JUST LISTEN TO ME!
What would you like to hear when things aren’t going your way?
Picture yourself at the end of a long, stressful day. You finally get your children to sleep and call your go-to support person to share the details of your day.
“I’m so exhausted. I didn’t get the laundry done on time yesterday so Ben didn’t have clean socks to wear and the day just started off on a bad note.The baby was extra cranky today. I think she’s teething, and she would not go down for her nap. The laundry’s still not done, my house is flying, and I feel like a failure.”
Cheerfully, your friend replies “Oh well, tomorrow’s another day!”
Do you feel better now?
Do you feel like you were heard and understood?
Will you hang up the phone feeling better? Probably not.
What about if you shared your stressors and got the following response: “That sounds draining! It is such an awful feeling when things seem out of control.”
“Yes! It is!” What are you feeling now? Maybe some relief at being listened to, and having your feelings validated instead of brushed off.
Sometimes, we think we are commiserating, when we are actually overshadowing someone’s experience instead of just listening to them.
“I’m so nervous about going into labor.” Dini, expecting her first child, shared with her friend Aviva.
Aviva nodded. “I know what you mean. When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, I spent the last trimester obsessed with hearing people’s birth stories so I could get a clue about what it was going to be like.”
While friends can certainly share their experiences with one another, as an initial response it would be preferable to focus on the feeling being shared. Aviva could have responded to Dini saying, “It’s typical to be nervous about the unknown. Is there anything in particular that is worrying you?” With this response, Dini would likely have felt that her feelings were real and normal, and that her friend was actually listening to her. In the course of the conversation that followed, Aviva would get the chance to share her personal experiences, as they might in fact benefit Dini.
There tends to be a difference in the way that males and females communicate (to say the least), where males tend to be more solution focused and women tend to have a creative communication process where problems are explored.
Josh and Ariella were chatting about their day over dinner.
“Work was draining today,” Ariella told Josh. “Stacy couldn’t come in today, she was sick, and only Emma was available to unpack the new shipment. Between organizing everything that came in, manning the register and being on top of everything else, it took everything out of me.” Josh responded, “Why didn’t you call my sister to come and help you? She said you could always rely on her to step in when you need an extra hand in the store.”
While Josh was meant well, and was trying to be helpful by thinking of a solution that could have made Ariella’s day easier, there was a sense of disconnect in the conversation. Ariella was sharing her feelings. She was not asking Josh to problem solve with her. If this conversation has taken place first thing in the morning, when Stacy called out sick, this idea could in fact have been helpful to Ariella. What Ariella was describing, however, was something that had already occurred and her lack of help was not the primary message she was trying to convey.
Josh’s response gave Ariella the feeling that he just didn’t understand her. If Josh would have listened and validated Ariella’s feelings, warmth and closeness would be fostered.
A connection is built between individuals when the listener is paying attention and is able to give what is needed in the conversation. People want to be heard. When self disclosure is met with a listening ear, relationships flourish.
A simple formula to implement to enhance listening skills would be to name the emotion behind the shared anecdote or complaint. Next, validate the emotion, and then reflect on the individual’s experience.
Listen; it’s worth a try.
Trauma: Ignore Versus Explore
As a clinician trained in TF-CBT (Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) I often view experiences shared with me by others through the lens of trauma. Trauma is a complex topic, and I have seen several variations on the definition of trauma. Without going into depth on various traumas, which is beyond the scope of this article, on a most basic level the DSM 5 qualifies ‘traumatic’ to include events that a person experiences, witnesses, or learns about that involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. There are three main types of trauma (acute, chronic, complex). In this article, we may consider trauma to include either the above definition, or the broader concept of a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
When working with clients who have experienced trauma, it is often a struggle for the client to acknowledge the impact that a trauma has had on their life. Once the trauma is allowed to be ‘real’, the client instinctively knows that what follows is likely to be a painful process. The brain ‘kicks in’ to protect trauma survivors in a way that provides short term relief.
Lisa presented as a capable, articulate and self aware young adult, living on her own. When Lisa began sessions with me, she was able to identify what she had experienced as a child in her parent’s home that still greatly affected her. Yet week after week, Lisa continued to question her right and her choice to explore versus ignore her past experiences.
“Was it really that bad? I mean, I know it affected me, but I’m okay now. Well, not okay, but…mostly I’m fine. And other people have gone through much worse.”
Lisa is struggling to figure out if her experience is ‘worth’ exploring. She is attempting to minimize the impact of her past experiences on her day to day life, while simultaneously describing in session emotional turmoil as well as physical symptoms correlated to PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).
Why is it so difficult for Lisa to accept that she has experienced trauma? Lisa knows what she experienced and she knows how it affected her, and continues to affect her. However, by denying the extent of the trauma, Lisa feels that she can stay safe in the present, without having to make big changes that will threaten family dynamics which have been in place for decades.
“Do I ignore it or explore it?” Lisa considers what kind of boundaries may or may not be helpful. A trauma survivor may deny or avoid their experiences, because exploring can bring with it an avalanche of new and seemingly overwhelming feelings and experiences. Inaccurate or unhelpful cognitions will be brought to the surface. Relationships may be challenged by a client seeking to implement boundaries.
Ignoring trauma is unlikely to accompany any lasting feelings of calmness, but may feel like a safer choice in the present moment. Exploring trauma may seem an impossible task, but with the right therapist, can bring immense relief. A therapeutic connection is necessary (not only in trauma work, but in all therapeutic modalities) as often trauma was experienced as a betrayal of trust by someone who should have been trustworthy.
A trusting and accepting relationship with a therapist can go a long way in establishing self esteem, optimism, hope, and trust.
Establishing a healthy and safe environment is crucial.
Relaxation techniques (this is different than self care!) can help the body learn a more comfortable physiological response to trauma.
Though it may seem daunting, choosing to explore trauma, and not ignore it, will likely yield longer lasting, farther reaching results.