More times than I can count, I have heard variations of the statement, ‘You are not Alone’ whenever I opened up. Well, at least I get this momentous feeling of group security. I say momentous because, usually, we include this statement but refuse to listen and empathize with the person’s situation. We don’t take a moment to just be there as someone goes through their emotions. We either jump into the ‘I’ve been there’, start educating, or giving unsolicited advice.
The room was colder than usual and it was tense. We all looked either at the blank television or past each other’s faces. It was one of those times when relatives came to talk to my brother and, by extension, me. Normally when this happened, I was holed up in my room or anywhere else. I loathed smiling through my teeth when we hosted the Sunday afternoon visitors. I just wanted to scream into everyone’s faces to stop pretending that everything was fine. This particular afternoon my aunt and cousin had come for a “visit”.
We took turns and shared our thoughts and feelings. All through I sat back and listened as my seniors poured out half-hearted scripted shares. I gave as much attention to the shares as everyone gave to their thoughts split. I had been craving to talk, to be listened to, and hopefully be emphasized with. The baton was passed to me and I shared. It had dawned on me that life just kept getting worse, and lightning did strike more than twice. I felt as if I was holding the whole world on my shoulders. Shoulders that were barely broad enough to hold my life together.
The room unanimously told me that that was how life was. That I cannot control such factors as life.
C’est la vie.
I curled up and reprimanded myself for sharing. I felt a fool for sharing, against my inhibitions to keep to myself because nobody cares. I do not remember the rest of the session. This visit was one that my brothers and I had not welcomed. We didn’t say thank you for my aunt and her daughter’s good-willed intentions, neither did we voice how we felt about the situation.
The sentiments were true but I felt attacked and a deep urge to be defensive; I am not in control of factors such as sickness or my family’s decisions or life itself. I did, however, garner that listening and empathy aren’t easy skills to come across.
Kevin Braddock in his book “Asking for Help” writes about ways of listening. He also talks about how listening can help create a meaningful connection and help hush your internal monologue. We are constantly taking in information: our five senses process about 11 million bits of information every second we are awake. It is hard to take a breather and get out of our heads. Our world is about the self and that is why we often jump to giving solutions or talking about our experiences. We barely notice what our counterparts need. What is their body language? Are they constantly shifting their gaze? Is their voice cracking? Are they fighting back tears? We don’t read minds, we could always ask, “What do you need me to do?”
I wish that the room was warmer, that the four walls were a safe space. There was no environment created for me to honestly talk about my struggles or to feel heard. I left the room feeling judged, shamed for being a mere youth complaining about her life, and a constant need to have my guard up. A safe space according to Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations”.
In a world that’s getting more self-centered by the day, honesty and listening are getting closed on. We are constantly worrying about our reputation and only placing our perfected lives online. We do not see the world outside ourselves. We are incessantly worried about how we seem that we forget to take in our environment.
I recently had a wholesome conversation. We laid some ground rules and the most important being that if I asked anything he was uncomfortable with; he would speak out. Such boundaries lay a foundation of respect for the parties involved. The speaker feels the freedom to share while the listener knows they can ask with a curiosity that could be tamed.
During the conversation, I found myself sharing more than usual. It could be because they were a stranger but as I look back, I realize there was more it. They were open-minded, courteous, empathetic, and asked when they needed clarification. We talked about our childhood, relationships, careers, plans, books, our faults, and shared love for comedy.
Importantly, they held space for themselves where they were in tune with their feelings and their body. They were kind to themselves even as they opened up about those that had hurt them or they had hurt. They also realized that their experiences were not universal and were open to learning and be corrected. You cannot expect to create a space for others when you do not feel safe in your being. Let us aspire to create a safe space. Statements such as Be Kind suggest lending an ear to LISTEN actively and deeply so that the other person can express themselves.
These two experiences are a world apart but we who want to share, also have a part to play. We need to read and assess where we feel heard. We cannot expect to empty ourselves with those that do not add any value. The experience leaves you feeling empty and exhausted. It is also our role to help each other create space by communicating to create boundaries and lay a foundation of trust and respect. We are social beings and fostering healthy relationships is vital for our mental and emotional wellbeing.