Listening’s the thing.
A few days ago I had a phone visit with my Dad. He asked me about the fact that I was applying to study Counseling Psychology. I began telling him about my interests and of how I hoped to put my degree to use. When I got to the part about possibly being able to mediate and help businesses create more positive and successful work environments, he jumped on the topic as being of deep personal interest to himself. Then I sat, in silence, listening to a lecture about his points of view on what the real issues are in stagnant or floundering businesses. (He was quite sure that it wasn’t a question of psychology but of leadership.) While my father has a lot of valuable insight, he was a terrible listener and missed an opportunity to learn about, and maybe even learn from, his daughter. Further, he made a terrible listener out of me. I shut down and tuned him out because his approach felt so disrespectful. At the end of the exposition, which concluded with a recommendation that I take a Myers & Briggs test to see what the best career path might be for me, I said I had taken it a few times out of personal interest, but that I didn’t understand why he was making that suggestion now since I am not lost or confused about what I want to do with my life.
The dynamics of everything at play in this anecdote perfectly encapsulate what I feel my greatest challenge will be as a counselor and why I want to study psychology in such great depth. Most succinctly, it is a question of “what, when and how do I best share what I know?” It is something I have struggled with my whole life and I feel that the difficulty for me is very much an inherited one that can clearly be traced back to my family history.
I have always been extremely intuitive and perceptive. I pick up on nuances and patterns very easily and I tend to have a knack for seeing into people’s most sensitive issues, weak spots or “shadows”. What I have never been good at, however, is knowing when and how to share this information, if ever. Consequently, I have pushed many people’s buttons and I have actually made it hard for people to hear me, exacerbating my frustrated attempts to give voice to the truth of any particular situation. I have come to learn that very often when people aren’t seeing the truth themselves, there is an element of denial, which can actually become more stubbornly held on to when tried to open by force. I have also come to learn, through my own therapy, that epiphanies are far more profound, empowering and effective when come to on one’s own, when one is good and ready. But with this conditioned behavior I have managed to repeatedly thwart my attempts to create a more conscious world. In short, I have been unwise with my wisdom.
So how does this relate to the story with my father? Well, growing up with bad listeners has, I believe, created a crack of self-doubt in my otherwise hearty intuitive ability. It has handicapped the innate grace of wisdom. Because I’ve been lectured and talked over for most of my life, because so many of my protests against my childhood pain fell on deaf ears, I’ve gotten the message that maybe I don’t know what I think I know, or that maybe there just isn’t any room for, or interest in, what I know. (It’s no wonder I’m so curious to read about the Cassandra Complex!) Under these conditions the insatiable need to “speak one’s truth” overshadows the ability to discern whether or not that truth needs to be told or can even be heard. It’s as if not being listened to creates an inability to listen even to oneself, one’s inner gauge about how a given situation might best be served. In compensation I became louder and more outspoken and felt, ironically, more invisible and alone.
Thus, on so many levels, bad listeners create bad listeners. I happen to know that my father’s wisdom and vast knowledge was not given much credence or importance by his immediate family growing up and I have watched his compensatory behavior for this make it nearly unbearable for people to listen to him now. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or self-perpetuated frustration. So now when I sit with someone whom I think I’ve pretty well figured out, am I, like my father, just biting my tongue and humoring them with my seemingly “attentive” silence, waiting for my turn to spell it all out for them? Or am I, like someone who is at peace with their knowing, respectfully curious about the knowing of another? Can I allow for new information and for another’s knowing to inform and shift my own, in an unfolding, organic exchange? I believe that the latter is an integral part of what defines true guidance.
Truthfully, I don’t only have the goal of becoming an effective counselor, I am working to become an effective person. I want to have healthy, rewarding relationships with constructive communication. I want people to feel relaxed and safe to be their true selves in my presence, as I hope to feel in theirs. If ever I can be of help or of hindrance in any given situation, I want always to be the former. I feel that my ability to sense and feel and my courageous honesty are powerful gifts that I must learn to handle responsibly if they are to be of any service to me or anyone else. This is a goal that I am determined to achieve. Over the last few years I can honestly say I have been working diligently and wholeheartedly on this and I will continue to do so. I have found mentors in the form of writers, therapists, teachers, psychologists, artists and poets who are showing me the power of stillness, the power of waiting and seeing, and then waiting some more. My meditation for the past two years has been “Okay, you feel this with great conviction now. If it’s really true, it can wait or it will just reveal itself.” I have been learning about containment, anchoring and mirroring, for myself and others. I am learning about real wisdom and real trust, which are required ingredients for the alchemy of waiting and listening. I am learning about process and incubation. I am learning to feel my feelings without always having to act on them or act them out. At times it has been excruciatingly uncomfortable, but the more I practice, the more I see how well it works. Even the discomfort has taught me so much. It has shown me that my need to point out the truth about others is so often only a distraction from engaging with the truth about myself.
There is evidence of my progress in that phone conversation I had with my father. While I didn’t enjoy being lectured, it was clear to me that I would not be able to fully articulate my truth at that time and that even if I could, my father probably wouldn’t be able to hear me. I didn’t argue with him, I didn’t get mad at him, I didn’t exhaust myself trying to show him what I know or why I know it. And his conviction and aggression didn’t make me doubt myself, or what I know to be my right path at this time. With my connection to myself in tact, I was able to say, “I’m not lost”. And that was enough.
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For an excellent discourse on the feeling function and the power of stillness, see Robert A. Johnson’s The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden.
Additionally, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician Lover, elegantly explores how each archetype contains and informs the other. So, for example, the Lover might want to shout his truth from every mountain top, but the King will make sure that he only does so if it’s prudent, the Warrior will enable him to sit with the discomfort of waiting until the time is right, and the Magician will help him find the most effective way of communicating his truth.