Wednesday, August 19, 2015

When to shut up...

The other night I was with a group of friends, one of whom is going through a very difficult time after a traumatic event occurred in their life. They were attempting to convey their fears and anxieties about the days ahead.  They were not expressing a desire to give up or to not work at moving forward, they were simply trying to share what they were feeling in that moment. Instead of listening or acknowledging their feelings, one of the group kept interjecting with platitudes of, "Oh, don't give up, you can do it." and "You're tough, you'll get through." and (the most cringe worthy), "Don't feel that way.  I mean look how much progress you've made."

"Don't feel that way..."

Yup.  That's right.  Great.  Way to absolutely invalidate what the other person is feeling. Don't feel this way.  It doesn't matter that you do actually feel this way right now, you shouldn't feel this way.  Don't feel this way.  See I know how you can not feel this way.  Let me explain in detail to you just how - no, no don't keep talking and expressing your pain.  Listen to wise old me.  Don't feel this way.  Because your expressing that you do feel this way makes me wildly uncomfortable.

Okay now I realize that  most of the time the person delivering the platitude is not really a pompous asshole who has zero regard for their friend's feelings. I know that most of the time the intentions behind them are full of all sorts of love and kindness but I also think there is another feeling that motivates us to say these things.  I think it is fear.

The fact is that listening to another person's pain is hard.  First we are more often than not fighting against our cultural tendency towards distraction; being present is not something our culture trains us to do.  Second, being a witness to someone's dark time can be incredibly uncomfortable.  It's not only hard to see those we love in pain, but being the empathetic creatures that we are we also see that the person in pain could just as easily be us, and that can be terrifying. Yes, I feel your pain and it scares the ever living shit out of me.

And so we don't listen because to really listen is to be vulnerable.  The person expressing themselves is already there; they are opening up to you and laying out their pain/sadness/anxiety before you.  To listen to their words and feelings without judgement, to allow yourself to be fully present with them and  their pain, you have to set yourself and all your instincts to run from pain aside.  Because this moment isn't about you or your fear.  This moment is about being a friend and sometimes, maybe most of the time, that means sitting down, shutting up and just listening.

(Note:  There are times that action is warranted.  If your friend is suicidal or in danger of harming themselves, by all means take action and get help.  Call 911 or your local suicide hotline.)

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