The Self Who Shall Not Be Named

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.

7 thoughts on “The Self Who Shall Not Be Named

  1. Honestly, I have given up talking in this way with colleagues at school, and for a whole host of reasons. Mostly the result of them not really wanting to embrace my humanity in full. Which is why I do keep it crisp, and keep it moving.

    1. I think there’s a lot that we do as humans to keep ourselves safe in a variety of communication contexts. As women belonging to a marginalized population we may feel the need for double the precautions, especially if we have risked significantly in the past. In a professional context, this navigational aptitude can become essential to our survival, which speaks to what you describe.

  2. Sherri, thank you so much for drawing me to this post, and for writing it in the first place. Time and again I am grateful for your inclination to pause on small moments and draw out a lesson from them, I realise this is itself often a tiring process in workplaces that are rushed, where the listening environment is thin. But your generosity in doing this has made an immediate practical difference to me.

    I’ve just spent a week working with nutrition leaders on communication skills and we all learned most, I think, from listening well to one another. There’s a model which looks at listening from the minimum threshold of safety, up through six levels to collaborative listening. We learned how hard it is to get up through these levels, especially in fleeting conversations, but how transforming it is truly to put in the time to try to get to collaborative and open listening at least some of the time.

    This post means a great deal to me, thank you.

    1. Thank you, Kate. Meaningful listening can make a world of difference and I am intrigued by the model of listening levels that you describe. I do want to hear more about that. Your comment here also means a great deal to me. Your voice is one to which I am consistently glad to listen to because I can sense the care with which you use your words and share your thoughts.

  3. Thank you for writing this! It is so difficult to give up that hope to be heard and understood most of the time. I know I have failed to listen to those close to me and I have felt the sting of not being heard. Damn that lifelong learning, indeed.

    1. Thank you for reading and responding, Mary. I have to remind myself frequently that it’s a choice to invest in listening or not, to improve my understanding of the other or not. Not all my choices are the best ones but I can always aim for better next time.

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