The other day I bumped into two colleagues who happen to be counselors. When the first greeted me with a warm hug and asked how I was, I took the risk of honesty: “I’m frustrated, tired and kind of angry.” He asked why and I shared my hard luck story about a stolen wallet and trying to get my Austrian visa replaced. The second counselor nodded, paraphrased and validated. I appreciated that moment. Thanks to my psych-savvy colleagues, I was able to vent, have my need to vent recognized, and as a result, move on.
Sometimes that kind of acceptance can happen for us in the moments when we need it most, but not always. On my good days, I try to be available for people to be honest with me – to take the time to listen carefully without trying to fix, cure or paper over the topic at hand. On my not so good days, I can usually still offer a sympathetic ear but I may be distracted by my own challenges in that moment.
Here’s what I’ve noticed: Talking about ourselves is subject to multiple sets of unspoken rules which vary widely depending on context and people involved. I think we learn this as we grow and develop a spectrum of relationships. And still we fail the exam again and again in everyday situations: at work, at home, at large. Human communication is inherently fraught it seems.
So I’m coming to terms with the phenomenon in increasingly intimate terms: The Self Who Shall Not Be Named. Here are some of the rules I will risk airing:
- Being a woman talking about herself is likely to be understood as either vain or whining, so keep it crisp, humble and above all, brief.
- Direct claims of exhaustion are invalid. Euphemisms like “underslept”, “not well rested,” “feeling a little under the weather” may get me a few more minutes of air time.
- People who believe to know me best may feel entitled to a sort of “free pass” which excuses them from having to listen too closely or empathetically because well, you know, they get it already, and this isn’t the first time, right?
- Once in a while I may feel heard or even understood. This is often fleeting and entirely unpredictable. I savor it while I can and move on.
Good listening is hard to find. And while being a good listener may put you into contact with other strong listeners, they may not be right there when you need them. For now, recognizing and naming the phenomenon that has quietly sucked the wind out of my sails one breath at a time is already a big step.
Sometimes I am going to dare to talk about myself, my issues, my successes, my vulnerabilities with others. In some cases I will feel heard, understood and validated. In other cases, I will recognize when my voice and my story are not welcomed.
There are no great tips here for how to sidestep this pitfall because I don’t have them. If I’m angry and frustrated I want to be able to say so. Cultivating the relationships in which it is safe to do that is a lifelong pursuit, I suppose.
Damn that lifelong learning.