Jane Chamberlain works for a Social Enterprise that focuses on dementia. Over the course of the 6-month Community Listener Programme she started to question her over-thinking and her need to overload herself with tasks.
In her Community Listener Project she started to listen differently to carers and support workers … and the results have surprised her greatly. She also found her whole life was tinged with insights and you can see a resulting art project at the end of this article that expresses some of her reflective learning.
Here is Jane’s project in her own words:
Why a Community Listener?
For several years I have worked for a Devon based Community Interest Company, supporting elderly people who are living with dementia in the local community. In the autumn of 2022, I was asked to set up and run a new service supporting the families and carers of these clients. I was keen to attend some training to ensure that I would be able to support carers in the best way possible and enrolled on the Wellbeing Listener course with a view to learning strategies and techniques that I could bring to my new role.
The Wellbeing Listener programme was a complete revelation to me, opening my eyes to a very different way of thinking about settled and unsettled thinking, our innate mental wellbeing and the simplicity of truly listening to others.
I ended the four sessions with lots of questions, feeling curious about where this new understanding would take me and was thrilled to be offered a place on the Community Listener Course, giving me the opportunity to continue on my Wellbeing Listener journey.
Starting my Project…… where to begin…..?
During the Community Listener programme, participants are asked to engage in a Wellbeing Listening project in the local community. I was keen that my project would involve working with a group of individuals amongst the carers I was already supporting; each in a very different situation, but all feeling stressed, isolated and overwhelmed. My aim was to use Wellbeing Listening conversations to help direct carers towards their innate resilience and to give them a safe space in which to settle their thoughts allowing their wisdom to emerge.
The Power of Listening
During the initial stages of my project, I became increasingly curious as to why some calls with carers felt to go well and others less so. I discussed this with Sharon, my mentor, and she suggested that I began to take note of my feelings, thoughts and moods before, during and after each call and reflect on the impact that these were having on my ability to be an effective Wellbeing Listener.
When conversations felt to go well I noticed that:
- I felt calm and prepared, I had reread my notes from previous conversations and felt I had reconnected with the carer
- My breathing and heart rate were slow and I felt truly present in the conversation
- I could feel my inner confidence and strength
- I was able to notice my own thoughts and let them they pass by
- I was able to acknowledge what the carer was saying without getting involved in their story
- I felt confident that my inner wisdom would enable me to respond appropriately
- My responses were intuitive, coming from a deeper place within, without conscious thought
In contrast, when conversations did not feel to go well I noticed that:
- I felt tense, unsettled and unprepared
- I was unable to turn off my own noisy and chaotic thinking
- I worried that I may not hear or that I may forget what a carer had told me
- I was busy actively listening for strengths and positives to reflect back, searching for the ‘inner diamond’
- I worried that I may be asked a question I could not answer
- I offered suggestions to ‘fix’ carers problems, getting caught up in their story
It became very evident to me that my own habitual insecure thinking and frequent feelings of overwhelm were creating barriers to my ability to be an effective Wellbeing Listener. It was at this time my wisdom began to tell me that I needed to focus on my inward facing journey before I could move forward with my project.
Who am I?
Around this time I read an article, ‘Overwhelm and Overloaded’ by Michael Neill. The author talks of his realisation that his feelings of overwhelm were due to his over-thinking and not his lack of organisation. I got to the end of the article and had to read it again….and again….and again. Neill was describing me! My life was a constant flurry of to-do lists, made up of more tasks than I could ever hope to achieve in the artificial time frames that I had set out for myself. I was constantly setting myself up for failure and rushing through tasks without completing them well, so that I could ‘tick them off the list’. By keeping my life very tightly organised, I believed that I would be able to keep my feelings of overwhelm under control.
When I read this article now and think about how tightly structured my life was, I actually laugh out loud. Since this moment of realisation, I am increasingly able to take each day as it comes, to be realistic about how much I can achieve in the time that I have and to take a pride in completing fewer tasks, but doing so really well. I am more able to live in the moment and to cope when things do not go to plan. Because I am rushing around less, I am calmer and my thinking is more settled, so I am in a much clearer frame of mind to know how much I can realistically achieve. And yes, I have cut back significantly on the to-do lists. They are still useful when there is a lot to remember, but I now use them to help me out rather than to control my life! In his book The Inside Out Revolution, Neill says,
“…if all your attention is focused on trying to control the world, it’s really difficult to stay tuned in to your deeper guidance and wisdom, which is where all out ‘awesomeness’ comes from in the first place.” How true is that….
The crossword Insight
I used to be very good at over thinking. Every time a problem arose or a decision needed making, I would ‘put my thinking cap on’ and work through a range of different scenarios or solutions. I felt that if I could just think hard enough or deeply enough I would find the solutions I needed. When I am in a low mood or feeling unsettled it is very easy to slip back into this, although I am now aware that this is happening.
I was intrigued to learn that the inside out understanding encourages us to set our intellect aside, to allow the noise and chatter in our minds to settle down and to wait for our innate wisdom to guide us. Theoretically this sounded wonderful, however for some time, I didn’t really understand what this felt like. I was getting more aware of times when I felt calm and settled and of allowing my thoughts to drift across my mind without getting caught up in them, but was probably looking too hard for these elusive insights.
One afternoon I was sat on the sofa with The Times crossword puzzle. The sun was shining in at the patio doors and the house was quiet and calm. The room around me melted away and I filled in all of the answers to the crossword without thinking. When I had finished, I looked at the answers I had put in and feeling rather surprised I had completed this so quickly and easily. In a flash, I realised that I hadn’t tried to find the answers to the questions, I just read the clues and waited for the answers to pop in to my head. Sadly, I can’t always complete the crossword this easily, It does depend how settled my thinking is and whether I do know the answers, but this experience showed me that I am having insights all the time in lots of different situations. As long as I am calm and settled and don’t allow my thinking to take over, I can trust that answers will come to me.
Beyond the Mask
Over the last few months I have been fascinated to read, listen to and discuss the inside out understanding with others. Many of these articles and conversations have been very enriching and emotional to engage with and some have had a huge impact on my thinking and relationships, including my relationship with myself.
In her podcast ‘Beyond the Masks’ Natasha Swerdloff asks us to consider what we are in essence, when we are able to see beyond the labels that we and others have placed on us throughout our lives.
For most of my adult life when people have asked me who I am, I would tell them that I was a teacher and felt that my identity was bound up with this job that I loved, it was a huge part of my life. After leaving teaching several years ago I have often struggled with how to introduce myself to others. I can tell them what my role at work is, but it doesn’t feel the same, it is not such a part of me as the teaching was. It feels as if my identity has shifted, but how can that be, if I am still me?
As we go through life we are constantly given labels by other people and use these to define who we are. As a child I was lively and chatty and always had lots to say, however my teachers at school did not see this. My school reports all used to say that I was quiet, didn’t speak and didn’t answer questions, so at school I didn’t! It was easy to live up to that expectation placed on me. At work, colleagues told me I was calm and so organised, so I made sure that I was, or felt that I had failed in some way when I wasn’t.
For many years I have enjoyed sewing, however I have never joined a sewing group, as I believed that I wasn’t skilled enough. With some of my newfound self-confidence, I recently attended a local embroidery group for the first time. I had a really interesting morning and realised that I am actually rather good at embroidery. Learning languages is something else I have always told myself I am no good at, so I have peeled off another post-it note and started Spanish lessons too!
Swerdloff talks about how we are all trapped by ourselves and our thinking. She says, “We put labels on ourselves like post-it notes, until we are all filled up….we need to see beyond these.” How liberating. Listening to her talking it felt like a weight was lifting from my shoulders and I had been given permission to shrug off all of those labels that had weighed me down for so long. I could look inside at who I really am. I don’t need to be quiet, calm or organised and I am really looking forward to trying lots more new activities in the future.
Discovering more about my true nature has been a complete revelation to me. Having the time, space and permission to explore who I really am has felt like such a precious gift. I am now able to look beyond others perception of who I am in the knowledge that this is their reality anyway, not mine.
But what about my project?
As I began to feel a deeper connection with my true nature, I started to notice a difference in my interactions with others. I was more able to be present without my own thoughts getting in the way, to hear what was being said without getting caught up in other’s stories and to settle in the knowledge that holding this calm and settled space was enough.
One of the carers I had been working with was considering when the right time would be for her father, whose dementia was advancing, to move into residential care. She told me that she had been agonising over this decision since our previous call. I encouraged her to share her feelings on this and she proceeded to tell me all of the reasons why she didn’t feel that her father was safe at home. At the end of the call, she said again, “I really don’t know what to do!” Having listened with very little comment, I simply said, “I think you do know what is the right thing to do don’t you?” Now in a calm and settled state, she laughed and said that yes, of course she knew that it was the right time for residential care. She just hadn’t been able to see through all of her noisy, confused thinking, but as soon as this had had settled, her innate wisdom was able to guide her. Several weeks later, we spoke again. She told me that her father had settled well into a local care home and that she no longer needed to worry about him as she knew he was being cared for well when she wasn’t there.
I also had a long telephone call with a carer who is supporting her elderly mother. She was very keen to talk about her mum at length and every time I steered the conversation back to how she was, she told me another story about her mum. I put down the phone thinking that I hadn’t been of much help. However, later the same day she spoke with her mother’s day care host; as she was talking she welled up and said, “That call was about ME and how I’m doing, wasn’t it!” The power of being there for another person. Maybe I had made a difference to her day after all.
Another carer who is supporting her father who lives with dementia commented to me, “Thank you for listening to me. No one has the time to listen anymore. Everyone is rushing around, saying they will do things to help me, but they don’t actually do anything. I just needed someone to listen, that’s all!”
There isn’t really an end to my project as there will always be more for me to learn about wellbeing listening and more carers who need support. In terms of achieving my aim to become an effective wellbeing listener, I do believe that I am increasingly able to support the carers I work with in this way. I didn’t achieve this through my planning, to-do lists and deep thinking, but by learning more about myself and my own true nature. By looking inwards to my own strength and resilience, I find that I am now instinctively looking for this in others. By looking beyond the labels and masks I have worn for most of my life, I find that I am able to look beyond the words that carers are telling me, beyond the masks they wear when they are trying to cope and see who they truly are, creating a deeper, more powerful connection. When I am truly present, everything else melts away and a deeply nourishing conversation can take place.
I am looking forward to continuing my inside out journey and to staying ‘in the conversation’. The more I read, listen to and talk about this understanding with others the more grounded and settled I feel. The more I notice and nourish my own wellbeing and the more I am able to share this with others around me.
At work I have been asked to collaborate with a colleague to set up a staff wellbeing support group in addition to my ongoing role working with carers and am excited to discover what further revelations my inside out journey will bring.
I am now able to approach life in a much more relaxed way. I am more mindful and able to live in the moment. I am calmer and kinder to myself…and to others… and don’t feel overwhelmed nearly as often as I used to. I still have negative moods and feelings, but I know that these are telling me I am unsettled and that they will pass. I no longer have to work hard to think my way out of problems, the thinking just stops the solution coming through….far better just to put on some music and do the ironing!
About Inner Compass
Liz Scott & Stu Newberry are trainers, coaches and speakers. They work with individuals and groups across the UK. They also help develop coaching cultures (founded on wellbeing) within schools and organisations.
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