start to understand how profoundly we matter to each other. And we also can begin to nibble at the edges of comprehending how, when we let each other know that we matter, either with large actions or with small acknowledgments, we are healing one another’s brains.
Interestingly enough, it is precisely the hiccups in relationships that seem to promote resilience and healing, as long as they are acknowledged and repaired. When everything is going smoothly and we are totally in synch with another human, everything is good. We are connected, we are communing, and we are unified. There is no need for differentiation, we’re just linked. But when there is a sudden dischord, or a lack of noticing, or an insult or injury, it is then that we need to know that we are different from the other, but that we still matter to them. Otherwise, the experience of being separate is only one of loneliness and isolation. So our own true complexity as an interrelated being only flowers in relationships where there are both hiccups and repairs.
“All well and good,” you may be thinking, “but what is a repair?” A repair is any way that the lost stitches that hold us together are picked up. A repair can be an action we take that lets the other know that they matter to us, like remembering a previous conversation, making a phone call after some period of silence, making a favorite food, or bringing home a particular kind of flower. It can be a verbal acknowledgment of dropped attention, interruption, or of a missed outreach of affection or love. It can be checking in with another to find out how a particular action landed for them.
One simple, four-step form of repair that I particularly enjoy uses our NVC skills, and goes like this: (please note that we often need empathy support to get to a place of not wanting to justify ourselves.)
Reference the exact action taken or words that were spoken, to the best of your memory, to check first for shared reality, i.e. “I’d like to make a repair. Is that okay with you? Do you remember yesterday when you told me you were angry, and I responded by asking about dinner…?”
Without justifying or explaining, share why you are wanting to make this repair. “When I think about that moment, I feel shame. I really like it when I can respond in present time to what you say.” (In clean needs language these words might be “I value presence and responsiveness.”)
Ask the other person how the experience was for them. “Is there anything you would like me to know about how that was for you?”
Listen, if possible with empathy, and let go of the need to rationalize or give reasons for your actions. Use your best needs skills to hear the needs under the other’s pain, completely separate from what you did or didn’t do.
(and returning to my story about my family)
Not all repairs are intentional and verbal. Sometimes we let others know that they matter to us because our inner world is suddenly and unexpectedly revealed. In grief after my son died, my husband went up to Seattle to help get the house ready for the memorial service. As he was getting all of the clothes out of the drawers there, he found a photo album made up of photos that my son had secretly gathered of his life with us. In that moment, his heart burst open. The pain of the past years of disconnection and bewilderment was healed. He saw that we mattered utterly and completely to our adopted son.