“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention….A loving silence often has more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.” Rachel Naomi Remen
Well, thank God the holidays are over. Many folks love this time of year and I salute them, but for many others, this time of year is a pressure-cooker of loneliness and pain. This post is for the reader who is sick and tired of being sick and tired, who would, just once, like to get through the holidays and not want to cry. Actually, this post is for anyone who has a sore spot in their soul that just. won’t. heal. No, my ideas aren’t original but maybe hearing this stuff in a different way can help. Peace and love to you, dear reader.
If you have read any of my personal posts, you’ve probably gleaned that I have spent a fair amount of my life trying to walk away from a wildly painful past and create a life built around joy. Certainly therapy has helped but out of all the hours spent in a therapists office, the most profound healing happened during just a few very memorable events…..and both involved someone simply offering their unconditional compassion while I spoke. The quote above is the key to healing.
It seems so small an action- to just be heard- but in fact, being heard is incredibly powerful. Why? Because when something awful happens, what do people typically do? We shut down in an effort to block out the pain. Well-meaning friends will tell us to not think about it so we’ll feel better….or maybe so they will feel better so they don’t have to feel our pain with us? Heck, no one wants to keep feeling awful and with no road map back to a happier place, we might cry a little and then do everything we can to “get back to normal”. To make it worse, our culture bombards us with annoying and useless platitudes like “Act happy and you’ll feel happy” or “Choose you attitude and your altitude”. Sheesh. No wonder we turn to Haagen Dazs and booze. As if. How about some suggestions that actually work?
The key is to be heard, first by others because that is easier, and then by ourselves. Why be heard? Because if you store all the negative inside and never let it out, what else can be the result except depression, rage and hopelessness? Think of it like taking out the trash; if you don’t take out the trash, it’s just going to rot and really stink! It isn’t going to matter what kind of valuables are also inside because who can get past the stench of all the rotting garbage? I’ll use an example to explain. It’s 1988 and I’m in my therapists office telling my story. I often refer to this woman as the person who saved my life because she kindly gave me a safe place to tell the ugly truths I had been bottling up inside. So picture this….I’m sitting there and it’s really scary and I’m shaking and crying but I’m doing it, I’m telling the truth and I look up at Jean and tears are running down her cheeks. She’s crying. Seriously! Someone was crying for ME! Yes, I sobbed my heart out, but to just know- beyond a shadow of any doubt- that I was heard and that I mattered did more to heal me than ALL the hours of therapy I had spent in the years prior to that moment. (I am actually getting teary just thinking about it all these years later.) She didn’t have to say a word. Her willingness to be there with me and walk through the pain with me WAS the healing. (Thank you, thank you, Jean.)
The problem is we are afraid of our own pain so when we see others in pain, we flee. But the most healing thing we can do for others is to simply be there for them. NO advice. NO judgement. Just a compassionate ear. Think about this: We all know we can’t undo the past. And we know that no one can do our emotional work for us. The challenge is to own and feel the feelings so they can pass through us and be released. Only then, after we’ve taken out the trash, can we see what valuables were left behind (sometimes annoyingly referred to as The Lessons). And only then are we able to hear our Inner Self telling us what the Next Right Action is to take, are we then able to move on.
This works just as well on a smaller scale as well. You can offer yourself the gift of listening when something small hits your radar screen. Let’s say you embarrassed yourself in front of your co-workers at a holiday office party and you keep endlessly replaying the scene in your head. Or, your mother-in-law delivered one of her famous “You’ll never measure up to what I thought my son/daughter deserves” passive-aggressive barbs over Christmas dinner and you’re still seething with anger. Try the following technique and watch the pain dissipate and the peace come flooding in.
Get out a piece of paper. Set a timer for 60 minutes. Every 60 minutes stop what you are doing, close your eyes, and take three long deep slow breaths. After the third breath, ask yourself “What do I feel?” Angry, sad, guilty, afraid, ashamed, furious, despondent, terrified? JUST notice the feelings and try to locate where you feel the feelings in your body. Just gently notice and have a look around. Do NOT judge yourself. They are just feelings. We all have them. Just tell yourself you are just listening as a compassionate friend. Notice the feeling rise and then fall. You don’t have to do anything. Just notice. Now open your eyes and write down the feelings on the paper with the time of the day. No essays. Just a single word or two is enough. Now go back to what you were doing before the timer went off. Wash, rinse, repeat every hour throughout the day. If at the end of the day you are still struggling, do it again the next day (and the next and the next) until you get some peace. Expect the feelings to shift as you process them. Eventually you will notice happiness, safety, security, gratitude, pride, compassion, peace, and joy will start to replace the places inside where there was only bitterness and pain. Seriously folks, I am not making this up. Why does this work? Because you are listening to yourself and giving yourself the same healing love you would offer another. And yes, if we actually paid attention to ourselves, this would be natural and we wouldn’t have to set a timer to remind ourselves to listen to ourselves. What a crazy world we live in, yes?
A couple of tips:
Don’t be surprised when you notice all sorts of feelings around painful events. It is often easier to feel angry because it seems like such a powerful (safer) emotion, however, often anger is a cover for sadness, grief and shame. Expect other feelings to bubble up, and simply notice them with compassion.
Don’t try to do this perfectly. Give up on “Perfect”. There is no perfect; all that matters is being kind.
Just because you feel a feeling, doesn’t mean you have to DO anything about it other than pay attention. We get into trouble when we think we must ACT on every feeling we have. Remember, feelings are just giving us information. The next step is to THINK about the most loving and pro-active steps to take. Important note: Do NOT take ANY actions on feelings when you are getting overrun by them. The time to take action is AFTER they have passed. The only exceptions to this are dangerous situations. Everything else can wait. Why? So you don’t victimize yourself or others in the heat of a moment. If something requires action, it will still be there after you have processed and have some peace.
If you aren’t used to feeling your feelings, this can seem overwhelming at first. If you haven’t paid attention to your feelings, it may seem like there is an ocean of feelings threatening to drown you….but know it’s not too much and you will be okay. Just take baby steps. You don’t have to do it all in one day. One day that ocean will shrink to a little puddle. Criss-cross-applesauce.
If you feel stuck in a really painful place, and getting some decent rest doesn’t seem to be helping, get some outside help. Ask for recommendations for therapists/pastors/professional listeners and interview them. Yes, the 80-20 rule applies to therapists as well. You need someone who is goal-oriented, safe, kind, and has their own act together. How will you know? Trust your gut.
How do you know if your feelings are too overwhelming to manage without help? Great question! First, feelings are not bad as they give us immediate and really good information about our environment. That creepy feeling you get around some people? Pay attention to it so you can be safe. Anger surging in your gut during a lunch with your “best” friend? Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate this friendship. In other words, feelings are there to help us. The problem comes when we don’t listen! The anger rolls into rage and sadness morphs into depression. Guilt slips into shame and garden-variety fear ratchets up into terror. If you suspect you are sitting on a powder-keg of rage, depression, shame or terror, you may want/need to find a guide to help you find your way to your Promised Land. There is no shame in wanting to be heard and healed. If you are gentle with yourself and persistent, over time you will notice the noise in your head getting quieter and it will be so much easier to hear the guidance and compassion we all long for from the Divine Lover. You are worth it and deserve to be happy!
To a New Year of healing and joy! Namaste!