What a privilege it is to work with people who build trust and rapport so quickly that it then allows for the sharing of pain and vulnerability. People who courageously offer us their wounds and hurt that we may acknowledge their journey without judgement or diagnosis. It is a depth of sharing that makes any life richer and gives humans the opportunity to connect on a level much deeper and higher than any other situation. It is more natural and holds far greater potential for healing than any pharmaceutical experimentations. Yet for the Rebel – the sensitive soul – this is a double edged sword.
Listening and breathing into the hurtful stories of other people’s lives can be enriching and meaningful. It can also be debilitating and heavy. How can people like us – Rebels – sensitive to the needs and emotions of others and ourselves, protect ourselves from becoming the stories we hear? How can we stay well while supporting others through their own unravel? How can we acknowledge the suffering of our friends and family while maintaining a safe metaphorical distance so that we too, are not pulled into a downward spiral with them? Yet offer ourselves through genuine empathy and honest compassion?
Let’s start with the greatest gift of all, listening. Or, even more specifically, active listening. Margaret Wheatley says this about it:
“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available. Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances”
82% of people prefer to talk to great listeners
Why and How to Listen 2010-2011
And the relationship itself is an important consideration too. In strength-based practice research shows us that the greater the quality of the relationship between the person supporting and the person receiving the support, the greater the potential for meaningful, sustainable, and relatively quick change. On the surface at least, it would seem necessary and pertinent, to embrace everyone we support with open arms and hearts. But I hear crescendo – a whisper to a yell, “Boundaries!” it says. And irrespective of what we may think boundaries are, or are for, the idea of creating a balance between opening our hearts and protecting ourselves emotionally is a valuable proposition.
I was once encouraged to take up the training and practice for counselling given that I was already, partially or more, engaged within the same context on an almost daily basis and considered by many to be skilled in the area. I am no trained counsellor, though I have participated in certified supervision training, motivational interviewing courses, reflective listening, suicidal interventions courses, and manager communication training. It has been necessary for me to do so because my work, is often, similar to that of a counsellor, EG. counselling – listening, reflecting, paraphrasing, validating, exploring, and taking notes.
What is most important when it comes to achieving balance, is to understand that we are all different and therefore, require a different balance to fit. While I enjoy my capacities in the work I do and the privilege of listening to people navigating difficult times, I do not embrace the idea of doing so as a full time role and in fact, couldn’t think of anything harder on me. This is because I recognise my own personality traits and my makeup which leans on the side of predominantly empathetic. Hearing people say they can relate to me and that I listen well and that I am compassionate and understanding is appreciated, but this is because my heart – the Rebel’s heart – is “very” open. If I am unaware of what I am doing, fail to keep up disciplined self-care, engage more often than I am able to sustain, or forget the power of the energies I am immersed in, I too, will fall into difficult times.
Stuart Wilde would talk about the question of entering into another’s journey. So that logically, we can stay ‘safe’ by refraining from involvement or interference unless actually asked to do so. In other words, regardless of the challenges or perceived troubles someone may tell us about, unless they are quite literally asking for out input or support, we have no need to do so. When a person does ask for our assistance however, the whole situation changes and requires additional considerations.
SELF-CARE in listening and relating to the dark stories people may want to share, means a balance between subjective and objective viewpoints. This is where the subjective viewpoint is one which opens our hearts and the objective viewpoint is one which sees the proverbial boxes are ticked. It seems disrespectful to insinuate a correlation between ticking boxes and chronic emotional distress but the reason a structured approach is necessary is so that nothing is missed, and so that we can retain a level of detachment from the shared emotions. This does not thwart empathy in any way but surely means that if we need do it all again tomorrow, we can. And, we will still be able to walk tall, think clear, and sleep well at the end of the day.
SELF-CARE also means awareness of our own traits, our own skill level, the world around us, and our own emotional state at any given time. It is not unusual to find people experiencing mental-health challenges carelessly quick to offer themselves to other people in need. More often than not, this takes an additional toll on the already challenging emotions of the person offering the support. This is often reflected in poorly supported peer programs and positions. If you have a broken leg, helping that elderly lady cross the street may have to wait til next time.
It’s a wonderful thing to offer yourself as a listener, confidante, validator, or heartfelt friend, to hear out someone’s perceived troubles and challenges but remember,
Me First is Not Selfish, It’s Beautiful!
Because although you are awesome to say “yes I’ll listen, I’ll consider, I’ll sit with you, I’ll read your words” I want you to be able to do it again tomorrow and the day after that too, all the while staying happy, fresh, fulfilled, and safe. All the while feeding not starving, the amazing Rebel within. Most importantly, I would like to think you will be going well when next month rolls around and that I too, get to share your listening/reading company here again. Til then, see you in a month!
Wheatley, Margaret J. Listening as Healing. Shambhala Sun, December 2001