Joining versus Attending

It's All About Relationships

Joining versus Attending

Joining versus attending

Recently I was reading Sarah Lucia Hoagland and she made a good argument for the value of attending to another rather than trying to fix or control. As a therapist, I know how powerful attending can be, and on many different levels (including ethics) am cautioned against trying to advise, control, or come up with solutions for my clients. Indeed, to think I know better than they do what to do for their lives is a kind of arrogance that I would like to stay far away from!

This contemplation has given rise to another nuance for me: joining rather than attending. I would like to digress here for a moment to tell a story; I think it’s the best way to make my next point. The names, obviously, have been changed to protect confidentiality. I have a friend, Jordon, who was newly exploring polyamory. She really believed in the concept and was proud to be on this new adventure, but jealousy was kicking her ass. She was explaining to her niece, Fern, that she and her partner, Riley had enough love to share, and it was totally exciting and wonderful for her to have enough love that Riley could go off cavorting with Vesper because they were exploring non-monogamy. Jordon was trying to convince her niece how great it was, even though she was struggling. Fern took gave Jordon a long, measured look and said “Vesper is a stupid name.” This story has been the basis for a short hand way in my family and friend’s circle to express that something is hurting us. Usually, when one of us says “so-n-so is a stupid name” the other person simply agrees. This, of course, is just one way of joining with another. “Yes, your boss is a jerk.” “Yeah, what is wrong with that person?” “I agree, I can’t believe that person is so unbelievably dumb.” I am sure you have examples in your own life.

Recently, in one of my important relationships, I got the feedback that they like it when I join with them (so-n-so is a stupid name) but that they find it more helpful when I attend to them with questions like “Where do you feel that in your body?” “What does it remind you of?” “What do you think are the factors to your activation right now?” “What can you do to come into greater regulation?” or even “How can I support you better in this moment?”

Here’s the thing, we need to feel joined: we are social animals and all regulation is co regulation. If we are never joined we feel hopelessly alone, limbic system activation takes over, and we live in a state of loneliness at best and terror at worst. But if our companions stop at joining, we don’t explore the deeper meanings of our lives: we need to be invited (ideally lovingly invited) in order to move toward our potential. 

In this world where we are ravaged by patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy, we need comrades to help validate where things are unfair or unethical. It’s amazing how many times I have a client who is able to see how they have been egregiously the target of oppression, thereby blaming themselves for “shortcomings” that are actually legacy burdens and not their fault at all. However, if I make the mistake of joining someone rather than attending to them, the temptation to stop right there and not develop agency and sovereignty is perilously great. Sometimes we all want to be validated and joined; there is nothing wrong with that. But if you really want to help me grow, ask me how I can find greater agency in the situation, how I can use the situation to increase my psychological and spiritual growth and awareness; how I can be more kind, more compassionate; how I can see “what else is in the room.” Because after all, if someone colludes with my collapsed emotional state, that might feel good in the moment, but true intimacy comes when we support each other to be the best we can be.