Saturday, September 12, 2015

Listening without preconceptions

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."
 ~ ~ Albert Einstein

There are many different applications of the above quote. While I have been considered by some to have a mediocre mind from time to time (and the realization that the other person views me this way is not a pleasant thing), I have occasionally been on the other side of the saying too. 

I was reminded of it a few months ago, when someone mistook my identification with and support of those who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts to mean that I was suicidal myself. I wasn't, of course. But I feel things deeply, and I was going through some pretty intense emotional stuff at the time, so the person's interpretation of my statement, "I can understand why some people actually consider committing suicide," to mean, "I'm thinking of killing myself," led to a very uncomfortable confrontation which I did not ask for, and which I was not at all prepared to handle. 

The person's over-the-top reaction made me feel as though I was being bullied; it only added to my emotional angst.  Had I truly been suicidal, I believe that this person's reaction would have pushed me over the edge. I told her so the next time I saw her (she cornered me), and she dismissed my confrontation as me being "offended."  Hmm, yes I was offended - deeply - and I felt it was necessary to tell her that the way she handled my emotional state was inappropriate and heavy-handed. Yet she totally missed the point and continued (condescendingly) to believe that she was a caring person, one who had my best interests at heart.

That was not my perception at all. However, after I got over my initial reaction to being verbally assaulted, I was able to reflect on the situation and learn some very important lessons. 

First, I learned to never reveal my deeper emotions to people whom I do not totally trust.  This person had not earned the right to speak to me in such a controlling and intimidating way. I should not have let her know any of what was going on inside. 

Second, I learned (through watching her behavior) what NOT to do when someone has revealed that they are struggling with some heavy stuff.  I learned that one does NOT command, talk down at, or otherwise force a conversation, that when I talk to someone about emotional issues, I need to get my head on the same physical plane as theirs. If they are sitting, I sit. If they are standing, I stand - I meet them face to face, not from a position of "less than" or "more than." I need to phrase my reactions in terms of "I" statements instead of "you" statements (for example, "You should," or "You have got to..." which immediately puts the hurting person on the defensive.)  I need to listen to them and not to fill silences with a constant stream of talk, talk, talk.  And I need to ask permission to have the conversation in the first place, or do any other kind of intervention, at all times treating the person with respect. 

None of that happened in the situation I described.  I felt more like a kid called into the principal's office for something he didn't even do: condemned before I even started, and not believed when I proclaimed my innocence.

Photo "Psychologist Listening To Patient"
courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at
Finally, I learned that (too) many people are uncomfortable with strong emotion expressed by someone else; they don't know how to let it be what it is, or to deal with it (especially so-called "negative" emotion) on a personal level, and they want so desperately not to feel uncomfortable. Therefore, they will do or say ANYthing to get it to stop, even if it means emotional bullying. This is where my adaptation of Einstein's quote comes to bear: Those with the capacity for great or deep emotion are always going to encounter violent opposition from those without that capacity (either by choice or by design). So, my soul, be careful - guard your heart because it is the most precious commodity you have. Do not let it be pulled into mediocrity, or dismissed by those who cannot hope to understand. Feel what you feel, yes, but choose carefully how and to whom you reveal those feelings. 

If that sounds arrogant, so be it. For me, it is all part of self-care.

The whole experience has been an important part of my understanding of what a professional psychologist is and what he/she does. These lessons will stand me in good stead when I become a therapist someday. 

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