I Wish People Would Actually Try Listening to me
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
I’ve been going through a lot of things lately and I’ve wanted to talk to someone so badly. The issue isn’t that there aren’t people making some effort. The issue is that the approach is just really wrong. I’ve talked in the past about why I feel that relating is a flawed approach to interacting with those going through a mental health issue and I still feel that way. I don’t don’t think it’s 100% wrong but I think it tends to do more harm than good as a practice. I think the urge to relate comes from a good place, but that place is often a little misguided. I think most people are honestly unaware that it’s rude or selfish in nature. They feel like they’re making the person feel a sense of relief.
Lately every time I’ve gone to try to talk to someone about what’s been going on with me, the first thing that I get is some form of “Me too!”. Again, this isn’t completely wrong, but for me at least it is a conversation-ender and any sense I had of opening up goes out the window. It’s not that I lack concern for the other person’s problems but at that moment I really feel that I need to open up about mine. It’s an extension of trust. All it really says to me when I get the good old “Me too!” as the person’s first response is that my problems are just like everyone else’s or of lesser value and I’m wrong for trying to bring them up. I walk away from most attempts to open up with my family feeling guilty on top of the thing I needed to talk about.
I think the reason so many people resort to this response is partly because they have their own troubles that they want to express and this appears to be a viable opening for that and their gut instinct, but also because there is an intrinsic misunderstanding of what the disabled person is seeking by broaching that conversation with you. When a person is dealing with a mental health problem and they are trying to talk to you about it, it’s important to understand what they are and aren’t looking for from that interaction. If they’re reaching out and making continued efforts to do so, it’s because they are possibly experiencing a serious change in their condition or trying to seek serious help.
This means that first and foremost, you need to be clear on who the conversation will be about if you accept it. If you continue that conversation, understand the gravity of it and that it can’t be about you. It doesn’t mean your problems don’t matter but maybe that’s not the right forum to bring them up in. If you can in fact not handle the discussion, be honest and let the person know that, but do so without making things worse or making the person wary of opening up to the proper point of contact.
When you take the approach of trying to relate, it will seem like a great idea at the time. You’re probably thinking the person is looking for acceptance or normalcy and this is generally not the case. They are most likely primarily seeking a listening ear and acknowledgement. Acknowledgement and acceptance may seem pretty similar, but in fact they are not. When we accept a person we create a sense of equality and when we acknowledge them we set a tone of respect by recognizing them as a unique and worthy person. What the person needs more is your respect because they are most likely feeling like less of a person at that moment. They need to know that as a unique person, they and their problems matter. They don’t want to be lumped into a box and have their problems diminished and downplayed.
If I come to you with a problem and your first instinct is to tell me all about it before I even start talking to you,it will end the conversation right there. You’ve not only communicated one way or another that you’re not interested in what I have to say but you’ve shifted the focus of the conversation to you instead of me. It creates a feeling of inferiority, like somehow your problems are more significant then mine and my problems aren’t worth your time. You may not be doing this intentionally. but that is the most likely message that will get to the person whether you meant it that way or not.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to any difficult situation a person is reaching out for help on, you know nothing. You know you,your situation, and how you handle situations. You know nothing about that person’s perspective, circumstances or situation and any response that equates to “Me too!” when you haven’t let the person speak is a rude assumption that you do know. You not helping at that point, you’re dictating and lumping that unique person’s problems that they are experiencing as a unique human being as being just like yours.
If your aim is to listen then it’s important to remember the key factors of active listening. If you’re talking,you aren’t listening. If you’re forming a response while the person is talking, you aren’t listening. If you’re focused on spitting out knowledge and not learning from the information being given, you probably aren’t listening. If you still have questions about what the person was saying to you when they are motioning they’re awaiting response, you weren’t listening. If we are engaged in a conversation where someone is seeking help and we are focused on ourselves in any aspect, we are taking focus away from the person and not truly listening or in any state to truly help them.
Keep in mind that letting someone else be the main focus won’t discount the value of your own opinions and feelings. It just means that may not be the right time for them. If you are burdened by your own issues and you want to talk about them, that’s perfectly fine. Just consider that may not be appropriate for that particular conversation or that they need to be put on a back burner for that moment. Everyone’s feelings and opinions have value but think of it as applying a coupon to a purchase. You wouldn’t try to use a coupon for cereal on toilet paper because it’s not appropriate for that purpose. In the same sense we need to think before interjecting our problems into a conversation where a person is reaching out for help in regards to their problems. It doesn’t lower the value of your problems but like the coupon scenario, think about if you’re buying cereal or toilet paper at that moment.
Another good rule of thumb in these types of conversations can be to base your response on what the person is asking of you. To figure that out you need to of course really listen to them, but beyond that don’t give what you aren’t being asked for. Let’s look back at the coupon scenario here. You may indeed have a toilet paper coupon and you’re buying the paper but maybe the store doesn’t accept coupons. In the same sense, make an effort to understand what the person talking with you needs or wants. You may indeed have common ground,past experience or sage advice but wait for the person to actually ask you for it. A lot of times all a person needs is to be heard and acknowledged but they aren’t ready for advice or hearing stories. The person is most likely not stupid so if they want your opinion or to hear about your experiences they will voice that and that will create a door for you to provide that. If the person just wants a listening ear, then give them that and respect them enough to not make the conversation about you.
When it comes to discussing issues with a disability, we need to consider that a lot of those people are indeed sick but they are also strong. They have a lot of the solutions and will power within them but they just want someone to listen to them. Just because they are talking to you, doesn’t necessarily mean they need advice. They may just need to get something off their chest. Consider that therapy as a career is actually more listening than it is talking. No therapist I’ve ever been to has ever tried to relate with me and that’s a good thing. It’s because as a profession, they generally understand what kind of approach is needed for the best results.
My current therapist says next to nothing during our sessions and lets me rave like a madwoman for at least the first half. This is effective because at least 50% of what comes out is just venting and doesn’t require much response. In the same sense if someone is approaching you needing to vent, all you need to really do is listen. More than likely, they aren’t expecting you to relate to them on a cosmic level or spew out the ultimate piece of advice. They just want someone to acknowledge them as a person and listen. Don’t feel like you have to go above and beyond the basic favor of listening unless the person indicates that’s what they want. When it comes to mental health, being a good listener can save a life far more than assuming a sense of false equality. At the end of the day we all want to be seen as a unique human being when it comes to our life experiences because we all have something a little different to bring to that table.
The fact of the matter is that one of the best things for a person dealing with mental illness is being listened to, but as a society we do a number of general behaviors and conversational practices that often hinder that process in one form or another. In order for the outlook of mental health to change to where more disabled people trust others enough to open up, we need to learn as people how crucial it is to understand those people’s needs and adopt better communication standards when we discuss mental health with another person. The first step towards that is to understand that we can’t always relate.
Mental health is not a book definition with a blanket experience. It is a unique experience for every person. My depression,anxiety and even my pain are going to be mine and that means they cannot be lumped in as being just like yours. It’s something any of us would find insulting so let’s stop stop saying “Me too!” and start listening to each person’s unique story. The more we make an effort to learn and listen, the more we can build a bridge toward really communicating with people without showing disrespect for them.
Thanks for reading this issue of Thoughts of an Aspie!
Do you agree or disagree with me? How does it make you feel when someone tries too hard to relate to your problems? Please feel free to let me know by leaving a comment or using the contact form on my site here to reach out to me. Also if you like my work and would like to see more of it or support it I’d love it if you’d check out my Patreon page or follow me on Facebook or Twitter via @themeinav! I am on a medical hiatus this week so there won’t be a regularly scheduled blog but I did feel like doing a little reflection. I’m having a little bit of trouble with my Seasonal Affective Disorder and I need to focus on getting back to the doctor but I will be sorting out when to postpone the missed blogs to after that gets sorted out. In case anyone is wondering if the reflections will be making it into the upcoming book, I’m not sure yet. I’m going to see what happens closer to the time I’m in the act of piecing chapters together. At the moment I’m working in the front and back covers and sorting out the index will come after that.
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