The other day in my favourite café, I was listening to a friend who’s been dealing with mental illness all the decades of her adult life. Diagnosed long ago with so-called ‘schizophrenia’, she clearly needs to talk about her feelings, issues and events. How important it is to feel heard.
As I thought about how psychiatry changed under the domination of the pharmaceutical industry, and how all of society and government just rolled over and accepted that wave, I found myself getting angry all over again. Talking to a skilled professional about one’s distress, actually helps change that distress in the process. And some therapists can even help a client evolve, grow, mature, even develop wisdom and insight. It sure changed my life!
I am astonished at how lucky I was, and how many of my acquaintances had the opposite experience. A shocking number of them have had one kind of emotional distress or another over the decades without ever experiencing ‘talk therapy’.
How was I so lucky that whenever I went through an identity crisis – which happens to most people from time to time – I was able to access professional support? And I took it for granted at the time. Having read many humanistic psychology books, I guess I took it as a human right. Progressive psychiatrists, psychologists, encounter groups, ‘transactional analysis’ groups, psychological workshops, assertiveness groups, women’s groups — I could go on. Perhaps I was simply part of a brief enlightened era. But underlying all of that, essentially, was the experience of feeling heard and understood. What countless friends and acquaintances got instead: pills.
We all have the need to be heard – and maybe at some times more than others. Some people do a lot of talking, but somehow can’t release what they really need to say, so their need is never fulfilled.
And on the other hand, there are people who would love to be supportive listeners, and could be effective, but aren’t sure exactly how to get into it. These two groups remind me of dancers gazing at each other across the dance floor, listening to the music, but not sure what to do about it. And some have the best of intentions, the will, and the caring, but just can’t seem to ‘listen’ without getting into trouble.
What we’re talking about is not a regular conversation. We’re talking about special times with deep needs, that could be filled in a mutually beneficial way. We’re talking about pairing those who have the need to be heard, with people who can do the helpful, active, effective listening that’s needed. People who have time – for listening takes time. People who want to be supportive and helpful, who appreciate how meaningful this kind of listening can be.
What perfect ‘volunteer’ work, I think, for a retired baby boomer, for example, looking for a meaningful activity. If she’s always been a ‘good listener’, she might only need some tutoring on active listening skills.* Just a little tweaking.
‘What do you mean,’ I can hear some saying. ‘Anyone can listen, can’t they?’ Not so fast. Not everyone can listen ‘actively’ and ‘non-judgmentally’. Some feel compelled to react, to argue. And worse, some feel compelled to gossip about what they heard. In this role, we have to take it to the grave.
In an ideal world, our health care system would cover psychological help for just about any kind of distress. It’s in that field we find tools and strategies that can be fairly simply taught, for coping — or changing. After all, whether you are only homesick or in a mild depression, for example, or at the other extreme perhaps a long period of suicidal feelings or violent urges, most people on occasion could use some trained help with changing their feelings or their thinking – finding some inner peace.
A skilled professional can help us develop insight, help us grow as a person, much faster than the painful method of a lifelong experiment with trial-and-error, or accidental wisdom gained slowly through life into old age. But how many psychiatrists offer ‘talk-therapy’ these days? It’s fifteen minutes, and pills. How grateful I am that I had ‘therapy’ back in a time when it meant something.
But life’s just not like that. We need people operating at different levels of skill, somewhere between ordinary listening, and full blown professional help. A ‘volunteer listener’ might just fill the bill. And imagine a whole team of them, in a community, functioning like a self-help group, sharing their learning, helping each other become better listeners – and hey, maybe even becoming advocates.
There are many people in my life who have inside what I call “a wounded child”. Some of these wounds are pretty severe, to the point of interfering with their living a satisfying life. Yet feeling free to talk about it, and feeling heard, can bring some relief and peace and a clearer mind.
There are a few potential, pleasant, by-products I can imagine, from a sharing/listening activity like this. One is that some people who have tended to talk a lot about trivial impersonal things without observing how the listener was receiving it, would begin to be more appreciative. Even respectful and considerate, realizing that this person was actually sharing a valuable skill. And there’s a good chance that he or she would eventually have satisfied the need to be heard, losing the compulsion to speak
And the Listener, on the other hand, might feel the self-respect or self-esteem that comes of knowing she is giving something of value – something that can be life-changing for the other.
I began to think of this years ago when my husband started working at home. He had a big load and no colleagues to share it with. It took awhile to understand all he was talking about, but eventually my listening was a regular activity. At some point
I also heard about the Shoa project** One could say it formally acknowledges the importance of telling the story, for the person telling it, as well as for posterity.
Then I was recently listening to an acquaintance talk about his childhood, and could hear in his voice what I can only think of as a repressed sob, as if he were on the verge of doing that. It felt to me like an ocean wave of needing to get it all out, and I suggested doing it on video as I had done with others before.
Suddenly all these ideas seemed to crystallize into the one about active listening teams. If someone takes it and ‘runs with it’, that would be incredible. And no doubt I will continue to explore the idea with other interested people. I sure do see a role for caring volunteers – at least until the psychiatric field comes to its senses – or governments come to their senses and begin covering psychology!